Cooking with Alison

How to Steam Cook Food

In Appetizers, Hors D'oeuvres, Snacks, Asian, Breads, Breakfast, Desserts, How To, Main Course on February 24, 2010 at pm

I received a comment asking for pictures of my steaming equipment and technique.  So here I show you how I steam food, I discuss other methods of steaming, and I go into detail about the steaming equipment that you’ll need for each method.

Steaming food is very commonly done in Chinese cooking.  It’s a very healthy way of cooking as it maintains a lot of the nutrients in vegetables and reduces the amount of oil that you use.  It results in tender veggies and moist and juicy meats.  I steam cook vegetables, dumplings, whole chickens and fish, pork spareribs, a specific Chinese egg dish, etc.  (You can do a search for some of these recipes on my website.)

Methods for Steam Cooking Food

1.  Electric Steamers

There’s nothing wrong with electric steamers; they allow you to steam several items at the same time, they come with their own timers, and specialized kitchen appliances such as this free up your stove top burners when you’re cooking for many people.  But I don’t like this appliance for the following reasons: it takes up cupboard space, it doesn’t allow you to cook large items like whole chickens, it’s more expensive and has a shorter life expectancy than the other options, it’s made of plastic and I’m more comfortable using glass and stainless steel to cook foods at such high heat, and personally I prefer to spend my money on kitchen stuff that’s more versatile.  Especially when it comes to steaming, you can easily work with what you already have and purchase inexpensive additions like racks and/or steaming baskets (detailed below). 2.  Steamer Pots

Steamer pots are basically regular pots with lids that come with stackable perforated sections for steaming.  Like the electric steamer, you can steam several different items at once.  Steamer pots are better than electric steamers because they’re better in quality, you don’t have to worry about them breaking, and they’re more versatile in that you can use the base as a regular pot and the perforated sections as colanders.  However, you still can’t steam large items like whole chickens and it’s still more expensive to buy a steamer pot set than it is to purchase a rack and/or steaming baskets. 

3.  Woks

I think the best way to steam food is with a wok.  If you don’t have a wok, keep reading because I’ll explain how to steam using a regular pot later.  On a side note, the wok is the most versatile cooking utensil (maybe one day I’ll write a post about woks too ;) ).  In order to use a wok to steam cook food, you need a lid.  I have two lids – a high dome lid that I use for steaming whole chickens (or other tall foods) and one that I use for steaming everything else.

4.  Glass Dish or Plate

Depending on what you’re steaming, you also need a good plate or a bamboo basket/steaming basket (more info below).  Here’s a picture of the types of plates that I use.  The high rimmed glass dish is my favourite.  I use plates/dishes to steam fish, chicken, pork ribs, Chinese turnip or taro cakes, a specific Chinese egg dish, Chinese New Year cake, etc.  For some food, a bamboo steamer or a stainless steel steamer basket (more info below) works better than a plate.  Note that although there are some things that steam better in a bamboo steamer/steamer basket, these items can still be steamed in a glass dish.  Also note that there are foods that are steamed in a glass dish for which a bamboo steamer/steamer basket would not work.

5.  Bamboo Steamers

Bamboo steamers are what the Chinese restaurants use for dumplings and dim sum dishes.  These come in different sizes and are popular for home use too, especially because of the beautiful presentation.  You can also use these for steaming vegetables, fish or meat.  On a side note, you could even use a wok and a bamboo steamer to smoke food on the stove top burner, but this ruins the wok for stir frying.  When using bamboo steamers, you need to line the bottom with parchment paper to prevent sticking.  Chinese restaurants use lightly greased stainless steel dim sum sheets (pictured below) to line the bottoms of their bamboo steamers.  I don’t own bamboo steamers yet – I’m sure I will one day because they’re beautiful to serve food in – so when I’m making Chinese steamed buns, dumplings or vegetables, I use a stainless steel steamer basket instead (more info below).  The stainless steel steamer basket is much easier to clean, and I’m sure it works just as well as the bamboo steamer.  Bamboo steamers are very affordable.  Stainless steel steamer baskets cost even less.

6.  Steamer Racks

If you’re steaming with a plate, dish, or bamboo steamer, you need a steamer rack as well.  You set the rack in the wok and then your plate or bamboo steamer sits on the rack.  You need the rack because the boiling water in the wok should never be high enough to touch the bottom of the plate nor should the water be able to boil over onto the plate.  The food is supposed to be cooked by the steam and not from direct heat.  Here’s a picture of different types of steamer racks.  These are inexpensive.  But I use, and highly recommend, a stainless steel steamer basket instead (more on steamer baskets below).

5.  Steamer Baskets

I love my stainless steel steamer baskets because they are incredibly versatile. Notice in the pictures below that there is a removable handle in the middle of the basket.  When the handle is removed, this makes the perfect rack for a plate or bamboo steamer set up in a wok as shown in the picture above.

As I mentioned above, you can place food directly onto the steamer basket.  So when you use a steamer basket to cook food in a wok, it doubles as a rack (because of its legs) and as a plate. The handle makes it easy to lower the basket into the wok of boiling water and to remove the basket when ready.  Note that you always bring the water to a boil first, before adding your food.

If you don’t have a wok, you can steam foods using a regular pot.  And the steamer basket is the only additional steaming equipment you need.  It’s inexpensive too.

6.  Steaming with a Pot

If you have a large pot that has a lid, you can steam foods with a stainless steel steamer basket.  The unique, fan like design of the basket allows it to expand and flatten out or close in on itself as pictured below.  This allows the basket to fit into pots that aren’t as wide as a wok while forming a basket like shape for your food as shown in the picture below.  Like I mentioned above, you place your food directly onto the steamer basket.  You only need half an inch of boiling water at the bottom of the pot because you don’t want the water to be able to touch the food.  Alton Brown figured out a way to stack several of these steamer baskets so that he could steam multiple levels of food in one tall, large pot at once.

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  1. Hi Ali – Thank you for posting such a clear and detailed explanation of the steaming process, and with utensil variations too! I will give this new-to-me technique a try. Do you happen to have a favorite way to steam whole chickens?


    • Hi Cathy :) You are most welcome! Thank you for the great idea for the post :) For steaming whole chickens, I use the wok, stainless steel steamer basket as a rack, glass dish, and high dome lid. I haven’t done it in a long time and if I recall correctly, it takes between 20 and 40 minutes (closer to 40 min) to steam a whole chicken. I don’t season the chicken at all until it’s done. Then I sprinkle some salt over the skin. When the chicken cools, I cut it up and serve it with a Chinese ginger scallion dip. It’s incredibly healthy and the chicken is really moist, so you can enjoy the simple flavour of the meat. I’ve been meaning to make this again but it won’t be for a while. So until I post the recipe, let me know if you have any other questions.

  2. Thanks that cleared things up for me i was confused between baskets and racks. I have severa steamer baskets i have a wok but i only came with flat lid i wanted to make bbq pork buns and steam in my wok i will see if my lid works or i buy a dome lid.

  3. May Peace be upon all,
    I am southeast-asian and new to this steamcooking food and i eagerly want start it as I am having enough with these unhealthy oily foods. I am planning cook almost everything by steaming. However I am really confused with the spices, as we use many spices like onions, garlic, ginger, cloves, parsley etc. And stir them in oil etc.. But in the case of steam cooking, how do I use my favourite spices and herbs for veggies, meat etc. How to get the food with burst of flavours? Lets say I marinate any item with sesame oil and place it on my steel basket, won’t the oil drop through the holes. And how to add water if it dries up in the mid of steaming. Your quick co-operation will Higly be appreciated, have a great evening ahead.

    • Hi there,

      You can still use your spices and aromatics with steaming, but you wouldn’t use a steel basket in this case. You would use a heat proof dish with an edge instead. For example, I use a glass pie dish most of the time. Also, steaming foods often result in a bit of water in your dish, so marinades and spices might get a bit watery. Instead of marinating the food heavily, another option is to leave your food very simple for the steaming process and then accompany the dish with a flavourful sauce or dip. Another alternative is to keep the drippings, reduce it in a small sauce pot and add a bit of cornstarch to thicken it to create a sauce.

      Also, you would add water down the side of your wok/pot carefully, making sure not to pour water into your plate of food.

      Let me know if you have any other questions. I really appreciate your comment!

  4. Thanks alot for your kind generousity. However, I was not able to find much seasonings, dips sauces for steam cooking. Would always be grateful if you could refer me to a vast resources of info of this whole steaming thing.
    May He grant you success and abundant prosperity in all the worlds.

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