Preserve foods pure flavour and colour
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
An ancient cooking method that's still popular today, steaming helps preserve nutrients and colour. Try our recipes and embrace the world of steamed food.
Long before modern cooking appliances such as ovens and microwaves became de rigueur in kitchens, cultures around the globe were steaming foods using everything from hot springs to fire to generate steam. Today, nutritionists and chefs are once again praising steaming as a means to prepare a wide range of healthy and tasty meals.
Steaming couldn’t be any simpler, requiring only some water and a heat source. Most often, food is suspended over simmering water in a basket or tray. Far from boring, the water vaporizes into steam that carries heat to the food, cooking it quickly but delicately.
Unlike boiling and braising, which can leach nutrients from vegetables, steaming helps preserve them—as well as their bright flavours, vibrant colours, and crisp textures. Steamed meats such as chicken and fish retain exceptional moisture since they’re not exposed to intense, dry heat as with some other cooking methods. And without the need for cooking oils, steaming can shave some calories.
Tools of the trade
Inexpensive and durable, this old-school steamer can include two or more layers allowing you to steam multiple parts of a meal simultaneously, thereby streamlining meal preparation and clean-up. To use, fill a pot with a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Place the bamboo trays on top of the pot, secure the lid and reduce heat to maintain a strong simmer. Or, place the steamer on a wire rack or steaming ring inside of a wok or sauté pan and add enough water until it just touches the bottom of the first bamboo layer.
Metal basket steamer
The perforated, collapsible metal steamer is placed inside of a pot so that the base lies about an inch above the simmering water. The metal basket is great for vegetables, but without a large flat surface it’s not ideal for steaming meats.
Available in several different styles, the temperature-controlled steamer plugs into an outlet, letting you steam without an element and freeing up stove space. The best ones come with multi-tiers so you can cook larger batches of food.
There are a few rules that should be followed when steaming to assure perfect results every time.
Select the best proteins
Choose quicker cooking meats such as shellfish, fish fillets, and boneless poultry instead of tougher cuts or bone-in ones. The pieces should be relatively thin to avoid overcooking the outside while the inside remains underdone.
Control the crowd
If the steamer is too small or overcrowded, the food will not cook as evenly or quickly. Be sure to use a steaming vessel that is big enough for the vapour to circulate around the food.
To steam rather than boil your food, never let simmering water touch the edibles from the underside. But be sure to use enough water so it won’t all evaporate during cooking, which can ruin your pan.
Vegetables or meats should be cut to similar sizes so they cook in the same amount of time.
Place meats and dense root vegetables, which take the longest to cook, on the bottom layers. You also don’t want meat juices to drip onto vegetables below. More delicate items, including greens, go on top layers. In each tray, everything should be evenly spread out in a single layer.
Ensure the steamer lid fits snugly to prevent steam escaping and prolonging cooking time.
Aromatics such as herbs or ginger, as well as fruit juices, wine, or beer can be placed in the steaming liquid to add flavour nuances.
Avoid a sticky situation
To reduce sticking, place items like fish and dumplings on a layer of parchment paper or greens such as Napa cabbage.
Watch the clock
When cooking greens be sure to use brief steaming times to avoid mushy results.
Open the lid on your steamer facing away from your body to avoid a face full of hot steam.