From Baking to Sous Vide, This Smart Steam Oven Is Your New Kitchen BFF
October 4, 2020
Look, I have to tell you about the baguettes I made a couple of weeks ago.
There I was, watching this gloopy dough rise, working it with floured hands into long thin strands, seeing it swell to fit the pan, then witnessing the real miracle, the puffing and tanning of these pale tubes into camera-ready loaves.
I couldn’t believe I made them. Neither could my French uncle-in-law. And in truth, I only sort of did. Most of the credit goes to the special baguette pan, the recipe—and the oven.
For about a month, I’ve been testing the Anova Precision Oven, an internet-connected countertop electric oven that cooks with steam. In restaurants and home kitchens fancier than mine, these combi ovens can cost thousands. Anova’s 1,800-watt appliance, which plugs into a regular wall socket, costs $600.
Yet it managed to show up my powerful gas oven again and again, with crunchy yet chewy baguettes and dinner rolls, crispy yet juicy roasted chicken, a full head of evenly steamed cauliflower, succulent ribs and pork butt cooked overnight, perfect medium-rare beef tenderloin, and more. (Hope you brought a snack while reading this.)
People in other countries might laugh at my revelation: Steam ovens are already popular around the world. But in the U.S., they’re few and far between. Beyond the price, part of the fear, for me, is that I wouldn’t know how to use it. None of my cooking buddies have one. That’s why Anova’s appearance on the scene is welcome. Not only is it a competitively priced hardware option, but it also already has a deep catalog of recipes showing the full range of the product. The oven’s app carries you through every step of every dish, with instructions and animations, while automatically adjusting the oven settings via Wi-Fi as you go.
While it’s not perfect, the Anova Precision Oven delivered the best crash course in steam/combi cooking that I could’ve possibly received. And it made a middling baker like me look like I was ready for the Great British baking tent. Whether you’re also a big food nerd or just a kitchen competent looking to level up the boring dinner routine or improve your baking skills, this oven is a reason to rejoice.
How It All Works
Steam ovens like this have two separate modes: a low-temperature mode that ranges from about 75 degrees Fahrenheit up to 212 degrees (water’s boiling point at sea level), and a higher-temperature mode, which can pump steam into the oven when it’s running at much higher temperatures.
With the first approach, you can use the oven like you would steam vegetables and fish on the stove, just without boiling water first. But because steam conducts heat more efficiently than dry air does—and you can set the oven’s temperature far lower than a pot of boiling water—you can put a piece of meat in the oven with the included thermal probe, and cook it at a gentle heat until it reaches its target internal temperature. No risk of overcooking.
Meanwhile, that steamy environment prevents moisture from escaping your food. So even when you use steam at higher temperatures, your food stays more moist. The bread dough is able to spring up and take form with that initial hit of heat and steam, then dry out nicely when the steam pump is cut off in the second stage of baking.
Steam aside, the Anova Precision Oven, about the size of a large microwave, has super insulation; heating elements on the top, bottom and rear (with convection fan); and very precise real-time temperature readings.
How It Guides You
Anova’s contribution to steam cooking isn’t just its versatile hardware. The company’s previous hit, a precision cooker for sous vide, was successful because it pairs with your phone to send instructions on what to do next. You didn’t really have to understand sous vide—a process that involves bagging food and cooking it in a precisely heated water bath.
The oven similarly uses technology to help you along. The app’s main feature is a set of more than 150 recipes, each with in-line controls that get sent to the oven as you progress. With “Roast Chicken 101,” I spatchcocked the bird to flatten it, seasoned it, then set it in the oven with a probe where it cooked at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours. When my phone alerted me that the chicken reached its target temperature, I pulled it out, as the app instructed, and brushed it with oil. The oven preheated for the searing phase, at the oven’s maximum temperature of 482 degrees. I put it back in, tapped a button in the app, and 10 minutes later, it was crisped up perfectly.
Despite the hand-holding that Anova and its contributing cooks provide, this oven isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it robotic cooking assistant, there to help you get back to your Netflix binge. And even though it takes up counter space, it won’t necessarily replace your toaster. It’s a tool that extends an experienced cook’s abilities.
Case in point is that baguette. Yes, the recipe is a huge part of it, and yes, it required a special pan that I had never really used before (mine is from Chicago Metallic). But when I baked two loaves in the Anova oven and two in my conventional one, the difference was visible: The Anova’s came out a reddish gold; the other oven’s came out an ashen tan.
There are probably 15 tricks I could learn for making a rosier baguette, but I look at it another way: The Anova gave me control I didn’t otherwise have. I could bake those beautiful buns again and again, without resorting to any oven hacks.
How You’d Use It
My conventional oven has a hard time competing with the Anova oven, and so do Anova’s own $129-and-up sous-vide cookers. This oven basically does sous vide, only faster and easier. I have always cooked baby-back ribs using sous vide, then finished them on the grill. The oven handled both the low-temperature cooking and the high-heat browning, minus about 20 minutes of prep work.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What gadgets have you bought recently that helped you level up your cooking game? What other resources do you rely on to improve your kitchen skills? Join the conversation below.
The oven does have shortcomings. The app covers a lot of ground, but there are no quick-and-easy preset buttons to cook the most popular meats, fish and vegetables. You can still cook without the app, but you’d have to figure out your own temperature and steam settings. While it will fit a whole chicken, spatchcock or not, you probably can’t use it to roast a whole Thanksgiving turkey. The steak I made came out exactly 125 degrees Fahrenheit, but the app recommended I finish browning it in a pan on the stove: Chicken skin crisps up just fine, but achieving a great steak crust requires more heat than this oven can provide.
I missed my Instant Pot exactly twice during the testing process: when I cooked artichokes and when I cooked a custard for crème brûlée. The artichokes were tough and started to dry out, so I transferred them to a pot on the stove. (Anova updated the oven’s firmware to address this particular steaming issue; I didn’t retest artichokes, but I’ve since successfully steamed green beans and carrots.) And the custard, made with a recipe in the Anova app, came out a little soupy. My favorite Instant Pot crème brûlée recipe is fool proof. (For the sugar-burning step, I used a blowtorch, naturally.)
The best way to know whether you’re in the market for a steam oven is to look at some of the recipes that are out there. You can download the Anova Precision Oven app (or visit the Anova website) and see the recipes for yourself, even if you haven’t bought the machine. You can also visit a handful of sites I found—curiously, all in Australia—that provide guidance about the best things to cook with a steam oven:
Cooking With Steam—A chef and his pals share recipes and advice in video and podcast form. They also published a cookbook
Steam & Bake—A food writer shares some very useful tips, including some very handy “Cheat Sheets” and other downloadable graphics.
Combisteam Cooking—A smaller collection of recipes and blog posts, including environmentally friendly guidance on keeping steam ovens clean.
As an ignorant American, I have a lot to learn from these Aussies, and from the amazing cooks who contributed to the Anova app. The Anova Precision Oven signals the beginning of the next smart-kitchen revolution. In a couple of years, even the home cooks on this continent will be full steam ahead.
—For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.