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For Gentle Cooking, Think Steam

There's just one way to steam but many kinds of steamers

Fine Cooking Issue 33
Photos: Scott Phillips
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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.

Metal steamer.

Collapsible metal steamers work fine for small batches of food. Folding steamers, the kind with per16 forated metal leaves, are an inexpensive and compact steaming option. These steamers work perfectly well with leafy vegetables or with small amounts of green or root vegetables, but they’re awkward to use for seafood because the post in the middle usually gets in the way (although some models come with a removable center post). The basket’s short legs also mean you can’t put much water in the pot.

A folding steamer basket is good for small amounts of food. Just unfold the steamer inside a pot so the ends of the leaves meet the sides of the pot.

Folding steamer basket.

Bamboo steamers are traditional and attractive. Chinese steamers, which look vaguely like drums, have bamboo slats held in a thick ring with a snug-fitting lid. One advantage of a bamboo steamer is that you can stack one on top of the other and steam a relatively large amount of food. You can also easily steam foods with different cooking times by simply adding or removing a layer as the food is cooked, placing the foods that take longest closest to the water. These steamers are also attractive enough to bring to the table as serving pieces.

Begin by heating some water. You want enough so it won’t boil away but not so much that it takes forever to heat. In the foreground, two bamboo tiers await stacking.

Chinese steamers are designed to be used in a wok, with the wok’s sloping sides holding the steamer above an inch or so of water. But resting the steamer over a pot (as shown below) works well, and you can fill a pot with more water than a wok will hold.

Lift the lid away from you—steam can burn. It can also overcook food, so check for doneness periodically.
Steaming shrimp helps keep it tender and intact. A sprinkling of ginger, garlic, scallions, and soy sauce adds flavor.

Build your own steamer. If you only steam food once in a while, or if you don’t want another gadget cluttering up the kitchen, you can improvise a simple and very efficient steamer with a couple of small, clean, empty cans (tops and bottoms removed), a round cake rack or a pie plate, and a big pot. A footed, metal colander that fits inside a lidded pot is another option.

Improvise a steamer. Set opened, emptied, and cleaned cans in the bottom of the pot, add water, set a cake rack on top, and the food on the rack. (We’ve set it on the counter so you can see it better.)

Add flavor as you steam

One of the biggest advantages of steaming—that it keeps the flavor of the food pure—is also its greatest disadvantage. Steamed foods can seem bland. But there are tricks to making steamed food—especially fish, shellfish, and vegetables—more flavorful.

Flavorful aromatics, such as ginger, garlic, chiles, scallion, lemongrass, and herbs, can be steamed along with fish or vegetables. (Just be sure to cook the foods in a shallow dish or a pie plate, or the flavorings will fall into the simmering water below.) Marinating the food is another way to add flavor and will give you an instant sauce.

You can also try flavoring the steaming liquid with herbs, spices, or vegetables, so that the steam subtly scents the fish or vegetables; however, I find this effect so subtle as to be barely perceptible.

Steam seems gentle, but it can hurt

Because steam treats food so gently, it’s easy to forget how hot it is. When lifting the steamer lid, tilt the lid away from you so the steam shoots out the other side instead of up on your hands and face. Wait a few seconds for the steam to dissipate before looking into the pot. And use oven mitts or towels when retrieving a hot dish or plate from a steamer.


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