Steaming is often one of the first cooking methods I introduce to my friends who are just easing into the kitchen. It’s fast, easy, forgiving, and you can get it done without buying anything special.
Steaming is a great way to lightly cook veggies without sacrificing much of their raw state’s essence. I’d consider it the second most minimal cooking method, next to blanching. Exposing your produce to a quick dose of indirect, moist heat softens it enough to slice or chomp down on easily, but keeps it bright and crisp.
Steaming certainly isn’t reserved for veggies, although I use it that way the most. Many Chinese dumplings are steamed, as are the sweet sponge cakes and savory yams or turnip cakes you’ll see on dim sum carts. Steaming eggs in the Korean dish Gyeran Jjim makes them super silky (the dish also has cousins in other Asian countries). Steaming is also the preferred traditional Moroccan method of making couscous.
Steaming is a favorite cooking method of those looking for optimum nutrition, for two reasons. One, it requires no oils or fats, thereby reducing the fat and calorie levels of your final product. Two, its relative gentleness preserves a higher percentage of the micronutrients and other healthful properties of your veggie than other methods.
Luckily, it doesn’t take any fancy equipment or know-how to steam. It’s very helpful to have a steam pot or steamer basket (which we’ll talk more about tomorrow), but you can get by without one as long as you’ve got a covered pot.
Here’s how it’s done:
With a steamer pot or basket
Step 1: Fill the base pot* with an inch or two of water. Although there’s some debate as to whether salting water to speed up the boiling process is actually effective, I usually add a few shakes of salt for flavor—if you use a good sea salt, you will taste it in your steamed goods. Subtle, but really nice.
*Note: If you’re using a steamer pot that came with its own insert(s), this step is easy and self-explanatory. If you’re using an expandable or bamboo basket that you bought on your own, make sure it will fit snugly over the opening of the pot you’re using without touching the water.
Step 2: Cover your pot and put it over high heat to boil. It won’t take long since you’re not working with much water, so don’t walk away and get distracted—otherwise, most of it will evaporate before you know it.
Step 3: Prepare your goods. If it’s veggies you’re steaming, wash them, clean them up, and chop or slice to your desired size and shape. Whole or more coarsely cut stuff will take longer to steam.
Step 4: Place your prepped ingredients in the steamer insert or basket and set it over top of the pot. Recover to capture all of that good steam you’re generating. Refer to your recipe or consult the web for suggested steaming times for your ingredients. If you like your veggies al dente or your protein rare, check in a few minutes early.
Without a special steaming device
You can still steam without a steamer pot or basket, although this method wouldn’t really be considered a true steam since the ingredients will have some direct contact with the heat. You’ll get comparable results, but will need to stir occasionally and keep a closer eye on your pot to make sure you don’t overcook.
Step 1: Prep your ingredients, choose a liquid, and choose a pan.
Since you’ll be steaming directly in the liquid, using something other than water can yield really nice flavor. I love steaming broccoli in lemon juice (like in our Chicken and Broccoli Casserole Cups). You could also use wine, fruit juice, stock, beer, salad dressing, or marinade (that has not touched raw meat). The latter two will evaporate differently than purer liquids, and will leave behind some reduction. They’ll require a bit more stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick.
For best results, choose a covered, shallow pot or a high-edged pan like a sauté pan or deep frying pan.
Step 2: Heat the pan over medium. Test the heat after a few minutes by placing your hand a few inches above the bottom; it should feel very warm. You can also flick a small drop of water on the surface; it should sizzle.
Step 3: Place your ingredients into the hot pan and pour your liquid right over top. You’re looking for a small pool at the bottom of the pan; not enough to submerge your ingredients, but not so little that it will quickly disappear. I use a little more than a tablespoon per cup of goods. Cover right away.
Step 4: Refer to your recipe or consult the web for suggested steaming times for your ingredients. Lift the lid occasionally and give everything a good toss to keep the pieces on the bottom from overcooking.
Make sure to keep your face away from the pot as you remove the lid, as the steam can be scorching. Always recover to capture all of that good, steamy action.