Although techniques such as roasting, grilling, braising, and sautéing receive all the attention, one method, steaming, manages to fly under the radar.
Steaming is a moist-heat cooking method that requires no added fat, preserves nutrients, and highlights the food’s natural flavors. It’s quick, efficient, and versatile. Almost anything can be steamed, including vegetables, grains, fish, poultry, bread, and dumplings.
Using a bamboo steamer is one of the most traditional and time-honored ways to steam foods.
What’s a Bamboo Steamer?
A bamboo steamer is incredibly versatile and commonly used to steam fish, vegetables, and dumplings in Chinese cuisine. It consists of (typically) two steamer baskets that stack and a lid that fits snugly. The bottoms of the baskets are comprised of a lattice of woven bamboo strips, which allows steam to pass through and cook the food.
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Purchase of a Bamboo Steamer
When shopping for a bamboo steamer, size is the most crucial factor to consider (we’ll talk more about the size of the pan you’re using to generate steam), but a larger steamer will accommodate more food.
Some bamboo steamer baskets have stainless steel bands around the edges, ostensibly to increase their resilience. However, these bands also prevent you from using the steamer in the microwave, which, despite not being the conventional method, is possible, as steaming in the microwave is a thing.
A decent bamboo steamer costs between $20 and $40, but if you live near a sizable Chinatown, you can almost certainly find one for significantly less.
The benefits of bamboo steamers
The main advantage of a bamboo steamer over a stainless-steel steamer is relatively lightweight. Because it is stackable, you can steam multiple foods at once, especially if the foods have different cooking times. Place the food requiring the longest cooking time on the bottom, begin cooking, and then add the food requiring the shortest cooking time.
Stainless steel steamers with multiple stackable baskets are also available, so there is no reason to use bamboo unless you prefer its aesthetics. The presentation of Chinese dumplings served directly from the basket is visually appealing.
Utilizing a Bamboo Steamer
If you’ve ever observed a Chinese chef using a steamer basket, you’ll have noticed that the steamer basket fits entirely inside a wok, with the sides of the wok forming a sort of ring to keep the basket stable without its flat bottom resting on the wok.
To apply this principle to a pan with a flat bottom, such as a wide sauté pan with flat or sloping sides, you should ensure that your pan is approximately two inches wider than the basket.
Alternatively, a bamboo steamer could be placed directly on a smaller saucepan. The basket rests on the rim instead of fitting entirely within the pan. It is necessary to lift the entire steamer away from you to add additional water. It is also quite hazardous on steamships with more than two decks.
Using a bamboo steamer requires bringing water to a boil in a saucepan, placing the steamer on top of the boiling water, covering it with the lid, and steaming the food until it is done. A few inches of water at the bottom are sufficient to generate ample steam without immediately boiling away but not enough to submerge the bottom tier of the basket.
Lining the Steamer
Another issue with bamboo is that food will adhere to it, making it challenging to remove cooked food from its intricate weave. To address this issue, you should line your steamer with something.
Most used are parchment paper or wax paper, cut into rounds and perforated to allow steam to escape. Silicone mesh will also work (but must be cleaned), and some steamers include reusable cotton liners. Air fryer liners (perforated parchment paper rounds) will work flawlessly. Stainless steel steamers do not require lining.
Disadvantages of Bamboo Steamers
Another significant disadvantage of bamboo steamers is their ability to absorb odors. Therefore, if you use it to steam fish, it will smell like fish; the same goes for vegetables with strong odors, such as broccoli.
Indeed, steaming with a flavored liquid such as stock imparts little to no flavor to the food itself, as water evaporates to form steam, concentrating the flavor in the solids that remain (which is the principle behind the reduction of sauces).
However, steaming does vaporize volatile flavor compounds, and the bamboo’s porous structure absorbs these aromas. So, while a flavorful, steaming liquid will not contribute much to the taste of your food, it will undoubtedly impart a scent to your bamboo.
Additionally, bamboo steamers are more challenging to clean and less durable than other materials. And if you scorch it by accident, any food you cook in it afterward will likely smell like bamboo.
Even a brand-new steamer can impart a bamboo-like smell to the food. There are several ways to combat this, such as steaming lemon slices or tea bags or soaking the baskets in a vinegar-and-water solution, but this is not an issue with stainless steel.
How to Clean and Store a Bamboo Steamer
When cleaning a bamboo steamer, keep in mind that it will absorb the scent of dish soap. Consequently, scrubbing with hot water and air-drying are your best options. Some instructions recommend air-drying the bamboo steamer for up to two days before storing it in a cabinet to prevent mold or mildew growth.
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