Steaming 101: Nutrition, Methods, and Recipes

All the how-to info — plus 22 recipes for steamed seafood, veggies, and something called spotted dick? To steam or not to steam? That is the question. Steamed food often has an undeserved reputation for being mushy or bland. But when prepared correctly, steamed food can be tender, crisp, and […]

All the how-to info — plus 22 recipes for steamed seafood, veggies, and something called spotted dick?

To steam or not to steam? That is the question. Steamed food often has an undeserved reputation for being mushy or bland. But when prepared correctly, steamed food can be tender, crisp, and super flavorful.

There are so many ways to cook veggies and proteins — so how do you know if steaming is right for you? That’s what we’re here to answer. Let’s dive in.

In the simplest terms, steaming is a fast, efficient, easy, and nutritious way to cook food.

Steaming opens up a world of fresh and flavorful possibilities. That’s why many of the world’s great cuisines have put their own spins on it for thousands of years, serving up everything from crisp-yet-tender steamed artichokes to savory dumplings to flaky, herb-infused fish.

Unlike pan frying and baking, which brown the outside of the food as it cooks (the tasty phenomenon known as the Maillard reaction), steaming results in food that’s soft and tender, with just a slight bite.

If you haven’t already discovered steaming, it’s time to get your steam on! It’s a surprisingly delicious way to prepare seafood, greens, and an endless array of other tasty stuff (read on for deets).

To get you started, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to steaming: how to do it, what equipment you need, and more. We’ve also gathered 22 recipes for everything from seafood and savory dumplings to breakfasts, snacks, veggies, and even desserts. (Desserts? Yeah! Delicate cakes, puddings, and yes, spotted dick.)

It’s as easy as boiling water — literally. Boiling water releases steam.

The food doesn’t come in direct contact with the boiling water but instead cooks in the steam it gives off. The food is suspended over the water in a basket, container, plate, or wrap, which allows it to cook in the hot steam. Covering the pot keeps the steam concentrated inside.

Scientifically speaking, when steam hits food, it condenses on the surface, transferring heat. This quickly but gently brings the food’s surface to the boiling point (212°F/100°C) and cooks it.

Steaming helps food retain nutrients as it cooks, unlike boiling and poaching, which allow nutrients to leech out into the cooking liquid.

The nutritional benefits of steaming vary depending on your ingredients and steaming methods. (Pro tip: To maximize the retention of nutrients, steam no longer than 7.5 minutes.)

A 2011 study compared the effects of steaming frozen vegetables to the effects of boiling them. Steaming increased the phytochemicals in frozen carrots, spinach, and cauliflower. It also reduced the loss of carotenoids in spinach and increased the total antioxidant capacity (TAC) of carrots and spinach. In comparison, boiling the frozen vegetables made them lose phytochemicals and TAC.

Of course, like any other cooking method, steaming doesn’t inherently make a dish healthy — “healthy” means a lot of different things to different people, and there is still a lot of research to be done on the effects (beneficial or otherwise) antioxidants in food actually have on the body.

At the end of the day, if you like the way steamed foods taste, it’s a quick and convenient cooking method to have in your repertoire, and a great way to add more whole vegetables and foods to your diet. And if you’re looking to preserve or maximize certain nutrients in while cooking, in many cases, steaming is a helpful way to do so.

Steam your tortillas!

Wanna heat up a batch of tortillas? Just wrap them in a clean kitchen towel and place ’em in a steamer for a few minutes.

Baskets and inserts

The classic choice is a Chinese bamboo steamer basket. Traditionally, this type of basket is set over boiling water in a wok, but an inexpensive steaming ring makes any stockpot in your kitchen work with a bamboo steamer.

While steaming baskets come in different sizes, The Woks of Life (one of our fave food blogs) recommends the multipurpose 10-inch size. People like bamboo because the wood adds subtle flavor to the food and doesn’t gather condensation. But the basket does have to sit in the water so the wood doesn’t scorch.

Stainless steel steamers cost about the same as bamboo (less than $20) and take up less room in your kitchen if space is an issue. They unfold to fit a variety of pot sizes, which makes them super versatile.

Silicon steamer models are also available and can typically be rolled up when not in use to save space.

There are also basket-style models and Instant Pot-compatible models, so shop around for one that suits your needs.

Machines

There are a lot of electric food steaming machines out there. Where to begin?

The usual considerations apply. Budget: $150 or $30? Cooking for a crowd or just for yourself? Most models are 5.5 quarts, but some whoppers are as large as 19 quarts (party!).

Some steamers do extra stuff like steam rice or even dehydrate food. These machines aren’t tiny, though, so the choice depends on what other gadgets you have and how much space you’ve got in your kitchen.

Cult-favorite Instant Pots are great for steaming tougher foods that take a long time to soften, like artichokes. You can pick up steamer inserts designed to fit your specific model that elevate the food inside the pressure cooker, or you can use a silicone trivet to lift the food above the boiling water.

If you don’t want to spring for an extra gadget, you can also steam a lot of foods using an appliance you probably already have: your microwave. Many frozen veggies come in microwave-safe steamer bags. If you want to use fresh ingredients, there are a variety of BPA-free microwave steaming baskets to choose from.

A DIY steamer hack

Don’t have a steamer basket insert or a steaming machine? You can improvise with a wire mesh sieve that fits over a pot of boiling water.

Wraps

This method involves wrapping the food in a packet made from banana leaves, corn husks, paper, cloth, or even silver foil. The wrap protects the food, keeps it tender, and helps the flavors meld together.

Water

Whether you’re making sweet or savory dishes, the steaming water can be plain or seasoned with herbs, citrus, and spices. Instead of water, consider using stock, court bouillon, tea, dashi, or beer or adding a splash of wine to the liquid.

Stop me before I shop online again

Do you really need a hot dog steamer? Grilled hot dogs often get unpleasantly charred, so this gadget could just be a barbecue game-changer.

Try this: Instead of steaming the hot dogs with water, swap in your favorite craft lager.

1. Don’t overcrowd your steamer basket

Steam needs airflow to travel around the food. If all the food is crowded together, the steam has nowhere to go, so your food will end up unevenly cooked, with some parts oversteamed and mushy and others crunchy and raw.

(This is why so many steamer baskets and electric steamers come with multiple levels, BTW.)

2. Take the time to cut your pieces so they’re all the same size

This advice applies to almost all cooking methods. But it’s especially important with a covered method like steaming, because you can’t keep opening the lid of the steamer to check for doneness (this will release the steam!) or remove any smaller pieces that finish cooking first, as you can with other methods.

3. Don’t use too much steaming liquid

You need only an inch or two in the pot to generate enough steam to cook your food. Waiting until the water is boiling to add your steamer basket wrap ensures that the food cooks only from steam and not from the heat of the water before it starts to steam.

Don’t forget salt and pepper

Steaming might help lock in the natural flavors of your food, but most dishes still aren’t complete without the flavor-enhancing duo of a little S&P.

If you’ve done everything else right and your steamed veggies still taste bland, chances are you skipped this crucial seasoning step. Adding just a pinch or two of each to your food after it’s steamed is enough to make a big difference.

Every culture brings a unique spin on steaming. The French cook fish to perfection inside paper packets with wine, butter, and herbs (magnifique!). In Mexican cooking, masa (cornmeal) encases a savory meat or cheese filling, which is wrapped and tied in soaked corn husks.

We gathered 22 favorite recipes from around the world so you can really put your new steaming skills to good use!

Steamed clams with garlic and wine

This easy classic gives you a winey seafood broth infused with garlic and finished with parsley that cries out for bread dipping.

Butter, of course, tastes great, but you could reduce the amount of butter by half if you wanted, and honestly, this tastes just as awesome if you use only olive oil.

Steamed shrimp with Old Bay

For a classic summertime appetizer that calls up memories of a beach house, shrimp is doused with Old Bay, the famous Maryland shore seasoning mix redolent of celery salt.

Steaming the shrimp in their shells protects them from the heat and keeps them tender. Try swapping out water for beer. We like to pair these guys with a beer from Dogfish Head, a Maryland-based brewery that makes some out-there brews — like Dead Boat Rise Old Bay Summer Ale, actually made with Old Bay!

Lemon-herb fish fillet en papillote

You can use any type of fish, from trout to cod, for this yummy recipe in which the fillets steam in a bath of herb butter, lemon, and fennel. The fish is wrapped in a parchment paper packet and, unlike most other recipes listed here, baked in the oven.

Pro tip: Careful opening up the paper when it’s done — that steam is super hot!

Whole Thai steamed fish with lime sauce

If you’ve never eaten fish cooked on the bone, you’re about to have your mind blown. The flavor is absolutely luscious, especially in this traditional version, which is served with a spicy, garlicky, umami-rich sauce.

The head and collar of the fish have a lot of edible tender flesh that you’ll be happy to pull off the bones right after you’ve devoured the rest of the fish.

Steamed sea bass

This Turkish method of steaming, called buğulama (which translates literally to “steamed”), uses layers of vegetables to make a bed for the fish. The juices created from this melding of surf and turf are lovely.

Steamed veggies 101

If anyone knows how to make vegetables into a gorgeous feast, it’s vegetarian food blogger Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks. She uses a three-level bamboo steamer and guides you through the steps and the timing (root vegetables on the bottom layer because they cook the longest).

We love, love, love the utter simplicity of serving these steamed vegetables drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, with a wedge of lemon for special friends (hello, asparagus).

Garlicy ginger-miso broccoli

Steamed broccoli tastes so damn good with miso dressing!

There are plenty of variations in the broccoli family. This recipe uses Chinese broccoli, but you can swap in broccoli rabe, romanesco, regular supermarket broccoli, or even frozen broccoli florets. Even better, it takes just 10 minutes to cook.

Steamed artichokes

Artichokes seem so fancy, but they couldn’t be simpler. And it’s so much fun to pull off a leaf, dip it into sauce, and scrape the yummy pulp off the leaf with your teeth. We love a good finger food!

Trying to avoid butter? Replace the melted butter with olive oil to make a garlicky, lemony dip.

Steamed cheeseburgers

If you’ve never heard of steamed hamburgers (no, not steamed hams), you’re probably not alone. Ted’s is a 50-year-old institution in Meriden, Connecticut, that keeps winning spots on lists of best burgers in the nation.

Pork and shrimp dumplings

Making dumplings isn’t really that hard. The hardest part is figuring out how to do that crimp fold. Ours are still looking a little, uh, rustic, but we’re going to keep on trying. Oooh, wait a minute — that last one didn’t look too bad.

Can you tell we love cooking with friends and family? Why not make this a stay-in date night or dinner party activity? Pair these with a nice crisp light lager.

Cantonese steamed chicken

The actual cooking time is just 16 minutes for this dish of marinated chicken thighs steamed with mushrooms, goji berries, red dates, and lily buds. So head to your favorite Asian market and stock up on these dried ingredients.

BTW, dried lily buds are unopened day lilies. Fresh day lily petals (which last only a day, hence the name) are edible too. Toss them into salads, as long as they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides.

A warning: Not all lilies are edible (and those that aren’t are incredibly toxic), so make sure to buy them at a grocery store, not a flower shop.

Steamed and roasted turkey

No more dry turkey breast! This two-part method for steaming and roasting is adapted from our greatest teacher in the kitchen, Jacques Pépin. The turkey is brushed with a sweet, sour, and spicy apple cider glaze.

Steamed hard-“boiled” eggs

Why didn’t we think of this before? Maybe because the word “boiled” just stuck in our brains. But steaming the eggs actually makes them easier to peel. Take that, annoying white membrane.

Steamed silky egg custard

How does the texture get so amazingly smooth? You gotta beat the eggs without getting them frothy. Then pour them through a fine-mesh sieve to make sure they have no icky clumps.

The blogger behind this recipe gives a lot of credit to the domed lid of her steamer. Condensation rolls down the sides rather than dropping from the top, which means she doesn’t have to cover each individual ramekin.

Serve these plain or with your favorite savory add-ins, like cheese, scallions, or herbs. And doesn’t everyone love cute individual ramekins?

Chinese steamed buns

These soft white buns are the basis for bao, which are still slaying on restaurant menus. If you love a cooking project, these are worth a try. Fill the steamed buns with a slice of pork belly, Korean fried chicken, and pickled vegetables.

These steamed buns are awesome with sausages or ham too.

Indian Idli steamed rice cakes

These are a favorite of ours on Indian restaurant menus: steamed rice cakes with a mild tangy flavor and light texture, topped with sambal or chutney. We think they go with anything, and they’re great at absorbing any liquid in stew-like dishes.

Black bean tamales

Admittedly, these are time-consuming to make. But they taste soooooo good, and they’re fun to make with family.

Keep your kitchen under control by asking each person to bring a prepared component of the dish — masa; fillings like black beans, cheese, or pork stew; soaked corn husks; and add-ons like salsa.

Then get together, put on some good music, and rock and wrap.

Individual steamed lemon puddings

To get the full-on amazing texture of these soufflé-like cakes with a surprise lemon pudding filling, serve them warm. We love to eat these in late winter, when our palates are craving some sunshine.

Mary Berry’s summer berry pudding

Our Designated Favorite Old Person from “The Great British Baking Show” developed this easy, do-a-day-ahead summer dessert. This version is made in a loaf pan, which is so much easier than an ornate Charlotte mold.

Use 2- to 3-day-old bread for this. And why not replace the oh-so-English white bread with slices of an artisan whole-grain sandwich loaf? The sweet nuttiness of the grains will complement the berries.

Chinese steamed Xishi cake

Named after a fabled beauty in ancient China, this airy, light, vanilla-scented cake gets its lift from five eggs beaten into a silky froth. Cake flour contributes to the weightless texture. If the concept of a steamed cake is new to you, this will blow your mind.

Chocolate pudding cakelets

Nothing says love more than individual ramekins filled with a light, puffy, creamy chocolate. This recipe uses Dutch processed cocoa for a milder flavor that gets amped up by bittersweet chocolate.

Spotted dick

If you’ve always wanted to know what the heck this English dish with the peculiar name is, well, first of all, it’s a dessert. A light, steamed cake studded (spotted) with currants, to be specific.

Traditional recipes use suet, a fat made from the loins and kidneys of livestock. If that makes you cringe, just use butter. There’s also vegetarian suet.

It also calls for caster sugar, which is essentially finely ground granulated sugar. If you can’t find caster sugar in the United States (where it’s often labeled “superfine”), you can grind regular granulated sugar in a spice grinder.

Traci J. Lewis

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