5 Essential Things You Should Know About Steaming

And no, you don’t need any special equipment to do it.

Steamed Chinese BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao) in a steamer basket

The Spruce / Abbey Littlejohn

Steaming food is fast, gentle, and doesn’t require tons of equipment or experience. Even so, many home cooks overlook this technique in favor of boiling, poaching, or roasting. The roadblock might be just a little helpful guidance on what steam can (and can’t) do, the minimal equipment you do need, and what not to do when you’ve got your steaming pot ready. Consider this your guide to getting started with steaming.  

What Is Steaming? 

Steaming is a culinary technique that uses the moist heat of simmering water to cook foods. Unlike boiling or simmering, steaming puts space between the water and the food. Often you’ll see steaming recipes that call for steamer baskets or bamboo steamers but generally you don’t need special equipment: just a pot and something to elevate the food above the surface of the water. 

What Foods Can Be Steamed? 

Steaming is very useful for making hardy vegetables softer. Steaming allows you to add sweet potatoes to muffin batter or make your own baby food puree from them, for example. But that softening power also extends to harder-to-handle produce like beets and winter squash, making them easier to eat with less prep. For example, you can steam these vegetables whole without peeling, then remove the peel and seeds post-steam. You can also use the power of steam to make hard boiled eggs that are easier to peel or to gently cook chicken, shrimp, or fish. Steaming is also used for beloved recipes like dumplings, steamed buns, tamales, and tender cakes. 

Ready to harness the power of steaming? Here are the 5 essential things you need to know. 

Dumplings in a banana leaf lined steamer

The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

 1. You don’t need a special steamer for steaming. 

Steamer pots can be bulky and if you’re not steaming every day they might not be worth the investment. A nice stockpot with a tight-fitting lid and an inexpensive steamer basket can get a lot of steaming done (and be used for other things). If you don’t want to invest in a steamer basket, a stainless steel trivet or round cooling rack can be used to elevate the food off the pot’s bottom and steam many foods. 

Here’s what’s important though: that tight-fitting lid. This keeps the gentle heat from the boiling water consistent, which helps steamed foods cook faster. It also ensures that your water doesn’t boil off immediately. 

Momos (Wontons) in a steamer

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

2. Use the right amount of water. 

Steaming is not boiling or poaching so you don’t need a full pot of water and you definitely don’t want the food touching the water. So how much water do you need? This will depend on the size of your pot, what you use to elevate the food, and how long you need to steam for, but generally we recommend about an inch depth of water. Even for short legged steamer baskets or cooling racks, one inch of water is enough to get the water heated and last through cooking. 

Need to add a little more water mid-steaming? Avoid adding cool or room temperature water to your steaming set up as it will lower the temperature and impact the cooking time. When you’ve got a longer steaming food or need to cook in batches, just keep a small pot of water simmering on the stove to refill your steaming pot. 

Place pork on a rack

The Spruce

3. There are different steamers for different jobs.  

We already covered a basic steamer setup for the stovetop, but beyond the pot, steamer basket, and lid there are many other options for steaming, too. A bamboo steamer basket can be used for cooking multiple foods at once with longer cooking foods on the bottom and tender foods on top. You can also use a bamboo steamer for steamed buns, dumplings, and so much more. Check out our favorite bamboo steamer, here. 

Microwave steaming is truly a lifesaver when you need a quick weeknight side dish and it really only requires a microwave safe bowl and plastic wrap to quickly steam broccoli, corn, and even rice or quinoa. If you fall in love with microwave steaming, you can invest in specific tools for doing just that. 

You can also steam in the oven, which doesn’t require more than a pan of water (your standard 8x8 metal baking dish works here). Some recipes might also require foil or parchment paper. 

tamales in a steamer

The Spruce / Maxwell Cozzi

4. Timing is everything when it comes to steaming.  

If you associate steaming with mushy foods, this might be because someone forgot to set a timer! Steaming has a reputation for being gentle but it is also incredibly fast and powerful. Peeled and cubed vegetables will be steamed tender in just minutes and those potatoes that take 20-plus minutes to boil will be ready for mashing in less than 10 minutes. Make sure that you set a timer when you start steaming foods—unless you’re planning to puree post steaming. 

Another note on timing: Wait until your water is boiling and there is steam in the pot before adding your food. This helps with cooking time and prevents seasoning from steaming off. 

Place in pan

​The Spruce Eats / Diana Chistruga

5. Season the food, not the steam. 

Steaming seems like the perfect opportunity for aromatics, right? But since the food and water don’t make contact you risk ruining your cook time by adding salt, spices, or other aromatics to your steaming water. Instead, season the food directly and add any aromatics you want as a layer in your steamer basket. For example, you could steam a whole head of garlic for a few minutes before you add shrimp and sausage. Then that garlic won’t be waterlogged and you can use it for garlic bread to serve alongside the shrimp or use it in other recipes.  

The best thing about steaming might be the clean up, especially if you skip those aromatics in the water. You’ll have a steamer basket to wash but your steamer pot can just be wiped out and used for the rest of dinner!

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