How Do Self-Cleaning Ovens Work?

Self-cleaning ovens are meant to spare users the hassle of manual cleaning.
Self-cleaning ovens are meant to spare users the hassle of manual cleaning. / Jevtic/iStock via Getty Images

There are certain kitchen appliances that provoke a sense of respect and fear. Blenders. Garbage disposals. Possibly whisks. (They’re very hard to clean.)

None makes a person as apprehensive as the self-cleaning feature on modern ovens. Many users aren’t exactly sure what it does. Do robot arms emerge and begin vigorously scrubbing your oven, Jetsons-style? Does it get hotter than the sun’s core, peeling off biodegradable materials?

It turns out that a healthy level of respect for the self-cleaning feature is warranted. Before you use it, take a look at some things you should know.

How do self-cleaning ovens work?

There are no robot arms. The self-cleaning feature has been available on most gas and electric ranges since 1963, when Thermador introduced the option. Essentially, activating it superheats the oven’s cavity using what is known as pyrolytic cleaning (from the Greek words pyro for “fire,” and lytic for “loosening” or “dissolving”), searing food and grease off the enamel surface and rendering it ash. This spares the owner the trouble of having to scrape hardened food gunk off by hand using harsh chemical cleaners.

During the process, the oven door usually locks automatically, thereby sparing any passersby a heat-related mishap. Some ovens use steam instead, which requires a cup of water. A steam clean isn’t as effective, however, and often leaves bits on the top of the oven.

How hot does a self-cleaning oven get?

Very, very hot. Activating the self-cleaning feature means the oven can reach temperatures of 800°F to 1000 °F. For a steam clean, it’s a cooler 250 °F.

How long does the self-cleaning oven cycle last?

Turning your crumbs into a scene out of Mount Vesuvius typically takes between two and six hours. For a steam clean, it’s much less—about 30 minutes.

Is it safe to use the self-cleaning oven feature?

There are dissenting opinions on that. While it doesn’t seem likely appliance manufacturers would include a feature that could lead to problems, the self-cleaning feature isn’t without risk. For one, superheating the oven can release fumes from leftover food—scorching sugars and proteins is a chemical reaction. Fumes can also emanate from the enamel lining. The oven can even emit carbon monoxide. (Experts aren’t really sure how much.) If there’s food left on grates, it can catch fire.

The extreme temperatures have also been known to cause thermal fuses or heating elements to malfunction or burn out. That’s because newer ovens have heating elements hidden, making it harder for air to circulate around them. While not terribly expensive to replace, it still requires a service call and your oven being out of commission for a period.

From an energy use standpoint, it’s also expensive. Running an oven that hot for hours can be a drain on your gas or electric supply.

But bear in mind these are potential risks. Aside from specific product recalls, there have never been any widespread consumer warnings or repeated instances of fires related to self-cleaning ovens.

If self-cleaning ovens are risky, why are they made?

Apparently, consumers expect the feature to be included in ovens, making manufacturers wary of missing out on their business if they don’t offer it.

How can a self-cleaning oven be made safe to use?

To run a safe—or at least safer—self-clean cycle, make sure you grab any bigger chunks of food first and wipe up spills. Make sure there’s ample ventilation, either from an open window, a range hood, or both. Never, ever use the feature in conjunction with oven cleaners, which can release fumes. You should also remove the metal grates unless the manufacturer specifies it’s safe to leave them in. Finally, make sure the top of the range is clear of any pots or other items.

Don’t wipe down the door gasket, however, as you want the oven to maintain a good seal with the door closed. And obviously, stay home to monitor for signs of a problem.

At a certain point, you may question why you’re cleaning your oven before it self-cleans. It’s a fair criticism.

Can you stop the self-cleaning oven feature early?

Depending on the model of your appliance, pushing the Clear or Cancel button might terminate the cycle, but this should only be done if there’s an urgent reason. The cleaning cycle will be incomplete and the oven won’t have gone through a proper cooldown.

How often should you use the self-cleaning oven feature?

That depends on how dirty your oven gets. If it gets soiled on a regular basis, running it two to five times a year might be advisable.

What should you do after using the self-cleaning oven feature?

Once the self-cleaning cycle is over, wait until the oven cools down. Then you can take a damp rag, wipe away the charred remains of last month’s lasagna, and get on with your life.

Whether you run the self-cleaning feature or not, it’s best to keep up with oven spills as they happen. Wipe down your appliance after each use, wash racks, and don’t forget to clean the door.

Are my pets safe when using the self-cleaning oven feature?

While there is a risk of fumes, dogs and cats are unlikely to be affected by them. To be safe, it’s still best to move them into another room while the cycle is running.

Birds, however, are another story. A bird’s respiratory system may not be able to handle the fumes, leading to a condition known as toxicosis, a disease affecting their breathing. Death is one possible outcome. Poor birds. As if Thanksgiving weren’t dangerous enough.