How to Be a Cook Who Makes Steaming Sexy

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It’s day five of Cooking School, and together we’re already at the end of your first week! Today we’re covering steaming. If this conjures images of limp asparagus or sad, overcooked broccoli, we’re here to change that. Steaming is a neat kitchen trick that we find is often underused. Not only is it one of the easiest ways to cook many things, but it is also easy to get perfect food out of it (think: perfectly succulent dumplings, piles of fresh mussels, extra-jammy egg yolks, and green, crisply tender broccoli). Once you start steaming, you’ll see why cooks around the world happily apply this technique to their food. 

Why Steaming?

Steaming is an elemental way to cook food. Hot steam cooks food gently and softly, in a moist environment. Steaming does two fundamental things: It takes tough foods (like artichokes or potatoes) and makes them incredibly tender and moist, and it cooks delicate foods (like white fish or dumplings) more gently than pan-frying or roasting. Also, in terms of gear, steaming doesn’t always involve a steamer basket, or boiling water on the stove! As long as you’re trapping steam and using it to cook food, you’re steaming.

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Start Here: The Basics of Steaming

One of the things about steaming is that it is pretty simple and easy to do. You don’t need a lot of skill or tools. In fact, you don’t even need a steamer basket. (But the classic metal steamer basket is endlessly useful, is only about $15, and folds up all cute like a spaceship and is very entertaining to small children.) If you can boil water, you can achieve well-cooked food using steam. The crux is to understand what’s happening, and what the method is intended to do. 

How Steam Cooks Food

When you steam food, a liquid (usually water) boils and the vapor gently cooks the food from all sides. Since steam is at a constant temperature (212°F), it cooks the food very evenly.

There are several different methods of steaming. You can use metal or bamboo steamer baskets to elevate food above the surface of simmering liquid. Or you can steam food while sautéing, by simply tossing a small amount of water or stock into the pan, and covering it with a lid.

You can also steam food “en papillote,” where a small amount of liquid and food are wrapped in pouches and placed in the oven or on a grill. (Watch this in the video and read more in the Level Up section below.) And you can use a pressure cooker — where the temperatures can get higher and cook the food even faster — or a microwave, which heats food by acting on the water in it, and so technically steams everything it cooks. 

Steam food for too long, however, and ingredients will invariably become mushy. It’s good to set a timer when steaming and to lift the lid toward the end and check how things are coming along. Here’s a good guide to steaming vegetables, but a rule of thumb is that most vegetables are done when they are easily pierced with a knife or when tender. 

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

One reason that steaming gets a bad rap is that, unlike pan-frying or roasting, no oils or other fats are needed to coat the food and prevent it from burning. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s all too easy for steamed foods to be under-seasoned, and to taste bland. 

You can address this by ensuring there are plenty of flavors in and around the food as it cooks: If you’re making dumplings, make sure the filling is generously seasoned. If steaming single ingredients, like mussels or vegetables, add a bundle of fresh herbs (often called a bouquet garni) to the water, or use some portion of wine, or stock, or juice. Be sure to taste and season your dish well after steaming, also — perhaps with a finishing oil. This will keep the food both tender and flavorful. Here are some more ways to make steamed veggies flavorful.

What You Don’t Need

The benefits of using steam to cook is that the temperature of trapped moisture remains very precise, so no matter how you steam something, it should take more or less the same time no matter what it’s being steamed in. This means you don’t need to invest in expensive but unnecessary cookware, plug-in devices, or other tools. A simple bamboo or metal steaming basket will work 99 percent of the time, and will be just as convenient, fast, and easy to use.

Level Up! Steaming en Papillote

Cooking en papillote (French for “enveloped in paper”) takes a little more skill, but it’s a great way to steam food. It takes a (very) little bit of prep work, but you can assemble packets a day or two in advance and have dinner ready in minutes for yourself or for a party. It’s relatively hands-off, and it’s easy clean to up. 

The method works best with quick-cooking proteins and vegetables that can cook for about the same amount of time (think: salmon or whitefish, broccoli, zucchini, peas, etc). The wonderful thing about the packets is that you can easily add herbs, butter, and seasoning — things that would be harder to add in traditional steaming — to get a denser melding of flavor, while maintaining the gentle cooking.

The best materials for assembling the packets are either foil or parchment paper. Parchment makes for a more attractive presentation. But foil is easier to seal, you can throw it on the grill, and it’s easier to reseal and return to the oven if your food isn’t done. Don’t use wax paper, because it can burn. 

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration:

  • Metal steamer basket for vegetables — or, if you prefer, a silicone one which won’t scratch pots.
  • Bamboo steamer basket for dumplings and delicate foods
  • Parchment paper or foil for cooking en papillote

5 Recipes That Make the Most of Steam

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

  • How To Steam Vegetables
  • How To Steam Asparagus in the Microwave
  • How To Cook Artichokes: The Best, Easiest Method
  • How to Use a Bamboo Steamer Basket
  • How To Make the Best Garlic Butter Salmon in Foil

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Read through the primer on how to steam vegetables. Prepare your favorite vegetables by cutting them into even pieces. Boil some water, and put all the vegetables (saving one piece) into the steamer basket (if you don’t have one, use a colander or try one of these methods). As the vegetables begin to steam, put on a timer: Every 30-45 seconds, pull out a few pieces and set them aside, noting the cook time. Do this for 5-7 minutes or until the last vegetables in the pot are cooked through.

Check Your Work: Dress each of the vegetables with a little salt, and a touch of oil. Now taste them, from raw to most cooked, one by one. Which one tastes best? At what point do the vegetables go from done to overdone?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Let’s make dumplings! Follow this recipe for classic Chinese dumplings. When it’s time to cook them, try both the boil and steam methods described. If you wish, set some aside and pan fry them.

Check Your Work: Try each of the dumplings. What differences do you notice between the boiled and steamed dumplings? What are the differences in texture and/or flavor? If you also pan-fried some, try those as well. Which was the easiest method? Which was fastest?

What It Takes to Be an Expert at Steaming

Many techniques take a long time to master. Steaming isn’t really one of them, thankfully! All it takes is a willingness to try something, and a watchful eye — so you don’t let the food overcook. With a little practice, you’ll be turning out delicious steamed, braised or boiled food in no time.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

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