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.
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. In fact, self-cleaning ovens are only used by slightly under half of all households in America according to 2001 U.S. Census data. 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 or not this feature will work for you.
It does the heavy lifting.
The self-clean function works by blasting either high heat or steam throughout the oven interior to release 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; then, 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. The oven door automatically locks and the temperature rises to between 900 to 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 a floor cavity, then closing the door and setting the appliance to “steam clean” mode. During the cycle, which lasts only half an hour to an hour, the oven door remains unlocked and the interior temperature rises to only around 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 oven floor (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.
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, children, and adults, 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 either 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 such high levels for an extended period of time. A single high-heat self-clean cycle can rack up 8 Kilowatt (kWh) hours 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 clean 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 tin foil shards. In the high heat of the self-clean cycle, the debris on charred metal grates can catch fire, while tin foil can melt on top of the oven’s interior lining and warp it.
- Prior to using the feature, remove any large fallen chunks of food from the oven floor with a pair of tongs to prevent them from smoking and emitting fumes. Similarly, wipe up any visible spills with a water-dampened rag.
- If your oven allows you to adjust the time of the self-clean cycle, set it to the shortest possible duration to reduce the risk of overheating (which can lead to blown fuses) and also reduce energy consumption.
- 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 no more than five times per year, or only when the oven is heavily soiled. Schedule these days 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.
Maintain a manual cleaning routine.
The self-clean feature wasn’t designed to replace the manual cleaning method. 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 grates of your self-cleaning oven as you would clean a traditional oven, preferably using the safe, natural agents of white vinegar, baking soda, and water. Never use abrasive cleaning utensils (e.g., steel wool) or chemical cleaners in self-cleaning ovens, which could easily damage the interior enamel coating.