What Is Steaming? And How to Steam
Steaming is a versatile technique that can be applied to almost any cuisine.
By Clarissa Wei for Food Network Kitchen
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.
What Is Steaming?
Steaming is an indirect cooking method that uses hot steam generated from water to cook food. It is an old and very common technique all over the world, and a method that—when done right— helps food retain its nutrition, color and texture. In China, steamers are stacked up sky high to make colorful platters of dim sum and dumplings. In Vietnam, rice flour is whisked into a slurry and then steamed in a pan to make delicate sheets of rice noodles and rice rolls. And in Japan, steamers are used to make gorgeous and fluffy steamed cakes. While especially prevalent in East Asia, the art of steaming is, in fact, universal. In Mexico, tamales are cooked via steam, and in the States, seafood boils can be cooked exclusively in a large steamer basket.
Steaming is an incredibly versatile technique that can be applied to almost any cuisine—as long you have the right tools.
The Benefits of Steaming
Here's what Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. says. "You may have heard this before: steaming is one of the best ways to cook veggies so they keep their nutrients. Vitamins are easily destroyed when you cook with water for long periods of time (i.e. boiling), but steaming uses the steam from boiling water to cook your food -- not the water directly. Another advantage of steaming is no added fat or sodium (do you dab butter in a boiling pot of broccoli or load in the salt?). Any veggie you steam will be around 25 calories per half-cup and chock-full of vitamins and minerals."
Equipment for Steaming
There are a lot of different steaming set-ups out there, though the most classic and recommended one is a simple tiered bamboo steamer. As a material, bamboo absorbs condensation and prevents water from dripping down on the food—which is great for delicate dumplings and desserts. Stainless steel tiered baskets also work well, and are great for steaming up hefty and most robust proteins. The only caveat is that these tiered baskets require a wide enough wok or pot to nestle them in.
Collapsible Steamer Basket
For a simple vegetable medley, a collapsible steamer basket would do just the trick. Simply add water to any pot, bring to a boil, lower in the basket with vegetables and steam until the vegetables are the desired texture.
An Instant Pot is also another great way to steam, and can be used to conjure up egg custards, succulent, steamed chicken breast and tender veggies.
Taiwanese Plug-In Steamer
Another fantastic—and often overlooked—tool is the Tatung steamer, a Taiwanese plug-in steamer with just two settings: on and off. It’s designed similar to an Instant Pot—with an inner and outer pot, but is most more simplistic. Just add water to the outer pot, put the food in the inner pot, cover and turn on to steam. It’s a great way to make long braises, incubate yogurt or cook up any protein or vegetable.
What to Steam
For beginners of the technique, vegetables are the best entry-level ingredients. Start with an artichoke head or plate of broccoli, asparagus or carrots. Temperature control isn’t too important for these ingredients; simply steam until soft. Graduate to steaming eggplant (pictured above), an ingredient that needs to be lowered in when the water below is already at a rolling boil. The high heat is essential—or else the eggplant will turn brown and ugly. Time it right, though, and you’ll get vibrant, creamy spears of eggplant that can be dressed in vinegar and soy sauce.
Proteins are also extremely easy to steam. Lower fresh bucketfuls of seafood like king crab legs, shrimp, crayfish into a steamer basket and then dress with garlic, butter, and your spices of choice. Try your hand at steaming a whole fish: a steamed sea bass with light soy sauce and slivers of scallions is classic. And that’s all too simple, move onto more delicate dishes like homemade dumplings, egg custards and desserts.
A steamer can also be used in lieu of a microwave to reheat dishes. Because the food is reheated over water, the benefit is that it prevents food from drying out.
How to Steam Vegetables
- Bring a small amount of water to a boil. Fill a large wok or pot with 1.5-inches water and bring to a rolling boil.
Place your vegetables in the steamer. If you’re using a collapsible basket steamer, arrange the vegetables directly onto the steamer. If you’re using a tiered basket system, arrange the vegetables on a shallow plate first and then put them in the basket.
Lower your steamer into the wok or pot. Make sure the bottom floor does not get wet.
Cover and steam the vegetables. If the water below completely evaporates, replenish with hot boiling water. Cook until the vegetables reach your desired texture – feel free to carefully remove a piece and taste test to determine doneness.
When it comes to prepping for the week ahead, we love cooking off lots of veggies so we can reach for them instead of something less healthy in the scramble of making a weeknight meal. Blanching a vegetable in boiling water and then plunging it in an ice bath is great when you're making just one kind. But for a large-scale production, our go-to method is steaming. You can use the same water for multiple batches, steaming one vegetable after the next. The result: a rainbow of perfectly cooked vegetables at the ready for grain bowls, pastas, salads, frittatas and more.
Trust us, the DIY is worth it.
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