Solved! When to Use Your Oven’s Confusing “Self-Clean” Function

Weigh the pros and cons of using the self-clean feature of your oven before putting it to the test.

Self-Cleaning Ovens 101: If and When to Use The Cleaning Feature

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Q: The oven in my new house has a self-clean feature, but I’ve heard there are pros and cons to using it. Should I try it, and is it a viable replacement for manually cleaning my oven?

A: On paper, it’s a home-keeper’s dream come true: an oven that actually cleans itself! In practice, this function—developed in the early 1960s for both gas and electric ovens—can be confusing, even controversial. The term is actually something of a misnomer, too, because there will always be some manual cleaning involved. What’s more, the function is by no means intended to replace a hands-on cleaning routine.

Some folks swear by the time-saving convenience, while others have sworn it off due to a few unfortunate drawbacks—and we’ve laid it all out here to help you decide whether this feature will work for you.

How do self-cleaning ovens work?

Self-Cleaning Ovens 101: If and When to Use The Cleaning Feature

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The self-clean function works by blasting either high heat or steam throughout the oven interior to release—and burn up in the case of high-heat ovens—hardened food remains. This saves the time and effort of getting on your knees and scouring stubborn gunk with a scrubber and also does away with the need for pricey, chemical-laden commercial cleaners. Simply start a self-clean cycle and allow it to work; when the cycle is complete, use a water-dampened rag to manually remove loosened debris from the oven’s smooth, heat-resistant enamel coating.

  • In high-heat models, the self-clean cycle is usually initiated by closing the oven door and setting the oven to a “self-clean” mode. In most modern ovens, the oven door automatically locks and the temperature rises to between 800 and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to incinerate any food remains, in a cycle lasting between two to six hours. Once the cycle is complete and the oven has cooled completely, the door automatically unlocks.
  • The self-clean cycle of a steam-based model is usually initiated by pouring roughly one cup of distilled water into the floor of the oven, then closing the door and setting the appliance to “steam clean” mode. During the cycle, which lasts half an hour to an hour, the oven door remains unlocked and the interior temperature rises to about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to generate steam that softens and loosens food remains.

High heat beats steam on heavy-duty grime.

High-temperature self-cleaning ovens evenly distribute heat throughout the chamber, so you’ll rarely find leftover food residue on the sidewalls or ceiling. Steam-based self-clean cycles, however, tend to generate the most steam near the bottom of the oven (where the water is poured)—so while this effectively removes food debris on the oven floor and lower sidewalls, you may still need to manually scrub the ceiling and upper sidewalls.

Self Cleaning Oven Beware of fumes

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Beware of fumes and oven failures.

Both high-heat and steam self-cleaning ovens can emit unpleasant burning odors and fumes, and even harmful by-products like carbon monoxide, from the vent of the oven during the cleaning cycle. High-heat models tend to emit a higher volume of more noxious fumes due to the extreme temperature. These fumes emanate from both food particles and the enamel lining that coats the oven interior. Fumes circulating in the kitchen can irritate pets,, and people, especially those who suffer from respiratory conditions.

Excessive heat buildup in the oven can also short a thermal fuse or burn out a heating element. While a one-time, do-it-yourself replacement of a blown fuse or a heating element should set you back no more than $30 in parts, repeat occurrences can become costly and time-consuming.

Replacement parts won’t be the only expenses with the self-clean feature.

Consider the amount of energy (and the money) it takes to run the oven at high levels for an extended period of time. A single high-heat self-clean cycle can consume 8 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy on average (roughly the equivalent of a month’s use of a traditional oven), while the average steam self-clean cycle consumes less than 3 kWh of energy.

Proper preparation is key.

If you choose to try out the feature, you can take steps to mitigate the risks of using the self-clean setting and ensure that the cleaning cycle runs without hiccups. Follow these safety rules:

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in your kitchen to monitor for harmful fumes.
  • Before running a self-clean cycle, remove all pots and pans and any metal oven grates or aluminum foil shards. In the high heat of the self-clean cycle, the debris on charred metal grates can catch fire, while foil can melt onto the oven’s interior lining and warp it.
  • Prior to using the feature, “You should try to remove any visible debris,” according to Ron Shimek, president of Mr. Appliance, an appliance repair company with franchises nationwide. Remove chunks of food, and wipe up spills with a water-dampened rag.
  • Prior to starting a self-clean cycle, ensure the oven vent, located above or below the oven door or behind the oven door handle, is uncovered. If you have a range (an oven connected to a stove), turn on the exhaust fan on the range hood to ensure that fumes get expelled to the outdoors. If you don’t have a range hood, ventilate the room by opening windows.
  • Aim to use the self-cleaning feature only when the oven is heavily soiled. In fact, Shimek recommends using this feature only once per year. Schedule your cleaning well before or after holidays or other occasions when you know you’ll need the oven so that any malfunction won’t interfere with your hosting duties.
Self Cleaning Oven Instructions

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Instructions: How to Self-Clean an Oven

Before beginning a self-cleaning process, Shimek suggests consulting your oven’s instructions. “Always reference and follow the directions in your appliance’s owner’s manual,” he says. If you no longer have a physical copy, you may be able to find one online.

  • Follow preparation steps as outlined above.
  • If you have a steam-clean oven, pour about a cup of distilled water into the floor of the oven.
  • If you’re cleaning a high-heat oven and it doesn’t automatically lock as part of the cleaning process, lock it.
  • If your oven allows you to adjust the time of the self-clean cycle, consider setting it to the shortest possible duration to reduce the risk of overheating (which can lead to blown fuses and other mechanical issues) and also reduce energy consumption. If your oven’s quite a mess, however, you may need to select a longer cleaning period.
  • When the cleaning period is over, let the oven cool completely; this can take a couple of hours if you have a high-temperature-cleaning oven. Steam-cleaned ovens will cool more quickly after a cleaning cycle.
  • When the cleaning is complete, and the oven is cool, the oven may unlock automatically, depending on the model. Otherwise, manually unlock.
  • Open the oven door and clean out debris using a rag or even a vacuum.

Maintain a manual cleaning routine.

The self-clean feature wasn’t designed to replace manual cleaning. Following oven use, wipe down wet food or liquids from the inner door glass, sidewalls, floor, and ceiling with a water-dampened rag.

On a monthly basis, clean the interior and racks of your self-cleaning oven as you would clean a traditional oven, preferably using safe, natural agents. “Combining water with equal parts of white vinegar and baking soda should do the trick,” says Shimek.

Never use abrasive cleaning utensils (e.g., steel wool) or chemical cleaners in self-cleaning ovens, which could easily damage the interior enamel coating.

Self Cleaning Oven FAQ

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FAQ About Self-Cleaning Ovens

Do self cleaning ovens really work?

They do. They generally successfully burn up or steam off most oven gunk. The cleaning may come at a cost, however, in that problems with the inner workings of the oven can crop up after a cleaning, and fumes produced by the cleaning process may prove irritating.

Is it safe to be in the house when cleaning the oven?

Fumes emanating from the cleaning process can irritate pets and people, so if you can spend some time out in the garden or backyard while the oven does its thing, that might be best.

How do I use the self-clean on my oven?

Remove racks, large chunks of food, and any aluminum foil bits from the oven. If the oven is steam-cleaning, pour one cup of distilled water into the floor of the oven. If you’re using a heat-clean oven, lock the oven and set the self-cleaning function. When cleaning is complete, let the oven cool and then wipe or vacuum out the residue.

How long does a self cleaning oven take?

Ovens vary, but a cleaning cycle generally takes anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours. On some ovens, you can specify the length of the cleaning; on others, you cannot.

Final Thoughts

While the convenience of simply pushing a button and getting a clean oven is certainly attractive, there are trade-offs you might want to consider before pressing “start.” Fumes can be irritating to those with respiratory problems, and the extreme heat of the self-cleaning process can be damaging to oven parts. Using the self-cleaning functionality is fairly simple: just a bit of prep work to begin with and a little clean-up after, and that’s it!