What comes to mind when you hear the word steam? Locomotives, spa treatments, carpet cleaning or, dare we say, romance novels? If you’ve never considered using steam to cook food—food you’d actually want to eat—well, you’re not alone. But perhaps the following tips and suggestions will inspire you to add steaming to your ever-expanding kitchen repertoire. Now that spring is just around the corner (fingers crossed!), you’ll soon find plenty of produce that’s ripe and ready for your culinary experiments.
For thousands of years, cultures around the world have created incredible steamed delicacies like Chinese dumplings, Mexican tamales and even English puddings. As far as cooking techniques go, it doesn’t get much simpler than steaming. If you know how to boil water, you’re halfway there. All you have to do is trap the escaping steam and use it to do your bidding.
But what can you steam? Well, pretty much any vegetable—asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower and so on. Try lean proteins like chicken breasts, fish, shrimp, mussels or lobster. Or use steam to create the fluffiest rice and couscous you’ve ever tasted. To be fair, steaming does have its limitations. We don’t recommend it for cooking bacon, french fries, cupcakes or casseroles of any variety.
The Advantages of Steaming
- It’s healthier for you. Food stays moist and tasty without added fat (save those calories for sauces).
- Keeps colors vibrant and textures intact—no more soggy veggies in shades of blah.
- Retains nutrients that would otherwise go down the drain (unless you’re into drinking leftover bean water).
- Food cooks gently—unlike boiling which could be likened to a rowdy, over-crowded hot tub.
- Dine in a dash—veggies and protein go from steamer to table in minutes.
- Moist heat cooks at a maximum of 212°, so food is unlikely to overcook and impossible to burn.
- Steaming is easy to master. Plus, you can improvise with equipment you already have in your kitchen.
Steaming Tools and Techniques
Steaming requires three basics: a cooking vessel, a lid and a way to suspend food over the boiling liquid. You’ve most likely got the first two covered, so let’s talk about the third. Options include metal or silicone inserts, stackable bamboo baskets or in a pinch, you could use a colander. Nowadays, you can even get innovative cookware made especially for steaming food in the microwave—yay technology! And if you find yourself obsessed with steaming (hey, it could happen), you’ll find specialized equipment like automatic steamers and steam grills to take this cooking technique to a whole new level.
Ready to steam? Ok, all you have to do is add liquid to your cooking vessel (pot, wok, etc.) and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, place your food in the steamer insert or basket. Then put the insert in the pan, cover with a lid and wait for the steam to work its magic. How long? Well, that depends on what you’re cooking. Generally, food is done when the color becomes vibrant and the thickest part can easily be pierced with a paring knife. For more specific guidelines, check out this handy chart.
Let’s Amp up the Flavor
While most veggies taste delicious all on their own, others could use a little help. You can enhance flavors by creating steam with liquids like broth, juice, wine or beer. Or toss a few aromatics into your liquid—we like cinnamon sticks, lemongrass stalks, star anise and ginger. Try steaming proteins on a bed of herbs, scallions, greens or citrus slices. Dressing steamed dishes can be as simple as a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or splash of vinaigrette or chile oil, or as decadent as a dollop of hollandaise or herbed butter.
Tips for Safe & Successful Steaming
- Add just enough liquid to create steam without touching food—otherwise you’re boiling.
- On the other hand, don’t let the pot boil dry. Keep extra liquid boiling on the stove in case you need to add more.
- Food will continue to cook after being removed from steam, so err on the side of undercooking veggies.
- Cut foods into uniform sizes so they’ll cook at the same rate.
- Tender veggies like cauliflower will cook faster than dense ones like carrots.
- When mixing steamed veggies, add dense ones first, then tender ones—or try cutting dense veggies into smaller pieces.
- Always open the lid away from you so you don’t get a face full of scalding steam.
- Use oven mitts (preferably silicone) to remove steaming insert.
- Use tongs to remove food from steamer.
Do you have any genius tips or tricks to share about cooking with steam? Let us know! And for more inspiration for steaming, check out a few of our favorite recipes:
- Steamed White Fish with Vegetables
- Pesto-Steamed Cod
- White Beans with Clams
- Steamed Asparagus with Citrus Vinaigrette
- Steamed Manila Clams with Thyme, White Wine and Sorrel Purée
- Saffron-Steamed Mussels with Crème Fraiche
- Steamed Beef and Vegetables
- Healthy Steamed Salmon
- Steamed Dumplings
- Carrots with Lemon and Parsley