Steaming 101

Of all the conventional cooking methods, steaming is one of the most natural and healthful ways to cook the food you eat; it’s a simple technique that allows you to experience the unique flavors of the food itself. Let’s explore why this timeless moist-heat cooking method is worth using in today’s modern diet.

steaming 101 cooking reference

When you steam food, you avoid the hidden calories of butter, oil, and other fats, leaving the bright flavors and textures of the food intact. Unlike boiling and simmering, steaming doesn’t agitate food, so it’s a perfectly gentle way to cook delicate items like seafood and shellfish. And perhaps best of all, steaming keeps all those valuable nutrients inside the food, instead of in the cooking liquid.

Steaming is a relatively quick way to cook food, so stay close. Your food is likely done cooking when it’s tender, pierced easily with the tip of a sharp knife, or in the case of vegetables, brightly colored and just barely soft. Be careful not to overcook vegetables, or your food can get mushy and taste sub-par.

What culinary problem is this method solving?

Steaming has been used to make tough vegetables tender and edible, improving the food we eat. It’s also an economical and fast way to prepare food.

What is Steaming?

Steaming is a moist-heat method of cooking that works by boiling water which vaporizes into steam; it is the steam that carries heat to the food, cooking it. Unlike boiling food submerged in water, with steaming the food is kept separate from the boiling water but comes into direct contact with the hot steam. Water boils at 212 degrees, so the highest temperature the food cooks at is 212 degrees.

steam being released from an Instant Pot

Is it better to steam or boil vegetables?

When cooking vegetables, steaming is preferable to boiling because the food remains separate from the hot water, allowing it to retain more nutrients in the cooking process. It also breaks down the cellular structures of some vegetables and can increase the amount of certain nutrients available within those vegetables. Steaming is a delicate process with little if any agitation, so it’s ideal for baby carrots, green beans, cubed zucchini, and delicate greens.

Boiling is suitable for hardier vegetables such as corn on the cob, potatoes, and beets. During boiling, some nutrients leach out of the vegetables and into the cooking water. The longer they cook, the more this is likely to happen. When making a soup or stew, this may not be an issue, as the liquid is eaten as part of the dish. However, when cooking vegetables intended as a side dish, a snack or a meal, boiling will result in vegetables that have some level of diminished nutrients. Overcooking by boiling also dulls color and flavor.

Tips to maintain a steam

The absolute best way to maintain the heat of steam is to keep the lid on your pot or steamer. That keeps the steam inside the pot so it can cook your food, as well as maintains the water level at the bottom. Once you arrive at the boiling point, you can turn the heat level down a bit but not too much that you’ve stopped creating steam.

The steaming technique

Luckily, steaming is a straightforward cooking method that needs little more than a lidded pot and maybe a steamer basket. Once you decide on the amount of food you’re going to cook, use a pot that accommodates it, with a little room left over so you don’t end up crowding your food.

Fill the pot with a small amount of water, then place the basket down into the pot and arrange the food inside the basket. If the water comes up into the basket, go ahead and pour some water out-it’s likely that your food will boil, not steam- so the water level is below the basket.

Make sure the lid closes tightly on the pot and that there is some room between the lid and the top of the food. Ideally, you need some space for the steam to surround the food and work its magic. Then turn on the heat. If your pot lid is glass, it’s easy to visually check that steam is forming—you can see it filling up the pot—but if your lid is opaque, you may have to crack the lid to check your progress.

If you like, add some aromatics, such as garden herbs or citrus slices to the bottom of the steamer basket before you add the food. This naturally infuses some flavor into the food you steam.

two beets on a silicone steamer

How to steam without a steamer

If you don’t have a steamer basket, try using a silicone or metal colander placed inside the pot instead. Alternatively, you can crunch up 3 equal-sized balls of aluminum foil, place them on the bottom of a large pot and place a heat-proof plate on top.

How to steam in the oven

Larger items like multiple ramekins of custard, or pudding can be steamed in the oven on a sheet pan filled with water. Some recipes like my roasted brussels sprouts call for the pan to be covered with foil, so check the recipe to make sure you have the right-sized equipment.

brussels sprouts steaming on a pan covered with aluminum foil

How to steam in the microwave

You can successfully steam food in the microwave; it is actually a great appliance for steaming since it heats the liquids in food. You can easily create your own steaming system by placing the food in a microwave-safe dish, sprinkling it with water, and covering with plastic wrap with a few holes poked into it. Cook for just a few minutes and you will be rewarded with perfectly steamed food. Consider buying a steamer basket made for the microwave if you find yourself using this method often.

Safe steaming

As with all cooking techniques, use caution. Steam is dangerous, because it is very hot, and can cause significant burns if mishandled. Always open the lid of the pot away from you, and make sure you use hot mitts and turn off the heat before handling the hot pot.

four brown eggs on a silicone steaming basket inside a pot

What kind of foods can you steam

Steaming is ideal for foods that need moisture, and foods that should be soft and silken rather than crunchy or caramelized.

  • Vegetables: Vegetables, including potatoes, benefit from being steamed when done properly. Beets, broccoli, and cauliflower can turn soggy when simmered, so steaming is an excellent cooking method for them. Furthermore, steaming can be a good first step to cooking certain vegetables another way; for example, steaming broccoli before adding to a stir-fry will assure they finish with a nice texture. And steaming potatoes before being sliced and pan-fried will shorten their grilling time tremendously.
  • Meat and poultry: While steaming may not be the first thing you think of when cooking chicken or meat, it still gets the job done in a very healthful way. Many home cooks are steaming their food because it needs no added fat or oil to cook. Even though most meat or pork would do better browned and seared, foods containing those proteins, like dumplings, would cook very nicely in a steamer.
  • Hard-boiled eggs: Electric mini counter appliances are available to steam eggs to your desired level of doneness, but you can steam hard-boiled eggs on the stove as well.
  • Soufflés, custards, and pastries: Certain spongecakes, custards, and soufflés call for steaming, giving silky and very moist textures to the dessert.
  • Fish and shellfish: Seafood is very well suited for steaming. The cooking liquid (usually a broth, stock, or wine to add flavor) along with aromatic herbs, are gently simmered, creating flavorful steam. The moist environment inside the steamer basket helps keep the fish tender and juicy. Shellfish can also be steamed in their own broth.
  • Tamales: Masa inside the tamales needs to be steamed before eating. This can be done in a slow cooker, on the stove, or in large batches in the oven.
  • Rice: Simmering a small amount of water and allowing the steam to cook rice is easy to do on the stove, but a rice cooker is a worthy investment because of its foolproof and hands-free abilities. Choose one that has a steam feature as well and you’ll get a workhorse of an appliance that does a couple of things at once.
  • Chinese steamed buns: Fluffy and slightly chewy, baozi, or Chinese steamed buns, are filled with various delicious ingredients, savory and sweet, and gently cooked in bamboo steamers.

Benefits of steaming

  • Time: Depending on what you’re cooking, steaming can be a quick way to cook a handful of greens or a gentle way to cook pudding or dumplings.
  • Taste: One of the surest ways to experience the purest flavor of the food you cook is to steam it. Flavors of the different foods you steam together don’t have the opportunity to mix like they would in liquid.
  • Texture: With steaming, food is left moist and tender. Because the cooking liquid never touches the food, it’s less likely to jostle or absorb too much water. This means food retains its shape, color, and texture.
  • Nutrition: No oil is needed to steam, plus nutrients don’t leach out into the water, so the vitamins and minerals are retained. Plus many cancer-fighting properties of the food are maintained by steaming.

Tools for steaming

infographic with different tools used for steaming foods

  1. Stockpot with Glass Lid
  2. Stainless Steel Steamer
  3. Instant Pot Steamer Basket
  4. Universal Steamer with Lid
  5. Microwave Steamer
  6. Bamboo Steamer Basket
  7. Instant Pot

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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4 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. James Bowman says

    Great article, thinking of steam cooking my food, also been thinking of steam cooking food for my pets, rather than doing it raw.

  2. Rosemarie Vernola says

    How do you steam rice in a regular pot on stove? You can’t use a steamer basket because rice will fall through the holes.

  3. Noellene says

    Hi Jessica I have purchased a counter steamer with no guide for cooking a pieceof silverside. Any advice will be greatly appreciated

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