As Moe the Bartender proudly reveals his new restaurant’s Navy surplus deep fryer that can flash fry a buffalo in 40 seconds, Homer laments: “Forty seconds? But I want it now!” He was right. In a time when instant messages and same day shipping are the norm, waiting for food to cook feels like an inconvenience. But a countertop oven that uses superheated steam to speed up cook times could be the appliance all of us impatient types have been waiting for.
Years ago, frustrated at being limited to browning just two slices of bread at a time, I traded in my toaster for a more capacious counter top toaster oven. For meal prep it was far more useful than an appliance built only for toasting bread, but I was constantly frustrated at how long I’d have to wait for the tiny oven to preheat. I quickly resented that tiny oven for making me wait so long for a crispy slice of reheated pizza.
That’s where steam comes into play. Steam ovens can be found in restaurants and bakeries, where the steam cooks food faster and helps produce crispier crusts on bread. Using convection fans and a boiler, Sharp’s Superheated Steam Countertop Oven quickly fills with water vapour heated to 250 degrees Celsius. It keeps the heat evenly distributed inside the oven to eliminate hot spots that can burn food, and it provides a more efficient and faster way to transfer the heat to what’s cooking. That’s why you can skip the preheating step and still have your food ready in the same amount of time a recipe recommends.
It’s a feature you can even find in many high-end ovens designed for a home kitchen, but a toaster oven? An appliance most often associated with being one of the easiest ways to prep cheap meals in a student house? With a $500 (£377; UK pricing and availability TBA) price tag Sharp’s new steam oven isn’t targeted at debt-ridden students, and it’s definitely not going to completely replace a larger appliance, but for quick weekday meals, I have to admit it’s a great alternative. (NB: if you can't wait, you can get your hands on this bad boy via eBay for about £410 - or £450 if you count international shipping costs.)
Streamlined controls make the oven as easy to use as a toaster. (All photos: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo)
Sharp’s new oven is a little larger than most toaster ovens, and takes up about as much countertop space as a large microwave, but is far easier to use. Its streamlined controls feature a large dial and just three buttons for selecting one of five cooking modes (toast, warm, pizza, bake/reheat, and broil/grill), and dialling in a cooking time. It looks like a basic £30 toaster oven you can buy from Argos, so why does it cost $500?
Remembering to keep this water reservoir filled is the trickiest part of using Sharp’s new oven.
On the front of the oven is a pull-out reservoir that holds enough water for 60 minutes of steam-assisted cooking. From my testing it’s a genuinely useful feature, if you can remember to keep that reservoir filled, which I frequently didn’t. An on-screen reminder to “make sure the reservoir isn’t empty” would be a useful addition, because refilling an oven is probably a new idea for most users.
A window lets you keep an eye on food as it cooks, until it gets fogged up from steam.
During cooking, steam is released through a chimney on the back of the oven, to ensure that pressure doesn’t build up inside.
It won’t instantly burn your skin, but the oven does get hot on the outside while it’s running. You’ll want to keep anything that can melt well clear of its stainless steel housing.
Not only does a continuous blast of steam eliminate the need for pre-heating, Sharp also promises it helps to keep food moist as it cooks. I’m admittedly no epicurean, but I can’t say that food came out noticeably juicier than it does from my larger oven. What was noticeable, however, was the sound this oven makes. It’s loud, thanks to convection fans inside that evenly distribute the heat and steam. Even after the cook timer runs out the oven continues to roar for a few minutes while it’s cooling down, making stealthy, middle of the night pizza raids, tricky.
Unless you like scrubbing pans, you’ll want to use lots of oil on these first.
Sharp touts its new oven as taking frozen pizza to the next level, so that was the first thing I tried—with disastrous results. The oven comes with two pans, including one that’s perforated to allow the underside of a pizza to properly crisp. It works, but as I discovered, without a healthy application of oil first, your pizza and the pan will fuse into a single entity. Thirty minutes of scraping and scrubbing later, I tried again, with much better results.
Twelve inches is about as large a pizza as you can squeeze in the oven.
Next-level frozen pizza? Not quite, but it’s faster than delivery.
The oven’s perforated pan delivers a crispy finish on the underside.
The oven comes with its own recommendations for cooking various foods, but I found that following the instructions on each pizza’s box yielded better results. The cheese on top came out golden brown, as did the crust, and the underside of the pizza was suitably crispy without burning. Best of all, from freezer to oven it took just 12 minutes for a thin crust frozen pizza to be ready to eat.
It’s still no substitute for what you’d get from a pizzeria with a real wood-burning oven, but Sharp’s oven will get pizza on your plate faster than delivery. Is that worth $500 to you?
Yep, it makes toast too.
The oven also makes a mean toast, letting you squeeze six slices of bread in there at a time. But like with anything you toss inside, you’ll probably want to experiment on what settings and cook times work best for the results you’re after. For pizza, I found that generally a few extra minutes produced crispier results, and getting a passable steak from the oven took quite a few attempts.
I’ll be the first to admit that my results don’t come close to rivalling what you’d get at a fancy steak house (I didn’t bother to sear the meat at all) but I got a totally edible medium-rare results in about five minutes time, and well done in ten.
Well-done results (left) took about ten minutes of broiling, while a rarer steak (right) required just five minutes in the oven.
Would I recommend Sharp’s new steam-assisted oven? I want to, I really do. It’s vastly superior to a cheap toaster oven, and often far more convenient to use and maintain than your kitchen’s full-size oven. However, that $500 price tag is a big stumbling block. You can get a full-size, turkey-compatible, electric model for that much money.
If you’re outfitting a small kitchen that doesn’t have room for a full-sized stove (perhaps you’re renovating a cottage) Sharp’s new countertop oven would certainly fit the bill for the occasional small meal. It could even be a great addition to a student house or flat, assuming a student’s parents were footing the bill. But there’s no getting around the fact that half a grand is a steep price to pay for the convenience of never having to remember to pre-heat your oven.
- It’s not as compact as most toaster ovens, but it’s still easy to find room for it on your kitchen counter.
- The use of superheated steam keeps food moist and reduces cooking times, if you can remember to keep your oven filled.
- A generous use of oil is recommended for the included pans, unless you really like scraping and scrubbing dishes.
- A 20-minute bake with the oven empty is recommended after each use to reduce the risk of mould developing in its plumbing, which can be inconvenient when you’re just making a quick meal.
- A $500 price tag pushes this appliance to the luxury category, when it could be a fantastic kitchen accessory for students or low-income households.