How to Steam Food in a Bamboo Steamer
Steaming food is a viable healthy option to eating.
Next to the indispensable wok in the Asian kitchen, the bamboo steamer probably comes in a close second. Bamboo steamer may seem like a side-kick to the mighty wok, but it can actually pull its own weight when it comes to healthy food preparation. After all, what utensil in the kitchen can stage a three-course dinner all in one cooking? Growing up, steaming food was almost synonymous to delicious food. Need a cake? Use a steamer. Feel like lobsters? Stick them in a steamer? How about tofu casserole? Well, use the steamer, what else? In the same way, my mother churned out a variety of healthy treats—meats, vegetables, dumplings, paos—all using a cheap bamboo-weave steamer. She even used it to brew herbal soup and reheat food. Now, what can the bamboo steamer not do?
Why Steam Food?
If an oven uses dry heat, steaming uses moist heat. The heat is generated by steam, which in turn is generated by the boiling water. Without being a technical prude, water becomes steam at 212 degree Fahrenheit. The steam is allowed to circulate in the steamer and cook the food quickly and evenly. This indirect way of cooking causes no agitation to the food being cooked, and therefore is gentler on any inherent nutrients and vitamins found in the food. It prevents food leaching (in the case of boiling) and preserves both nutritional value of the food and the aesthetic qualities (shape, color, flavor and texture) of the food being steamed.
Sounds like a winner? There is more. Steaming doesn’t require using any fat, oil or butter to enhance the flavor unlike baking, broiling, braising or grilling. There is no fear of carcinogen in charred food or dry morsels annoying your taste buds. In fact, the taste and texture can remained pure and separate if you cook different types of foods in different bamboo baskets. In addition, bamboo steamers also absorb excess moisture, so steam is not collecting and condensing on the lid and dripping on the food.
Types of Bamboo Steamer
There are many types of steamer, of course. Go to any cookware store and you will find an assortment of steaming pots, stovetop steamers, expandable vegetable steamer and electric steamers, but for me, bamboo steamer will always feature strongly in my kitchen. After all, I’m inherently biased, being raised in an Asian family.
So what’s this bamboo thingy? The basic bamboo steamer is a three piece ensemble with two stacking steamer baskets (see how you can cook 3 different types of food in at one go?). It is circular and measures 10 inches in diameter and is 6 inches high. There are also bigger sizes. The much smaller ones (4 inches) are good for steaming little eats, like dim sum. You will see these little steamers bouncing around on push carts at your Dim Sum restaurants.
Two-tier bamboo steamer
How Does it Work?
Back to our wok and bamboo steamer association, side-kick or not, they work like the yin-yan duo of utensils. The bamboo steamer is designed to fit nicely in a wok. Just fill the wok with enough water, so the bamboo steamer sits about an inch above the water level. Bring water to a boil and place bamboo steamer on top. Place food inside baskets and allow the steam to work its magic and expect a great meal. Let’s get to it.
Choices of Food
What can be steamed? Short answer—just about anything edible! Alright, that doesn’t quite answer the question, so here’s a list:
- Asian desserts
- Tofu dishes
- Herbal soup.
You can choose to season foods before steaming or add seasonings after the fact. Placing food directly on slated base is permissible but that may increase your cleaning duties. Use a plate or shallow bowl to hold food before placing it in the bamboo baskets. In Asia, they love to use banana leaves, lotus leaves or lettuce leaves to line the steamer to prevent food from sticking to the slates. Other examples include parchment paper, corn husks or if you are in a hurry, use aluminum foil, like I often do.
If you’re planning on steaming more than one type of food, always place the larger foods or foods requiring more cooking time on the lowest tier as the heat is most intense. Then place another tier with another dish to be steamed on top and another. Think tier and stagger cooking times if needed.
Cooking times differ with the types of foods, the size and quantity
of food. In Chinese cooking, there is often a commonly understood intangible element
–-the art of approximation—not very scientific but it has to do with having an
intimate understanding of how food works. This art of approximation is particularly
helpful when steaming vegetables—the vegetables are cooked when the color
becomes more vibrant. The eyes becomes the gauge, not some science.
Logic tells us that filleted fish is easier to cook than whole fish. In Asia, it’s quite the norm to steam fish whole. As a general rule, a one-inch thick fish fillet will take approximately 10 minutes. Thinner fillets may take less time. A whole fish generally takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Not sure? Use the fork test—insert fork into the thickest part of the fish—if it flakes, it’s cooked.
You can steam thinly sliced chicken strips or a whole well-seasoned chicken. Deboning chicken will shorten cooking time too. Steaming time can take anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes depending on thickness of the meat. To determine doneness, use a meat thermometer: it should read 165 degree Fahrenheit.
Steaming vegetables is quite like doing laundry—you sort them by size and types. Here’s a general guide:
- Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans: about 5 minutes
- Carrots, cabbage, corn: about 8 minutes
- Brussels sprouts: may take as long as 10 minutes
- Root vegetables—taro, yam, potatoes, sweet potatoes: anytime from 15 to 25 minutes
- Spinach, leafy vegetables: about 3 to 5 minutes
- Peas: about 2 minutes
Just remember , overcooked vegetables can be mushy.
If you purchase a food steamer, it usually comes with
instructions and cooking times for different types of food, so no guesswork is
Kick it Up a Notch
To steal the famous line from Emeril, the popular TV cook, you can “kick it up a notch,” by adding more flavor to your food. How? Add herbs to the water. The flavor of the aromatic herbs will circulate within the steamer and enhance the flavor of the food. Examples of herbs include lemon grass, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, garlic, ginger, star anise, peppers, wine, lemon juice---the list can get creative.
If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, don’t fret. You can improvise. A steaming rack is relatively inexpensive. Just pop it on a pot, fill the pot with water and place food on top of rack. Cover with lid and and steam. Just make sure water level is below the top of the rack.
You can also crunch aluminum foils into large balls and place a few of these on the bottom of the pot. These will act as a platform for your food. Just fill pot with about 2 inch of water and place dish of food on top of foil and steam.
Copyright @ Angeline Oppenheimer
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© 2010 anglnwu
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