The self-clean button opens a portal to hell.
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When we remodeled our kitchen we had a lot of things we really wanted from our new oven. We needed it to have a large capacity for big batches of cookies and giant holiday roasts and turkeys. We selected French-style doors because one of us is a short person with little gator arms who was forever burning herself trying to reach into deep ovens over traditional flop-down doors. We researched full extension shelves for ease of testing cakes and basting meats, and a range of temperatures that went from a low 150°F for slow cooking, dehydrating, and keeping things warm, to a good solid high of 500°F for baking crusty breads and getting good browning on things.

Smoking oven
Credit: Getty Images

What we didn’t want? A self-cleaning function.

I mean, technically that isn’t really true. We would have loved an oven that was actually legitimately self-cleaning, in the way of some sort of magical tiny creature that would weekly spray the oven with degreaser and zip around inside scrubbing off the stuck-on gunk, and then rinse it down and vacuum up all the detritus like an oven Roomba-genie before mysteriously relocating itself into some small garage at the back. But since the traditional self-clean feature is not, in fact, magic, we opted out.

For many, the self-cleaning aspect of the oven might as well be that imaginary Harry Potter elf or some Cinderella-mouse-based fever dream. It is shocking how many people have literally no idea what it does or how it works. Almost everyone I know has either never used it or used it once and then vowed never to use it again. Because not only is the "self-cleaning" moniker something of a misnomer, it can be kind of scary.

Imagine if I told you that there was a box in your house where, if you pressed a certain button, the door would clamp shut and it would be impossible to unlock or open for four to five hours. That once impenetrably sealed, the interior of the box would heat to surface-of-the-sun-level conditions, and it would fill your home with the acrid smell of burning tires and Hades. You would think that a previous owner had installed a personal snack-size crematorium or was storing the last chunk of pure evil from Time Bandits. You could imagine that he was some cartoonish villain who would be mansplaining the end of his sinister plan ad nauseam while a damsel scratched at the glass door and our hero tried to MacGyver his way around the mechanism.

But nope, that previous owner just got a bundle deal on a high-end manufacturer's wares one Labor Day weekend, and filled the kitchen with shiny stainless appliances, one of which had crushed ice thru the door, and one of which happened to come with Satan’s spa treatment, a “self-clean” setting.

My former oven, installed by the previous owner of my home, had a self-clean feature that I used precisely once. Being 24 at the time, and completely uninterested in getting on hands and knees to scrub out the remains of an overenthusiastic lasagna that had neglected to bake itself upon a sheet pan to catch spillovers, that little innocuous self-clean button seemed like the answer to a prayer. I slid the locking mechanism to the right, which should have been my first clue that something was about to go amiss, and pressed the button. The clamp-shut lock sounded like the sound effect movies use when putting a convicted innocent in “the hole,” and I immediately regretted the decision.

Over the next several hours my oven emitted a stench that I thought would cause neighbors to flee the jurisdiction, and it gave me a low-grade headache that I later learned was probably mild carbon monoxide poisoning. It also heated my small kitchen to sauna-like conditions. When I finally heard the lock unclench, from two rooms away, I trepidatiously re-entered the room, and opened the oven door, half expecting to be blown to smithereens. Was the interior of my oven sparkling clean, ready to get re-spattered, and making the previous hours of fear and olfactory assault completely worth it?

It was not.

The self-cleaning adventure left me with an oven that then needed cleaning.  An oven whose interior was now covered in a dusty layer of ash, having incinerated everything that was a crumb or loose bit of ick, underneath which was a spotty layer of baked-on exoskeleton anywhere there had been grease or oil, now converted to a plastic veneer that no amount of Easy-Off or steel wool would ever fully remove. It took three hours after the self-clean cycle for the oven to cool off enough for me to safely spend an hour cleaning it.

From that moment forward I realized that until someone invents the oven robot or I get my hands on a bootleg Bedknobs and Broomsticks official housekeeping grimoire, the self-cleaning feature every oven requires is you cleaning it yourself. Luckily, this is a feature that is standard in all brands, for which you never need to pay extra.