Steaming, a cooking method thought to
date back to before the discovery of fire, when foods were cooked over hot
springs or stones, is now as popular as ever.
Oriental cooking has always made great use of steaming as a main
cooking method, both for health reasons and because ovens are very rare. Many foods are steamed, rather than baked, their main staple,
rice, being perfect for this. The
Chinese have used steamers for at least 3000 years or more, with early
steamers being made in stoneware and originating in the province of Yunnan.
From around the eighth century, thin cypress strips were used to
make steamers and today they are constructed from bamboo with slatted
bases. They may be stacked,
usually up to three tiers, and placed over a wok containing boiling
liquid. A tight-fitting
bamboo lid seals in the steam.
The classic steamer contains a chimney
through the center, which distributes the steam among the tiers.
A variation on the theme is found in Hawaii, where for many years
the Kalua or traditional pig roast has been steamed in a pit in the
ground. Stones and wood are
used to create and retain the heat in the pit, which is covered with
layers of leaves. The pig is
then cooked in the steam and smoke.
So as you can see, steaming is no quirky fad,
rather a tried and tested, versatile and rewarding method of cooking.
Gone are its associations with stodgy, bland foods — the true
versatility and richness of steaming has been rediscovered.
Healthier, more nutritious dishes may be easily prepared by
steaming; the results are colorful and flavorful, textures fresh.
Suitable for most foods and a surprising
variety of recipes, steaming has great advantages over other cooking
methods. A far higher level
of nutrients, vitamins and minerals is retained than by other cooking
methods. Steam cooking
reduces Vitamin C in vegetables by 40% whereas boiling reduces it by 70%
because it is lost in the cooking water.
Steaming does not immerse foods in water into which nutrients,
particularly in vegetables, can escape.
Foods are generally more nutritious when steamed, and as additional
fat is not required for cooking it’s also healthier and lower in fat.
Even in recipes where higher fat content ingredients are called
for, lower fat alternatives can generally be substituted, such as low-fat
milk, cream and cheese, and poultry is always skinned to reduce fat
content. Boiling does remain preferable for some vegetables such as
mustard greens, turnip, collard greens or kale, which have strong flavors,
as these may be imparted to other foods during steaming.
Steaming is a moist cooking method, using the
natural convection of heat that is traveling in air, steam or liquid. This
gives tender results because foods are not exposed to intense, dry heat as
with other cooking methods. Steaming
protects foods, which are contained within sealed, perforated or slatted
tiers, wax paper or foil parcels or heatproof basins, and never come into
contact with the heat source or steam-producing liquid.
The tiers must sit at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the liquid so
that it does not touch the food and overcook it. Steam produced from the
heat of the liquid builds up inside the steamer, cooking food in a very
Flavorings may be added to foods in a variety
of ways. Either in the
cooking liquid, which may be water flavored with a bouillon cube or herbs
and spices, fresh stock or wine, or by marinating foods before steaming.
Spices such as ginger, chile, cumin and coriander may be added to
savory recipes, and nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mint to sweet dishes.
Herbs both fresh and dried, citrus juices, wines, spirits, oils,
condiments and fruit juices may also be used to make interesting and
flavor-enhancing marinades for many foods before steaming.
It is therefore useful to always have a selection of these on hand.
As the flavors are kept within the cooking vessel, the resulting
dishes are quite intense and enjoyable.
Simple steaming suggestions include flavoring vegetables with a
squeeze of citrus juice or a sprinkling of chopped herbs, garlic or
shallots, or a drizzle of flavored, good quality oil.
Three Main Methods of Steaming
• The most popular and the quickest
method for cooking meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and light desserts, is
to suspend over boiling water, cover tightly and cook in the steam.
This method may also be used for reheating and thawing foods.
• A longer method is cooking in a
basin, bowl or paper or foil parcel over hot water.
Foods are sealed within pleated wax paper or foil and secured with
string. This is done to allow
for expansion as the steam fills the parcel or basin.
The string secures the paper to the basin and gives a tight fit to
prevent steam escaping. Food
cooks in its own juices, since the boiling water and steam do not come
into direct contact with it. This method gives an exact and even cooking
temperature throughout the cooking time, which is why it is used for
melting chocolate and other tasks requiring consistent heat.
• In the Oriental method of steaming
rice, which is used for dishes such as risotto and paella, the rice is
immersed in water or stock, covered, and steamed until the liquid has been
absorbed and the rice is cooked.
There are a few rules which should be
followed when steaming to obtain perfect results every time:
Ensure the ingredients used are of
the best quality and in perfect condition.
Choose lean meats which will be tender and not require lengthy
cooking. Trim away excess fat before using and always cut across the
grain for extra tenderness.
Ensure the lid fits well to prevent
the steam escaping and thus prolonging cooking time.
When choosing fruit and vegetables,
look for unblemished skins and good color.
Do not use “old” or bruised fruits, because steaming enhances
flavors and aromas and any slight taint in a food will be accentuated.
Make sure foods to be cooked
together are of a similar or even size so that they will cook in the same
amount of time. This applies
to chopped foods and meat, fish or poultry portions.
Do not allow the liquid in the base
compartment to touch the food, or the food will boil and not steam.
Suspend it at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the liquid.
Liquid levels in the base of the
steamer should be maintained for constant cooking, although it should
never be more than two-thirds full. Top
up with boiling liquid to maintain cooking.
Cook food in a single layer or
adjust cooking times accordingly, as cooking will be slower.
Arrange foods in the steamer
compartment with space in between to allow steam to circulate and cook
more efficiently. Always
defrost frozen meats, fish and poultry before cooking, to allow for
correct and complete cooking within the recommended times.
Place meats, fish, or juicy foods in
the bottom tiers so that they cannot drip onto foods below.
- Allow an extra five minutes for
foods cooked in upper tiers because they are further away from the steam.
- Finally, be sure to continue cooking
foods that are not cooked through or not cooked to your liking, despite
having been cooked for the recommended cooking time.