As homes across the USA prepare for the kitchen marathon that is Thanksgiving, many will look at the "self-clean" button on their grimy, food-stained ovens and wonder if this is the moment they'll finally give it a try.

Though the internet is rife with horror stories of self-cleaning oven disasters, appliance makers stand by the reliability and benefits.

Whom should you believe? Given the amount of safety testing that ovens undergo before they hit shelves, I lean toward trusting the self-clean feature. After all, an "I cleaned my oven and everything went fine" story will never go as viral as a tale of Thanksgiving catastrophe.

That said, you shouldn't press that self-clean button without understanding how to prepare and what the consequences could be.

How does a self-cleaning oven work?

Not all ovens have a self-cleaning mode, but most that do use "pyrolytic" cleaning – intensely high heat that reduces even the most stubborn stains to ash. Internal temperatures can reach over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, far higher than normal cooking temperatures.

You should expect some unpleasant smell and smoke as all those old stains become carbonized particles. The process typically takes two to four hours. The oven door will lock shut once the process begins and won't open until the temperature has dropped to a safe point.

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Once the oven cools, you should be able to wipe out the ashes with paper towels, water and a little dish detergent.

All that heat must damage the oven, right?

It's reasonable to suspect that such extreme temperatures could damage an appliance. After all, the cycle runs nearly twice as hot as the max setting on most oven dials. But keep in mind that containing fiery heat is precisely what ovens are built to do.

Ovens are stress-tested in the design process. According to Electrolux, every model is run through 50 self-clean cycles – far more than the average user will clean an ovens in a 10-year period – to verify that the cleaning won't cause premature failure.

Nevertheless, several appliance repair services recommend that you not attempt a self-clean cycle before a major holiday (or ever, according to some). Thermal fuses or electronic controls could be damaged. A properly functioning oven is probably critical for you during that time, and repairs are often delayed during holidays. Although self-clean is probably fine to run on a newer oven in great condition, it's reasonable to suspect that an older unit with a lot of wear-and-tear might be more susceptible to a breakdown from any number of causes. If that sounds like your oven, it may be better to test out untried cleaning methods after the holidays. 

How to prepare for a safe high-heat cleaning

If you are ready for the pyrolytic cleaning cycle, be sure to take a few sensible precautions.

Remove the oven racks and wash them by hand. They're generally not built for the extreme temperatures of a self-clean. Brush big food stains off the oven walls and glass by hand before you run the cycle. Remove all aluminum foil. You shouldn't ever use foil lining in an oven anyway, as it blocks airflow. During self-clean, foil can get hot enough to actually fuse to the oven. Remove any birds from the area. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the cleaning cycle, and birds tend to be more sensitive to these changes in air quality. Keep young children out of the kitchen, as the oven's exterior is hotter than normal.

As always, consult the instruction manual before attempting a cleaning. If you lost the manual, check Manualslib.com.

Alternatives to high-heat cleaning: Steam and elbow grease

If your oven doesn't have pyrolytic self-cleaning, or you're just hesitant to give it a try, there are alternatives.

Some ovens offer a steam clean cycle, a faster, lower-temperature and smokeless solution that can loosen some of the built-up grime.

"Steam clean does a good job on light soils," says Steve Swayne, senior engineering manager for Electrolux. It's more effective than a damp cloth against some stains but will struggle against the kinds of grease and fat caused by splatter from a roast.  

For ovens lacking any self-clean feature, a pot or pan of water heated at 450 for 20-40 minutes approximates the same effect.

Either way, once a steam cycle is done, you'll need to get in there with a damp cloth and employ the real grease: elbow grease. It won't be nearly as effective as a pyrolytic clean, but there's no risk and no fumes. 

Cleaning the cooktop

Fortunately, cleaning the cooktop is much more straightforward than the oven cavity. Induction and smoothtop electrics are the easiest, requiring no more than a soft pad and some liquid cooktop cleaner.

Electric coil and gas cooktops have more nooks and crannies to clean. You'll need to remove the coils or burner caps and heads, then get into the corners with either vinegar, dish soap and water or a paste of baking soda and water (opinions vary), along with a toothbrush and a lot of patience.

No matter what state of cleanliness your kitchen is in, remember that your guests are there to give thanks for family, friends and food. A little smudge on the oven won't ruin anyone's holiday, and there will be plenty of time for cleanup on Black Friday. 

David Kender is the editor in chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at request@reviewed.com.

Ovens are stress-tested in the design process. According to Electrolux, every model is run through 50 self-clean cycles – far more than the average user will clean an ovens in a 10-year period – to verify that the cleaning won't cause premature failure.

Nevertheless, several appliance repair services recommend that you not attempt a self-clean cycle before a major holiday (or ever, according to some). Thermal fuses or electronic controls could be damaged. A properly functioning oven is probably critical for you during that time, and repairs are often delayed during holidays. Although self-clean is probably fine to run on a newer oven in great condition, it's reasonable to suspect that an older unit with a lot of wear-and-tear might be more susceptible to a breakdown from any number of causes. If that sounds like your oven, it may be better to test out untried cleaning methods after the holidays. 

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If you are ready for the pyrolytic cleaning cycle, be sure to take a few sensible precautions.

Remove the oven racks and wash them by hand. They're generally not built for the extreme temperatures of a self-clean. Brush big food stains off the oven walls and glass by hand before you run the cycle. Remove all aluminum foil. You shouldn't ever use foil lining in an oven anyway, as it blocks airflow. During self-clean, foil can get hot enough to actually fuse to the oven. Remove any birds from the area. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the cleaning cycle, and birds tend to be more sensitive to these changes in air quality. Keep young children out of the kitchen, as the oven's exterior is hotter than normal.

As always, consult the instruction manual before attempting a cleaning. If you lost the manual, check Manualslib.com.

Alternatives to high-heat cleaning: Steam and elbow grease

If your oven doesn't have pyrolytic self-cleaning, or you're just hesitant to give it a try, there are alternatives.

Some ovens offer a steam clean cycle, a faster, lower-temperature and smokeless solution that can loosen some of the built-up grime.

"Steam clean does a good job on light soils," says Steve Swayne, senior engineering manager for Electrolux. It's more effective than a damp cloth against some stains but will struggle against the kinds of grease and fat caused by splatter from a roast.  

For ovens lacking any self-clean feature, a pot or pan of water heated at 450 for 20-40 minutes approximates the same effect.

Either way, once a steam cycle is done, you'll need to get in there with a damp cloth and employ the real grease: elbow grease. It won't be nearly as effective as a pyrolytic clean, but there's no risk and no fumes. 

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Cleaning the cooktop

Fortunately, cleaning the cooktop is much more straightforward than the oven cavity. Induction and smoothtop electrics are the easiest, requiring no more than a soft pad and some liquid cooktop cleaner.

Electric coil and gas cooktops have more nooks and crannies to clean. You'll need to remove the coils or burner caps and heads, then get into the corners with either vinegar, dish soap and water or a paste of baking soda and water (opinions vary), along with a toothbrush and a lot of patience.

No matter what state of cleanliness your kitchen is in, remember that your guests are there to give thanks for family, friends and food. A little smudge on the oven won't ruin anyone's holiday, and there will be plenty of time for cleanup on Black Friday. 

David Kender is the editor in chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at request@reviewed.com.

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