Kitchn Cooking School
The Kitchn’s Cooking School

Cooking School Day 16: Steam

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)
(Image credit: The Kitchn)
  • Today’s Topic: Steaming
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Steaming doesn’t have to mean mushy carrots. In the right hands, steaming is an elegant method for gently cooking foods to perfection — and not just vegetables, but also fish fillets, dumplings, custards, and plenty of other easy meals. When was the last time you pulled out your steamer basket?

In today’s lesson, we’ll talk about why you should dust it off and use it more often.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Day 16 Lesson: Steam

What does steam cooking mean? When steaming, ingredients are elevated slightly above the surface of simmering liquid and the pan is covered. Steam from the liquid fills the pot, gently cooking the food from all sides. Since steam is at a constant temperature, it cooks the food very evenly; unlike simmering or boiling, the food isn’t jostled or disturbed during cooking. This is another moist-heat cooking method, like simmering, boiling, and braising (which we’ll be talking about in a few days).

Pro Tip!

Be careful when working with steam — while it technically can be the same temperature as boiling water, steam releases a lot more energy when it hits a surface like your hand and condenses into a liquid (called a phase change), resulting in a potentially more severe burn.

What equipment do you need to steam foods? You’ll need a metal steamer basket, a bamboo steamer, or another similar device for lifting the food above the surface of the liquid — even a colander or a plate balanced on an upside-down bowl will do! You’ll also need a covered pot or pan to steam inside; if you’re using a bamboo steamer, you can set it over a wok or skillet.

How to use a steamer basket: Set the steamer basket over simmering water, add the ingredients to the basket, cover, and steam. Make sure that the surface of the liquid is below the basket. This cooking method doesn’t involve a lot of guesswork — as long as the water is simmering and creating steam, and as long as the steam is trapped inside the pot, then you’re doing it right! Just make sure the water doesn’t evaporate completely during the cooking time; you can add more water if needed.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

Avoiding mushy, over-steamed foods: Steam for too long and ingredients will invariably absorb too much liquid and become mushy. Always set a timer when steaming so you don’t forget about the pot on the stove. It’s fine to lift the lid toward the end of cooking and check how things are coming along. Vegetables are done when easily pierced with a knife or when tender if you bite into one. Other foods have more specific cooking times, which should be specified in your recipe. I recommend checking foods a minute or two before the end of the cooking time to gauge how quickly (or slowly!) they are cooking.

What a recipe might not tell you about steaming: Make sure that the ingredients are all roughly the same size so they cook at the same rate. Also, don’t crowd the steamer basket too much or the steam won’t have enough room to circulate; cook in batches if you need to. You can infuse your ingredients with extra flavor by steaming with stock or adding herbs or spices to the liquid at it simmers.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Figure out your steaming set-up. Dig out that old steamer basket or bamboo steamer, or experiment with a colander or with balancing a plate over an upside-down bowl or ramekin (use heat-safe dishes if you do this!). Make sure you have a good pot with a lid that you can use for steaming.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Steam some vegetables! This is the simplest, most basic way to get a feel for steaming. You can use any vegetables you like, just make sure they’re all roughly the same size. Here’s what to do: How To Steam Vegetables. (And here are some ideas for dressing up your veggies after steaming!)

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: There’s a whole world of steam-worthy foods out there beyond vegetables! Try your hand at steaming something you’ve never done before — pick one of the recipes below.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

The Kitchn Cookbook & Steaming

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbookand there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today’s tip: See some tips on page 99 for the kinds of frozen vegetables we like to keep on hand for quick, last-minute steamed vegetable side dishes.

5 Recipes to Practice Steaming

The Kitchn’s Cooking School

The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!