How often can you say this – steaming food can be sexy. Previously thought of a cooking method only for the health-conscious, steaming is slowly catching on amongst home cooks for its many benefits. You can stretch your imagination with this method, not only saving it for when nursing a fever or cold. Professionals turn to it for its rich flavours, so you can replicate their methods at home too, and impress your family and friends. All you need are simple kitchen tools.
Steaming works by boiling water continuously, resulting in the water turning into vapour then into steam. The heat is brought by steam to cook your fish, meat or vegetables.
Steaming is popular to help manage a low-fat diet, particularly for those looking to cut down on bad cholesterol. This method removes fat from meat that can be easily discarded. Lower cholesterol, lower calories. Steaming rarely uses oil, so fat-free regimes prefer it.
We all know that cooking alters the look and shape of vegetables, and also its nutrient content. Cooking helps us digest ingredients better and allows the body to absorb what’s necessary like antioxidants and essential minerals to stay healthy. Steaming is one of the best cooking methods for preserving nutrients, including water-soluble vitamins, which are sensitive to heat and water.
Researchers have found that steaming broccoli, spinach, and lettuce reduces their vitamin C content only by up to 15%, compared to boiling, which is double or even triple the loss. Another study produced in 2009’s Journal of Zhejiang University SCIENCE B, found that steaming resulted in the least loss of nutrients in broccoli, including vitamin C and beneficial plant chemicals called glucosinolates and chlorophyll.
Vitamin C is water-soluble and sensitive to heat. This vitamin tends to leach out of vegetables when they are immersed in hot water – making boiling a disadvantage on this point. Also, other minerals tend to get cooked away with boiling, as a British Journal of Nutrition 2002 study found that more than 50% of folate is lost when food is boiled.
Steaming also preserves the fibre, flavour and colour of the vegetables as it allows the vegetables to be kept close to their natural raw state as much as possible. As an oil-free method, you can keep your kitchen tidy and clean, while saving time by stacking multiple steamers – be it bamboo or metal – on top of one another.
Home kitchen advice on steaming
So now that you’re convinced that steaming is worth your while, use these tips when preparing your favourite dishes.
Water – adding the right amount is what matters, if using a bamboo or metal steamer, you add about one to two inches of water to the pot. The water line should not go above the steamer. Boil the water first, then insert your steamer. It helps speed up the cooking process but also avoids your food from being overdone or mushy. Keep your lid tight so you don’t over boil the water and risk burning the pot. Bear in mind steaming food in bamboo steamers may take longer due to its porous nature compared to metal ones.
Vegetables take a few minutes to steam. A tip would be to turn off the heat after hitting boiling point for a couple of minutes to avoid overdoing it. Add flavour to your water by throwing in some chicken stock, or spices. The flavour from the broth can slowly seep into the vegetables or fish that you’re steaming.
What type of food can you steam?
Almost anything really, from meat to vegetables. But for a change, you could try a different take on this Indian recipe – steamed palak vada. A typical vada is a deep-fried savoury Indian doughy snack, but this recipe calls for the spinach based vada to be steamed instead and served with chutney.
Or how about trying something oriental, by making cabbage parcels or cabbage rolls. Cabbages are great wrappers to replace flour ones, and you can fill them with chicken, pork or mushrooms. Serve them with Chinese black vinegar.
Desserts are great too via steaming, leaving cakes moist and delicious. This recipe features a mouthwatering chocolate cake that is topped up with ganache and is one for the recipe book. Or try Ma Lai Go, or Malay kuih or Malay dessert – which is an easy to make steamed fluffy brown sugar sponge.
New steaming styles
You may be used to conventional styles of steaming, layering your steamer on top of one another and let the heat do the work. But how about trying this French method – en papillote or in paper, or packets. Chefs use this technique to cook fish and involves placing the ingredient in a pouch made of parchment paper or foil, along with some liquid. You can use wine, and add herbs including thinly sliced vegetables. The packet is steamed in an oven or a grill, allowing the fish to cook in its own steam and liquid from the wine.
Meanwhile, this author offers a different technique – steam frying. What this means is that you fry the food briefly in a little oil, then add stock or wine, and water. Cover the pan and allow the food to cook until it’s almost done. You can then take off the cover, and allow the heat to boil off the remaining liquid, as much as you like.