In this era of programmable, appliance-specific cooking, it’s easy to overlook one of the most reliable, widely used ways to render food properly: with steam. It is that simple. If you can boil water, you can learn to steam foods. And that, in turn, will make you a better cook.
Steaming long has been considered a healthful way to cook. Steamed vegetables retain more of their nutrients and unique flavor, even when different ones are cooked together. No added fats are needed. The chance you’ll overcook ingredients is greatly reduced because of the gentle nature of steam heat — whether it’s fish and seafood, whole eggs, dumplings, custards, rice, fruit or even certain cuts of steak.
Pressure cookers and electric multicookers harness the power of steam, of course. But you can steam foods on the stovetop, in a conventional oven and in the microwave, all in fairly short order. Packet, or en papillote, cookery is basically creating a steamy environment on a small scale. A bain-marie or hot-water bath achieves the same steaming results for foods in ramekins. Bamboo steamer baskets allow for steaming multiple ingredients with one pot or wok, and they can be lined with parchment paper, cheesecloth and edible leaves.
Professional kitchens use special equipment such as perforated pans (available at restaurant supply stores and online), but home cooks can achieve the same results with a strainer, saucepan and lid, as well as a simple bamboo steamer. The liquid transformed by heat is typically plain water, but when you add aromatics such as lemongrass, ginger and citrus, they can infuse steamed foods with wonderful aromas. Beer works, too: In a 2015 recipe for The Post Magazine’s Plate Lab column, chef-restaurateur Victor Albisu chose to steam pork shanks over a citrus-chicken broth-IPA combination instead of braising them. The meat becomes incredibly tender with hours of low-and-slow cooking without falling apart or off the bone as it would when it spends that time submerged in liquid.
Are you ready to give steaming a try? Here’s how to handle some foods for which the method works especially well:
• Peas: Place fresh or frozen ones in a perforated double-boiler type pot or in a fine-mesh strainer set over a few inches of simmering water in a pot. Cover and cook for about two minutes (add about 30 seconds for frozen), until the peas are a brighter shade of green.
• Sticky rice: A glutinous variety of rice or sushi rice typically calls for a long soak and rinsing. Then it takes about 20 minutes of steam heat, in a cheesecloth-lined bamboo steamer over a pot of simmering water. The grains will be lovely and separate.
• Frozen rice: Place in a fine-mesh strainer over a pot of simmering water. Cover and defrost until you can break up the block into individual grains.
• Winter squash: Cut into thick slices or wedges. Place in a shallow glass baking dish with 2 to 4 tablespoons of water. Microwave on high for four to six minutes, checking after the first four minutes, until tender enough to pierce with the tip of a knife.
• Small potatoes: Place 8 ounces of yellow-fleshed potatoes in a glass or other microwave-safe baking dish with a 1/4 cup of water. Cover with a vented glass lid or partially with silicone lid or with vented plastic wrap that does not touch the food. Microwave in five-minute increments until fork-tender.
• Scallops: Line a bamboo steamer with a few layers of wide lettuce leaves. Place the scallops on the leaves, cover and steam for about eight minutes, or until the scallops are just opaque all the way through.
• Tenderloin steak: We had to try this method from Keith Schroeder, author of “Cooking Light Mad Delicious,” and came away impressed. Steaming lean medallions takes about eight minutes and cooks them to an even medium-rare, much as sous-vide can accomplish. But steaming also turns the meat an unappetizing color, so he coats them in a port-wine reduction as soon as they’re done. They look and taste restaurant-quality presentable.
Keep in mind that steam heat is intense, so be sure to open or uncover your just-cooked foods with a protected hand and with the steam directed away from your face.