What you should know about self-cleaning ovens and more

Self clean, steam clean, or manual clean? Educate yourself about the benefits and drawbacks of each feature before selecting your new appliance.

Are you shopping for a new oven? Here are some things to consider before making a decision, particularly if you care about keeping your house a non-toxic space. When it comes to cleaning ovens, there are several different features, including self-cleaning, steam-cleaning, and manual cleaning. It’s important to know the differences and why these matter.

Self-cleaning mode is a popular feature, but it has some serious drawbacks.

How it works: Self-cleaning means that the oven heats up to 900 or 1000°F in order to burn off the food residue, leaving a thin layer of ash in the bottom of the oven that can be wiped up easily once the cycle has completed and the oven has cooled.

The problem? Self-cleaning ovens contain a pyrolytic ground coat enamel (containing glass), which enables food residue to be reduced to ash by exposure to high temperatures. From a patent that provides details on such enamel and ground coatings:

"There are several concerns associated with heating oven coatings to such temperatures. First, high temperatures are required, necessitating extra insulation around the oven chamber and safety interlocks for oven operation. Second, producing such high temperatures requires relatively large amounts of energy consumption. Third, depending upon the materials exposed to such high temperatures, concerns exist as to the possible release of toxic fumes. Fourth, the cleaning cycle used in association with these coatings takes up to three hours to complete and potentially reduces the overall service life of the oven. Further, in order to withstand multiple cleaning cycles, such enamel coatings generally contain hard, chemically-resistant frits that, without high-temperature exposure, have inherently poor release properties, thereby compounding the difficulty in removing baked-on residues."

The line about toxic fumes is of particular concern to green-minded home owners. If you have ever been inside your house during a self-cleaning cycle, you will know the stench that is emitted. It’s so bad that many people complain of headaches, lung irritation and dry eyes, particularly with the first few cycles of a new oven. Anyone with asthma or respiratory problems should leave the house altogether. Pet birds, in particular, are affected by the gases. Although polytetrafluoroethylene toxicosis is more a symptom of heating non-stick cookware, there are accounts of birds dying in their cages during oven self-cleaning cycles. (Read one bird owner’s tragic story here.)

Self-cleaning ovens are known to emit acrolein and formaldehyde, as well as toxic carbon monoxide gas from the burning food residue -- a "silent killer," according to the North Iowa Municipal Electric Cooperative Association. Manufacturers recommend that as much food residue as possible be removed prior to the cycle to minimize carbon monoxide release, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a self-cleaning oven.

Steam-cleaning ovens use lower heat and steam to loosen residue.

How it works: You pour a few cups of water into the bottom of an oven with AquaLift technology and let the cycle run for a short period of time (less than one hour, compared to 3-6 hours for regular self-cleaning). It runs at a much lower temperature, around 200°F, which consumes less energy.

The problem? Reviewers say it doesn’t work. The cycle leaves the bottom of the oven clean, but the sides and top remain dirty, requiring a fair bit of scrubbing in order to get it clean. There are also accounts of an off-gassing stench in the first few cycles of a new oven.

Manual clean ovens have no special cleaning features.

How they work: You scrub them yourself. The interior finish is usually metal coated with enamel, without the self-cleaning ground coats. Manual clean oven have removable doors that make it easier to access the oven for thorough cleaning.

The problem? A non-self cleaning oven, according to this patent information, "requires significant cleaning efforts by the consumer and/or harsh alkaline saponifying cleaners that have a pH of approximately 14. As will be appreciated, significant safety concerns exist when using, handling, and storing such hazardous and often toxic cleaners." In other words, many home owners opt for toxic chemicals such as Easy-Off to get the job done. (Fortunately, it can be done more safely with all-natural ingredients such as white vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, cream of tartar, and lots of elbow grease. More oven-cleaning tips here.)

Because they are not designed to get hotter than regular baking temperatures (up to 500°F in most cases), manual clean ovens lack insulation compared to self-cleaning and AquaLift ovens.

When I asked a local oven technician what kind of temperature difference we’re talking about, he used this Frigidaire model as an example, saying it's hard to touch the side of a manual clean oven when it heats up. This causes problems when it’s being inserted into a hole between two countertops in a kitchen. The technician also told me that, although he owns a self-cleaning oven, he would never use the feature because he doesn’t like the idea of that much heat.

Is there a solution?

The tech advised going with a self-cleaning oven to get the extra insulation, but not using the feature. He pointed out that AquaLift technology can be replicated at home if the heating element is beneath the floor. Just put some water in the bottom and heat at 200°F for 20-40 minutes, depending on how dirty it is. “Same idea as a microwave,” he explained. “You’ll be able to wipe it down easily afterward.”

He recommended against lining the bottom of an oven with aluminum foil, as it can destroy the finish. It’s better to place a cookie sheet on the lowest rack to catch any spills and bake above it. “A lot depends on how you care for an oven,” he said.

A sales rep told me that the iconic British AGA stoves do not have any sort of non-stick coating on the interior, as they’re made of cast iron, but they tend to be exorbitantly expensive. I can’t seem to find any non-stick-free (or would that be sticky?!) ovens on the market. Some Miele ovens feature a PerfectClean catalytic enamel finish on the difficult-to-reach back panel, although the finish on the sides, bottom, and top are not mentioned.

Do you readers have any thoughts or suggestions? What would you choose?

Tags: Appliances | Chemicals | Cooking | Kitchens

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