Every method of cooking directs heat at foods in a particular way. Poaching uses an abundance of simmering liquid, while roasting uses the hot air and radiant heat of an oven or hearth. Steaming cooks food with hot vapor; the food has no contact with the boiling liquid in the bottom of the steamer pot. The liquid, usually water but occasionally wine or vegetable stock, is brought to a rapid boil. The food is then suspended above the liquid, which is kept at a lively simmer, and the pot covered.
Steaming is especially useful for cooking vegetables because the vegetable’s nutrients aren’t leached out into the surrounding liquid, which can happen when vegetables are boiled or poached. And because it’s so gentle, steaming protects fragile vegetables, such as tiny new potatoes, that might otherwise be damaged by the movement of the water. For the same reason, steaming is also an excellent method for cooking fish and shellfish; it won’t cause these fragile foods to break apart.
A technique where little can go wrong. About the only thing you have to watch for when steaming is that the liquid in the bottom of the steamer doesn’t completely evaporate and scorch the bottom of the pan. In most cases, you can avoid this simply by using plenty of liquid.
My favorite gadget for steaming fish and vegetables is a couscousière (designed, as the name implies, for steaming couscous). It looks like a large double boiler with holes punched in the bottom of the upper pot. A large one will accommodate a lot of vegetables and even a whole fish. But you don’t need to run out and buy a couscousière because, even though steaming is a simple method, there are myriad steamers and steamrelated gadgets from which to choose.
Types of steamers
Aluminum steamer sets are long-lasting and versatile. These consist of a stockpot to hold the water and one or two perforated metal steaming tiers with handles that sit in the top of the pot. Look for a set that fits together well with a deep lip around the rim so the lid fits snugly. The lid should be domed so the steam that condenses on its underside slides down the curve of the lid rather than drips straight down onto the food.
A metal steamer is roomy and durable. Like bamboo steamers, some models come with two stackable trays that can accommodate even more volume.