Food steaming is an ancient practice with many surprising modern applications, as nutritionists and food scientists have learned more about health, diet, and nutrition in recent decades.
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A food steamer is a more robust and versatile kitchen appliance than you may imagine.
It has been used for millennia, with the earliest known examples dating back to ancient China in 5000 B.C., where they were used to cook rice.
Although people often associate steaming with boiling, steaming foods is a unique way of cooking them.
Boiling foods subjects them to the agitation of the water itself as bubbles form and actively create motion in the water.
Steaming exposes food to the extremely consistent 212°F temperature of boiling water (because water always boils at the same temperature), without temperature variations or inconsistencies, but the food isn't stirred or agitated while it is cooking.
It also cooks with a deeply penetrating, moist heat, unlike the dry heat of an oven.
This makes it perfect for delicate foods, like dumplings or fish, that cannot withstand the motion and agitation of boiling; and rice or grains that need perfectly consistent temperatures, and even for cakes and baked goods that are best when tender and moist.
Even better, modern food steamers are compact and efficient countertop appliances, that bring you all the benefits of food steaming with less time, effort, and guesswork than older methods of steaming.
They save energy costs, speed cooking times, and produce more consistent results than stovetop steaming.
Benefits of Steaming Food
Steaming is one of the healthiest ways to cook food, with several advantages over other forms of food preparation. Some of the benefits of steamed food are:
Steaming preserves vitamins and minerals in your food that would otherwise be lost as steam and evaporate during cooking.
Some essential nutrients are delicate and get lost when heated aggressively.
Steam preserves more of the inherent benefits in your food and makes sure they reach your plate, preserving more folic acid, glucosinates, beta-carotene, and phenolic compounds than any other cooking method.
Reduces added calories
Other methods of cooking often involve some amount of cooking in oil or fat that adds unnecessary calories to every dish.
Steaming doesn't add any unwanted calories to the food you eat.
Easier food preparation
Steaming, especially in a food steamer, makes it very difficult to overcook or burn your food.
Steam is also gentler on delicate foods like seafood because it heats food without agitating it.
Modern Cuisines that Rely on Steamed Food
Because steamed food is not only lower in calories and more nutritious, but also an excellent way to preserve the flavors and colors of many foods, it is a prized technique in many cuisines all over the world.
In fact, some of the trendiest diets around make extensive use of food steamers. For example:
The Okinawa Diet
The people of the Ryukyu Islands once had a longer life expectancy than almost anywhere else in the world, which has called increasing attention to their lifestyle and diet.
In recent decades, the people themselves have adopted more contemporary food choices, and have more standard longevity, but the traditional diet is still highly influential among those who want to be more healthy and live longer.
Okinawans traditionally eat a lot of steamed fish or shrimp, usually with vegetables, and baked or steamed potatoes.
Cuisine minceur was developed by French chef Michel Guérard, as a way of executing classic French dishes in a way that respected flavor and tradition, but reduced calories.
He was an early pioneer in reduced-calorie cooking and spearheaded a movement that continues to influence the culinary world today.
By steaming foods, cuisine minceur preserves the color and flavor of foods, making them both beautiful and appetizing, without adding unnecessary calories.
The Macrobiotic Diet
While many of the health claims of the macrobiotic diet are overstated and often not supported by science, the fact remains that many people continue to practice the macrobiotic diet as part of a healthful lifestyle.
Steaming foods is a highly preferred method in a macrobiotic kitchen.
The CRON Diet
CRON stands for Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition and is a diet based on studies that correlate calorie restriction with a longer lifespan.
The diet was initially developed by Roy Walford, and people who follow the diet seek to eat foods that are as nutritionally dense as possible while reducing their caloric intake by approximately 20%.
Of course, steaming foods is a compliment toward achieving those goals.
How to Use a Food Steamer
While the basic operation of a food steamer is simple (add food, add water, steam), the truth is that there are some techniques to master to make the most of your food steamer.
When starting out, it's common to overcook food, which dilutes the nutrition and can ruin the texture.
Here are some tricks to help you avoid the most common food steamer errors:
Don't add too much water
Food should always be suspended above the water, never touching it. Never use more water than the manual recommends.
Don't overcook fruits and vegetables
While it's good to follow instructions or a recipe, and use your timer correctly, keep an eye on fruits and vegetables and don't overcook them.
They should remain at the height of their color, with unbroken skin.
Defrost and season meats and poultry first
For the best results with beef, fish, and poultry, defrost them before steaming.
Sprinkle them lightly with salt and pepper, and any additional seasonings you may prefer.
Enhance your steam
Of course, you can steam with just water, but don't be afraid to try using stock instead, or adding herbs to the water.
Tough herbs like rosemary, lemongrass, and thyme will perfume your steamed food without needing to be manually removed from the dish later.
Foods You Can Cook with a Food Steamer
Whether you are on a particular diet plan or not, you may be surprised by the sheer variety of complete meals you can prepare in a food steamer.
Almost every cuisine in the world has some variety of dumpling, and they are exceptional food to prepare in the steamer.
Try African dumplings like Kenkey, Central Asian Manti, Indian Ada or pitha, Indonesian Pangsit, Korean Mandu, Nepalese Momos or Yomari, Eastern European Pierogi, and a whole world of Chinese dumplings.
Dumplings come in a massive range of flavors and textures and are a single dish that can travel the entire world.
For a healthy alternative, replace the dough of a dumpling with a cabbage leaf, for a tender and delicate dumpling that is faster to prepare, with fewer calories and no gluten.
2. Fish and Seafood
There are two reasons that fish and seafood dishes are so often served steamed.
Firstly, because many fish have a delicate flesh that can flake, break, or be damaged with more aggressive cooking methods.
Secondly, because most seafood like shrimp, scallops, and calamari become tough and rubbery when overcooked.
Steaming allows these foods to be cooked perfectly every time, to enjoy their natural flavors without damaging the taste or texture of these dishes.
Steamed fish and seafood are celebrated around the world, in cuisines ranging from Japan to Italy to Nordic countries, and can embrace any flavor profile you prefer.
Vegetables are another favorite for the steamer, and not just because it preserves their nutrients.
Steamed vegetables maintain their vibrant color and exciting flavors, as well as their delicate vitamins and minerals.
When steaming vegetables, remember that you can be creative; toss them in herbs and spices before cooking for an added burst of flavor, or stir perfectly steamed vegetables into the wok just at the end of a stir-fry for perfect Asian dishes.
We all agree that we need to eat more vegetables, and steaming is the best way to do it.
4. Rice and Grains
Even if your food steamer isn't designed for rice, you can still use it to make perfect, fluffy rice.
Even better, you don't have to measure the water using this method; the rice automatically absorbs as much water as it needs.
Just fill your food steamer with water. Then, using 3-4 layers of lightly dampened cheesecloth, line the bottom and sides of the steamer's vegetable compartment.
Pour rice into the compartment over the cheesecloth, and spread it, so it makes an even layer.
The exact measurements, temperature, and timing depend on what kind of rice, how much, and your food steamer, but with some experimentation, you can get perfect rice dialed in.
This method also works for perfect quinoa, or any other grain you like.
5. Eggs and Custards
Steaming eggs delivers delicious, perfectly cooked eggs time after time.
With steam, the temperature is more gentle and more even, making them more tender and creamy.
You can steam eggs to a soft boiled or a hard-boiled consistency, and they peel perfectly.
Steamed egg custards are a staple of Japanese and Korean cuisines, as in dishes like chawanmushi and Gyeran Jjim, and are so easy to make.
Just whisk eggs and milk, pour into a single-serving heat-proof bowl (like a ramekin), wrap in foil, and steam for 10-15 minutes.
When they are done, sprinkle with chives, mushrooms, or anything else you like. It's a perfect, creamy, single-serving egg dish for any time of day.
If you haven't thought of steaming a cake, you should.
Steamed cakes are more moist and tender, with fewer crumbs. The steamed cake is another staple of Asian cuisines, and are simple and easy to make.
You can also steam a flan or pannacotta, which cook very well with the moist, even, delicate heat of steam.
7. Meat and Poultry
We often don't think of cooking meat and poultry in a food steamer, because we so often want the delicious meat browning associated with grilling and roasting.
However, steaming meat has the same effect as braising, where the meat is exceptionally moist and tender. And it's healthier because fats drip off the meat into the steaming liquid.
With this method, it is important to season the meat well ahead of time, and consider using garlic, herbs, or citrus juices to add extra flavor.
8. Frittata and Quiche
If you can cook eggs in a food steamer, you can definitely cook a frittata.
For a frittata, just mix eggs, milk, vegetables, and some meat or cheese if desired, place in a buttered ramekin, and place in the food steamer.
For a quiche, first line the buttered ramekin with pastry dough, then add the egg filling.
These dishes are simple, delicious, fast, and go far beyond breakfast and brunch.
9. Bread and Buns
Steamed buns are a staple of many Asian cuisines, and these buns are tender and delicious.
But you can also steam bread, including wheat bread and banana bread, for a more moist, tender bread with great flavor.
Steaming works particularly well for carrot and zucchini bread, because the bread is moist and has excellent texture, and the vegetables in the dough retain their fantastic color and flavor.
It's the best of both worlds.
Steaming food is an ancient practice with thousands of modern applications.
For many foods, it is the preferred way of preparing them, to retain moisture, texture, color, and flavor.
And even meals that aren't traditionally steamed can actually be prepared with steam anyway, for better nutrition with fewer calories.
Countertop food steamers are more versatile appliances than you may have thought, and people are experimenting and finding more and more ways to use food steamers in a variety of cuisines.
They are so simple to use and inexpensive to operate and open the door to a range of flavors and cooking techniques used all over the world, in ancient and modern times.