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A self-cleaning oven is one of the great innovations of modern times. The very first self-cleaning ovens were introduced in 1963 by Thermador and were welcomed as an incredible convenience.

If you’ve ever cleaned a dirty wall oven with a chemical cleaner, as I have many times, you would never buy an oven that doesn’t have a self-cleaning function. My own home oven, where I’ve roasted countless chickens, ducks, and legs of lamb, is of 1948 vintage, and cleaning it is the low point of my spring and fall spruce-ups. However, as director of a testing lab for decades, I’ve tested more than my share of self-cleaning wall ovens.

Countless times I’ve heard people say that they have a self-cleaning mode in their convection or conventional oven, but they never use it. They’re afraid that it will smoke or set off the fire alarm. Often, they just don’t know how to activate it and aren’t sufficiently motivated to pull out the manual (or find it online) to get the instructions.

Or, I’ll hear folks say they say that their ovens never get dirty. My response to that is, Do you ever roast a chicken or broil a steak? Both of these foods spatter badly in the oven, leaving lots of greasy residue on the oven walls. Likewise, blueberry pies and saucy lasagnas drip onto the oven floor. Convection fans help distribute even temperature, but they also disperse the grease in the cavity.

While you can’t miss boilovers and spills on the oven floor, greasy splatters on the walls and ceiling may not be noticeable. But every time you use the oven, even just to bake cookies, the spatters get baked on. Eventually, they build up and even begin to smoke when you heat the wall oven.

In this article we use the term oven to cover all oven types such as the wall ovens as well as ranges (a.k.a. stoves) that have a cooktop on the top and an oven in the bottom.

Manufacturers hear that their customers don’t use the self-clean feature, and as a result, many have begun eliminating this setting from their new products or are replacing it with a so-called steam-cleaning cycle.

Some ovens, such as the GE Profile PGS930BPTS 30-inch Smart Slide-In Front-Control Gas Range or the Samsung NE59J7850WS Flex Duo Freestanding Double Oven Electric Stove, are equipped with both types of self-clean.

But trust me, the only way to clean an oven without a lot of unpleasant work is to use a traditional self-cleaning cycle.

Wolf self cleaning oven
Wolf Self Cleaning Oven

What is a self-cleaning oven?

It’s an oven with a mode that essentially burns up any baked-on spills and spatters inside the oven so you don’t have to work your fingers to the bone scrubbing them off while exposing yourself to chemical fumes. You’ll find the setting on the control panel or the knob with your other oven settings.

What is steam clean?

To use the steam clean feature, you pour a small amount of water into a special compartment or the bottom of the oven before selecting the setting. The cycle will last about 30 minutes. During it, the heat of the oven creates steam, which ideally loosens and softens any gunk in the bottom of the oven so you can simply wipe it out.

However, unless the stains are very new and small, you will probably still have to use a scraper to remove them. You may find that you have to use a cleaner like Bar Keeper’s Friend to get your oven really clean. Steam clean simply will not clean a truly dirty oven.

Even when I’ve run steam clean multiple times, it didn’t make it any easier to get a really dirty oven clean or remove a stubborn burnt-on mess. In my experience, the steam-cleaning function is no replacement for a true self-clean feature.

Most people mix up a steam oven with a steam clean feature in an oven. A steam oven uses high temperature steam for healthy cooking. These oven types do not need a self cleaning feature.

Bertazzoni self cleaning stove
Bertazzoni Stove

Which oven brands have traditional self-cleaning cycles?

Almost all major brands, including Thermador, Miele, Viking, GE, GE Profile, and Frigidaire, have ovens, including those in ranges, with self-cleaning cycles. You’ll also find the feature on Wolf and Bertazzoni electric ranges.

How do self-clean ovens work?

During a traditional self-clean cycle, also called high heat or “pyrolytic” cleaning, the oven heats to above 800 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, any burnt-on food decomposes. Think of the way charcoal turns to ash in your grill.

Once the oven comes up to temperature, the oven door locks. It then automatically unlocks when the oven is clean and has cooled down.

While the self-clean cycle is running, the outside of the oven will become very hot to the touch, but it’s unlikely that a brief encounter will cause a burn.

GE Profile Self Cleaning Oven in Black Stainless Steel
GE Profile Self Cleaning Oven in Black Stainless Steel

How long does a self-clean oven take?

The self-clean cycle can take anywhere from 1 1/2 to 6 hours, depending on the brand and the setting. On some ovens, you’ll be offered a choice of run times.

Do I need to add cleaners to a self-cleaning oven?

You absolutely should not use any cleaning products with a self-cleaning oven.

You do have to wipe out the ash afterward. Generally, a wet sponge or cloth is all you need.

Is a self-cleaning oven safe? Is it toxic? Will it kill my pets?

Expect your oven to smoke and smell at the beginning of the self-cleaning cycle, especially if it’s very dirty. You should open the windows in the kitchen and, if you have one, switch on your range hood. It’s also a good idea to leave the kitchen to avoid the fumes, although we do recommend being in another room in the home or in the garden.

There may be a small amount of carbon monoxide in the fumes but not enough to set off an alarm or harm either you, your kids, or pets—with one exception: If you have a pet bird, move it out of the kitchen; birds are highly sensitive to fumes.

You may have heard something about Teflon burning off during the self-clean cycle, but this is a myth. Ovens are not coated with Teflon or any other nonstick finishes.

Oven grates
Oven Grates

Should I remove the racks first?

As a general rule, you need to remove the oven racks from the oven before you run a self-cleaning cycle. However, in some models (such as Miele and Monogram ovens), you can leave them in place. Sometimes you can even put your broiling pan and stovetop burners into the oven to clean them along with the oven.

Be sure to check the manual to find out what can or cannot be self-cleaned along with the oven.

Does an oven’s self-cleaning cycle stop on its own?

A self-cleaning cycle stops automatically. The oven door will remain locked until the oven cools down, signaling that the cycle is over and the oven is ready to be used.

GE Cafe Self Cleaning Oven
GE Cafe Self Cleaning Range

How often should I use the self-clean cycle?

It’s a good idea to run it whenever you see a buildup of burnt-on grime on the oven. If you continue to use a dirty oven, the oven will smoke and give off fumes when you turn it on. A very dirty oven will also give off more fumes when the self-clean cycle is used.

I recommend a cleaning job several weeks before the holidays. That way, you can be sure no cooked-on residue will cause your kitchen to get smoky when you have company. And, just in case something goes wrong, you’ll have time to take care of it before it’s time to ramp up for end-of-year celebrations.

You don’t want to be without an oven when you’re ready to cook Thanksgiving dinner or start your Christmas cookie marathon.

Okay, so what can go wrong?

While there are no statistics showing how common it is for self-cleaning ovens to malfunction, service companies do report that they make repairs caused by the self-cleaning feature.

The main problems are:

  • A failure of the locking system so that the oven can’t be opened when the cycle is finished
  • A blown thermal fuse inside the oven, which can affect oven temperatures
  • Burnt heating elements
  • Electronic control malfunctions

However, some repair people say that with the exception of the problem with the self-clean lock, these problems are common reasons that non-self-cleaning ovens need repairs too.

As we said above, a small amount of carbon monoxide will be released during the self-clean cycle. While it’s not likely to be problematic, we do strongly recommend, opening the windows, and leaving the room during the self-clean cycle. Regardless of whether or not you have a self-cleaning oven, you should have a working carbon monoxide detector in the house. Before you run a self-clean cycle would be a good time to check the batteries.

Watch our exclusive video review of La Cornue French stoves.

Why don’t some high-end ovens have a self-cleaning cycle?

High-end brands including La Cornue stove and BlueStar range don’t have self-cleaning cycles.

La Cornue says its ovens are “built to last forever, and the intense concentrated heat used in a self-clean mode will break down the oven seal over time and compromise the efficiency of the oven.”

According to BlueStar, its ovens have a system that helps them to stay clean every time they’re used. However, owners report that they have to use oven cleaner to get their BlueStar ovens clean.

La Cornue Stoves on Display at Designer Appliances
La Cornue Stoves on Display at Designer Appliances

What can I do to keep my oven cleaner between self-cleaning cycles?

After you’ve cooked something messy like a roast or when you notice a spill on the oven floor, it’s a good idea to wipe out the oven while it’s still warm.

You can place a small baking sheet or piece of foil on the rack below a pie or casserole dish to catch any drips, but you shouldn’t cover an entire rack or the oven floor with foil. Foil can block heat and airflow and affect cooking results. It can also damage the oven floor or the heating elements.

Conclusion

If you like to cook and use your oven a lot for everything from drippy cheesy pizzas, to bubbly fruit-filled cobblers, to spattering roasts, you’re going to wind up with a dirty oven and a very tough cleaning job.

I’d never buy an oven, especially one that would set me back a grand or more, without a high-heat self-cleaning setting.