A steamer is a special cooking pot that allows food to be cooked above, but not in, boiling water. When food is cooked in a steamer, it retains a high degree of moisture, which helps it to emerge tender and succulent.
Advantages of Steamers
Cooking with steam offers several important benefits.
Low-fat, High-Nutrient Meals
Steamers help cooks to prepare highly nutritious foods. Steamed foods can be prepared without additional fats or oils, resulting in dishes that are much lower in calories than those that are fried, even when only a small amount of oil is used. Moreover, steaming retains nutrients that can be leached out by other cooking methods, such as boiling.
For many cooks, steaming is an ideal food preparation method because it allows several foods to be prepared at the same time. This can be a boon for anyone with a small kitchen, but is also helpful to those who need to prepare a meal using only one or two burners. There are other "one pot" cooking methods, of course, but these almost always involve a high degree of flavour mixing because all foods literally go into the same cooking space. Steamers, particularly those designed for cooker top use, generally have several layers or tiers, each of which is perforated to allow steam to continue to rise. As steam ascends through the layers, it will cook the food contained in each. This makes it possible to cook bland vegetables in one layer and highly spiced pork in another, yet have both items emerge with their own distinct taste characteristics intact.
Types of Steamers
There are four main types of steamers available today in brick and mortar stores and online shopping outlets such as eBay. Both tiered metal steamers and traditional Asian bamboo steamers are designed for use on a hob. Electric steamers that require no additional cooking equipment are also available, as are steamer models intended for use inside a microwave oven.
Steaming has been a traditional Asian food preparation method for centuries, and the implement of choice throughout that time remains a popular steamer to this day. A bamboo steamer generally consists of three large, circular baskets made from woven strips of bamboo encircled by strips of thicker bamboo to provide strength to the overall structure. Each of the baskets is identical in size and shape and the three are designed to stack upon one another. When assembled, the entire bamboo steamer unit may measure about 10 inches in diameter and six or eight inches in height, but larger or smaller steamers are also available. Smaller bamboo steamers are often used to cook and serve Dim Sum, which are tiny, delicious Asian dumplings.
Using a Bamboo Steamer
A bamboo steamer cannot be used without an additional cooking implement since it would catch on fire if set directly atop a flame. The proper way to use a bamboo steamer is to place it inside a wok or another pot large enough to accommodate it. Before setting it inside a wok or pot, the steamer should be loaded with food. The most common practice is to use lettuce leaves or parchment paper as a base in each layer before adding the food to be cooked. These impart no appreciable taste to the food. Other liner options include corn husks and banana leaves, both of which add subtle flavours. All these options help to protect the bamboo from direct contact with foods that could stain it. Food that needs a longer cooking time should be placed in the bottom layer of the steamer; those that require less cooking should go on top. After the steamer is placed in the cooking pot or wok, water should be added until it reaches the bottom rim of the steamer.
Tiered Metal Steamers
Metal steamers designed for hob use are also widely available. These are similar in concept to a bamboo steamer, allowing several types of foods to be cooked in separate layers at the same time. Unlike a bamboo steamer, however, tiered metal ones do not need to be placed inside a separate cooking pot. Instead, the bottom tier is designed to hold boiling water. A tiered metal steamer is, therefore, a complete cooking method allowing an entire meal to be prepared without the need for any other pot or pan. At online shopping sites such as eBay, this style of steam is often referred to as a "three tier steamer." The most common material used to make a three-tier steamer is stainless steel. The lids included with such steamers may be made of stainless steel or glass. The latter option offers a limited advantage in that food in the top layer can be seen without lifting the lid. In practice, this is not a terribly important consideration since steam will likely obscure the view. Moreover, a glass lid will not help a cook see foods that are being cooked in the lower layers. Glass lids do offer one significant drawback: they can develop fractures and, given a strong enough impact, can even shatter. Stainless steel lids must be lifted in order to view the food, which will release steam and cause a significant delay in the cooking process. On the other hand, they are almost impossible to seriously damage. Many cooks opt for a stainless steel lid because a three-tier steamer can represent a substantial investment compared to other types of pots and pans. It only makes sense, therefore, to purchase an item that has every chance of lasting for decades.
When microwave ovens were new, steamers designed for use in them did not exist. It was not long, however, until cookware companies began realising that there was a strong demand for microwave-safe steamers. Some microwave steamers resembled a tiered steamer made of plastic, polycarbonate, or some other type of microwave-safe material. Others are designed with a single basket that sits inside a larger pot, which means that both food and water are technically placed in the same pot. With this style, it is possible to accidentally boil food rather than steaming it, but as long as cooks are careful not to add too much water, food will remain elevated above the boiling water instead of being submerged in it. A microwave steamer will produce slightly different results than a cooker top steamer. This is because food prepared in a microwave steamer is always being cooked by means of microwaves at the same time it is being steamed. For today's busy cook, this can be a distinct advantage; it means that steaming times may be reduced by a third or more compared to hob steam cooking. Some microwave steamers can also be used as microwave pressure cookers. These can provide cooks with additional cooking options using the same implement. Cooks with limited storage space will particularly appreciate multi-use items such as these.
The only type of steamer that provides for truly standalone cooking is the variety that contains an integrated heating source. Electric steamers can be used in non-traditional cooking settings. As long as a standard electrical outlet is available, a complete meal can be prepared. Electric steamers are, therefore, a handy option for some types of camping and for those living in spaces that lack a traditional kitchen. Some electric steamers have adopted the familiar three-tier format seen in both bamboo and metal steamers, but several other designs exist. Speciality electric steamers designed specifically for cooking eggs exist, as do rectangular "mini-steamers" that are ideal for small spaces. Electric steamers have one strong advantage that is present in no other type of steamer: they allow all layers of the food to be viewed during the cooking process. A microwave steamer could be made of clear plastic, of course, but seeing through the oven's door and then through the steamer itself is largely impractical. With an electric steamer made of clear polycarbonate or another transparent material, there is nothing to obscure a cook's view of the steamed food except the steam itself.
Other Steaming Options
Shoppers can also accomplish steaming in a number of other ways, but these do require some specialised equipment. The purchase of a steamer insert can allow any regular saucepan of an appropriate size to be converted for steaming use. Another option is a steamer rack that sits inside a water-filled pot or pan.
Find Steamers on eBay
Since "steamers" can also refer to clothes steamers and cleaning tools, a simple search on eBay may not be the best way to find steamers used to cook foods. To overcome this challenge, shoppers can navigate to the category reserved for cooking steamers. To do this, start at Home & Garden and select Furniture & Living and then Cookware, Dining, & Bar. Next, click on the link for Pots & Pans and then Steamers & Poaching Pans. The left hand pane at this point will allow eBay shoppers to narrow listings displayed down to Bamboo Steamers or Three Tier Steamers. To look for microwave steamers and electric steamers, a direct search may be best. Alternatively use brand names to narrow your search, "Jamie Oliver electric steamer".
Steaming is a cooking method that has been used for centuries to produce tasty and healthy meals. Today's cooks have a wide range of options for steamers including models designed specifically for the microwave and ones that create their own heat by means of electric power. Other common options include a traditional Asian steamer made of bamboo and bright, shiny metal-tiered steamers ma