Learn how this gentle, moist-heat cooking method enhances fish, chicken, vegetables, and more.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Steaming is a natural fit for fresher, lighter springtime fare because this simple technique leaves the ingredients' bright essential flavors and textures intact.

A staple preparation for a number of international cuisines, stovetop steaming offers a healthful way to cook. Many Asian dishes, in particular, use the cooking method-for example, steamed dumplings or pork-filled buns, or fish steamed atop aromatic vegetables. But other foods also benefit from steaming, dishes such as everyday steamed broccoli or green beans. This technique is easy to master, and even if you don't have a designated steamer, you can improvise with equipment you probably already have in your kitchen.

What steaming does
Steaming cooks food more gently than almost any other method. Because the liquid never touches the food, it's less likely to jostle, overcook, or absorb too much water. This means food retains its shape, color, and texture. Steaming is a great light cooking technique because it involves no fat. And unlike boiling, which leaches water-soluble nutrients from food, steaming keeps most of the nutrients-as well as the flavor and color-intact.

Best foods to steam
Steaming is ideal for foods that need moisture, and foods that should be soft and silken rather than crunchy or caramelized. For example, steamed Asian dumplings develop an irresistible soft-chewy texture, rather than a firm or crunchy one. Almost all vegetables are good candidates (with a few exceptions, such as spongy vegetables like mushrooms and eggplant or tough ones, such as hearty greens).

When selecting a protein, choose light, delicate ingredients, such as chicken breast and most fish and shellfish. But avoid bold-flavored seafood like bluefish or firm-fleshed fish like tuna. Also, stay away from beef or pork, which fare best by browning.

Steaming requires little more than a pan with a well-fitting lid and a rack to support the food over the liquid in the pan. Creating a good seal with the lid is crucial for holding in steam. If the lid doesn't fit tightly, cover the pan with foil, and then top with the lid. Many cookware sets come with steamer inserts, as do woks. If you don't have these, there are other options.
A collapsible metal vegetable steamer works well for vegetables or certain shellfish-foods that you don't mind touching or being stacked on top of each other as they cook. If you don't have a vegetable steamer, you can improvise by placing a footed metal colander in the pan (make sure the lid will close), or set a round cooling rack on top of two ramekins in the bottom of the pan.

For foods that need to lie flat or shouldn't touch (such as salmon fillets or dumplings), try a bamboo steamer. Available at most Asian markets, these steamers come with two or three tiers that can be stacked, allowing you to cook a lot of food at one time. They also come with a lid that rests atop the uppermost tier. Set this type of steamer in a wok or large skillet with an inch of water.

Steaming liquid
Consider translucent, thin liquids, such as water, broth, juice, wine, beer, or other spirits. These will bubble and steam to create a hot, moist environment. Forgo cloudy liquids such as dairy milk or coconut milk, which will curdle, or thick liquids like tomato sauce, which might burn.

Add just enough liquid to produce a high volume of steam without intruding through the holes or slats in the steamer or rack. Do not allow the water to touch the food or you'll end up boiling and, most likely, overcooking it.

No matter how firmly you cover the pan, the liquid will eventually boil away. For foods that cook longer than 15 or 20 minutes, check the liquid level occasionally. Have extra liquid boiling on the stovetop in a separate pan or teakettle; carefully add it to the pot or wok, not directly over the food.

Seasonings in the liquid can indeed permeate the food. As it cooks, the food's various cellular layers open up in the heat and trap flavors in the steam, thereby gently enhancing the overall taste. Hard spices and aromatic roots such as cinnamon sticks, lemongrass stalks, star anise pods, and ginger are good options. They impart a subtle perfume, not an intense flavor.

Finishing flavors
Because steamed foods lack the rich taste of those roasted, sautéed, or seared, many benefit from a sauce: cheese sauce for broccoli, or herbed butter for shellfish, for example. A simple vinaigrette drizzled over steamed food is also a nice finish. Sometimes, the steaming liquid itself can become the sauce, especially if aromatics and spices have been added, and if the sauce is reduced to a thicker consistency, which concentrates its flavor.

Let the food guide the sauce. Spirits other than wine often become too intense when reduced, thus overpowering the fresh-steamed flavors. Steamed buns, fish, and vegetables are delicate, a bonanza of natural flavors. A too-strong sauce will mask the subtlety of these foods.

Steam safely
Three tips will ensure success:
1. Open the lid away from you so that the steam is released to the back of the stove away from your face.

2. Use silicone baking mitts to pick up a steaming rack. Because the rack will be damp, scalding water can soak through cloth oven mitts and cause a burn.

3. Use tongs or spatulas to remove food from the steamer. Steamed food -often retains heat longer because the hot steam has permeated the food.