Buyers’ Guide to Food Steamers
Choosing the best electric steamer should be a pretty straight-forward task, but for most people – especially those new to steaming foods – it can seem a little overwhelming; there are literally thousands of different brands, models, and types of steamers out there.
If you read my article on how I lost weight with a low fat diet, you know I rely on steaming as one of my preferred cooking methods.
In this article, I’ll do a deep dive, and go over everything you need to know about choosing the perfect steamer for your cooking needs.
A (Very) Brief History of Food Steaming
Humans have been steaming foods for thousands of years – in fact, it’s often considered to be one of the oldest forms of cooking.
While steaming is often attributed to Asian cultures – both the Chinese and Indian peoples have been using steaming as a primary cooking process for more than three thousand years – other cultures around the world have been steaming their foods for millennia as well.
One prominent example of this are the steam pits that archaeologists have uncovered in the American southwest. These stone pits were used by the native populations for food preparation dating back as far as 10,000 years ago.
So in short, food steaming has been around for a long time. Luckily though, we’ve learned a lot in the past few hundred years, and steaming techniques and tools are continuing to improve to this day.
Modern electric steamers are exponentially more efficient and a far cry from the big pits or bamboo baskets that were predominantly used in the past.
Food Steamer Varieties
This guide focuses primarily on electric food steamers. That’s because they’re the easiest to use, have the highest capacity, and are the best choice for nearly all home cooks.
But electric steamers are only one type of commonly found steamers – there are also steamer baskets, bamboo steamers, and microwave steamers.
Electric steamers are the easiest to use, have the highest capacity, and are the best choice for nearly all home cooks.
Here we’ll discuss all four types in a little more depth so that you can be sure that you’re purchasing the right style for your cooking needs:
Steamer baskets are the most basic and traditional form of westernized steamers. Typically made out of stainless steel, these one-piece baskets fit right into your stovetop pot.
This simple houseware is inserted directly into a pot or pan, and then used on the stove.
The concept is rather simple, you just add a little bit of water into the pot, place your veggies in the basket and then close the lid to the pot. As you boil the water, the steam will stay contained and cook your veggies.
For vegetables, the overall cooking time will vary based on the type and amount you are cooking. Typically, you’ll want the veggies to be soft enough that a fork can easily go through them, but still have a bit of firmness to them. Soggy vegetables are a sign they’ve been cooked to long (I know – “thanks, Captain Obvious.”).
Steaming meat is a little trickier. Fish should start to flake away at the thickest part when it is done. Chicken should always be cooked all the way through the middle.
In essence, all steamer baskets do is hold the food that you’re cooking above the water you’re boiling in your pot. They can get the job done, but there are certainly more efficient, larger capacity options (that I will recommend).
I’m not really a fan of steamer baskets; I find it’s easy to scratch the inside of your pot with the edges and metal legs of the basket.
Alternatively, you can also find silicone steamer baskets.
The silicone steamer baskets are gentle on your cookware, their flexible structure makes them more difficult to handle.
On the plus side, though, steamer baskets are inexpensive and easy to store.
Bamboo Food Steamers
Used almost exclusively in the preparation of Asian cuisines, bamboo steamers are one of the oldest types of steamers in existence.
Bamboo steamers can become seasoned over time and add unique character to the foods they cook, but they’re also pretty limited in their applications.
If you want to focus on types of food like dim sum or small sides of vegetables, a bamboo steamer may make sense for you. For all other uses, they’re probably not your best choice.
Some people who use bamboo steamers do so by putting them directly into an electric steamer. This provides the simplicity of electric steaming while maintaining the flavor and texture characteristics imparted by the bamboo.
Microwave Food Steamers
An affordable alternative for someone who only wants to make the occasional steamed side dish, microwave steamers are typically small, one or two-tray units which can be put right in your microwave for quick meals.
Video: Sistema Microwave Steamer Demo
All you do is place your ingredients on the tray, fill the bottom with water, and set the microwave timer according to the steamer’s instructions.
The downside of microwave steamers is that they simply can’t hold the amount of food – or cook it as evenly – as electric steamers.
Electric Food Steamers
For anyone serious about preparing steamed meals on a regular basis, investing in an electric steamer is a no-brainer.
That’s because they’re easy-to-use, hold a high capacity of food, and are able to steam your ingredients with only the minimal amount of time and energy used.
Electric steamers often come with multi-tray designs, meaning that you can cook an entire meal at one time, rather than having to prepare each dish separately on the stovetop.
Electric steamers are simple to use, and offer high capacity and efficiency.
Higher-quality electric steamers also have digital timers and Stay Warm settings to help ensure the proper cook time, every time.
Best Electric Food Steamers
There a some very good quality electric steamers on the market, and I have three excellent recommendations for you:
Secura Electric Food Steamer
This 1200 watt, 8.5 quart stainless steel digital steamer takes only 15 seconds to generate steam, so it’s ready to start steaming your meal whenever you are!
From the LCD display, you can also set the “Delay Start Time” with 1 hour increments up to 10 hours, and the “Keep Warm” mode will keep your food at serving temperature until you’re ready to eat.
This model provides stackable 2-tier food steaming, a non-slip upper lid knob, an anti-scalding handle and an easy to ready water line.
The Secura steamer comes with a 2-year warranty.
Cuisinart Cook Fresh Digital Glass Steamer
The Cuisinart Cook Fresh Digital Glass Steamer delivers powerful steam from the top down, surrounding food to cook quickly and evenly. Steam is created in 38 seconds.
Its 1-liter water tank conveniently lifts off (so you can fill it under the faucet), and its large 5-liter glass cooking pot and lid are entirely dishwasher safe.
There are 5 pre-programmed food settings: seafood, poultry, grains, vegetables and manual, plus a “Keep Warm” setting.
The LCD control has a 60-minute countdown timer, an audible alert, and start/stop, pause and reheat buttons.
Video: Cuisinart Cook Fresh Digital Glass Steamer Demonstration
This video from Cuisinart demonstrates cooking a wonderful (and fast) fish and vegetable meal.
You’ll get a good idea of it’s capacity, and you’ll see both sides of its dual-sided interior cooking tray.
Reviews for the Cook Fresh Digital Glass Steamer are excellent. It’s described as “beautifully made,” and “impressive.”
Several purchasers reported that it does a great job on frozen food, and that it’s is simple to clean.
A reviewer noted that the interior metal tray does get hot (you can wear gloves or wait until it cools to remove it), and another reviewer found the audible beep (when programming in your setting) annoying.
Euro Cuisine Electric Food Steamer
The Euro Cuisine Electric Food Steamer is a gorgeous, large capacity steamer that you’ll love looking at on your kitchen counter!
Each tier of this steamer provides 8.5 quarts of cooking capacity (17 quarts total cooking capacity)!
It features a 4.5 quart water tank, and it’s large LCD display offers a 90 minute timer.
This steamer automatically switches to the “warm” setting when the food is ready.
Reviewers say this model is easy to use and clean, and provides “tons of steam.” Purchasers have a near consensus that this good looking steamer is well worth the money.
Reviewers note that there are no recipes/cooking instructions included with this model, so make use of the internet to familiarize yourself with different recipes and food cooking times. I’ve provided some suggestions and guidance below:
Steam Cooking Times
Filleted fish is the easiest to cook by the steaming method. Season the fish and lay in a single layer in the steamer.
A one-inch thick fish fillet will steam cook in approximately 10 minutes. Thinner fillets will take less time.
Fish is done when it can be flaked with a fork.
To shorten cooking times, chicken should be de-boned before steaming. Boneless chicken breasts are well suited for steaming.
Season the chicken, and place in the steamer. Steam for 10 to 25 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat.
Use a meat thermometer in the thickest portion of the meat to determine doneness; the thermometer should read 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Small Cornish hens can also be split in half and steamed; like all poultry, the hens are cooked at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Steamed chicken is a versatile main course protein – perfect for meals at home and packing in lunches.
Vegetables should be sorted by cooking times in a steamer.
- Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and green beans will be crisp tender in approximately five minutes.
- Carrots, cabbage and corn might take as much as eight minutes to cook.
- Peas take the shortest cooking time at two minutes.
- Brussels sprouts take the longest at 10 minutes.
Adjust cooking times to suit your own tastes, either shorter or longer, but take care not to overcook as the vegetables can easily become mushy.
Best Food Steamer Recipes
For great steamed recipes online, I recommend The Food Network’s Food Steamer Recipes They range from the simplest to the most impressive. They’re also clearly laid out, and many include videos. It’s a good place to start.
There are some lovely steamer recipes at Food & Wine, and I recommend having a look at those for inspiration, as well!
Advantages of Steaming Food
Sometimes it isn’t just what you eat: it’s also how you eat it. You may be eating a diet that consists solely of healthy protein, vegetable, and fruit selections, but if you’re frying it all in oil, you aren’t doing your body any favors.
That’s where steamers step in.
Steaming your food is by far one of the most effective ways to prepare an all-around healthy meal with a minimal amount of effort.
Not quite convinced just yet? Well then let’s go over a few of the biggest benefits of steaming food:
Unlike frying or boiling, steamed food maintains its structure – you don’t have to worry about ending up with mushy, unappealing vegetables.
When you steam your food, you’re allowing it to retain nearly all of its healthy vitamins and minerals. Other types of cooking will leach these nutrients out.
Taste and Color Retention
What you put into the steamer is what you get out: the food color and taste will remain unchanged.
Fat Free Cooking Option
No oil is needed to steam food. That means you’re avoiding all of the unhealthy fats associated with many other traditional cooking types.
Steaming is Versatile
Most people associate steaming with vegetables, but you can steam nearly anything including meats, eggs, and seafood.
Steaming is Efficient
Because food steamers lock in steam rather than leak it out, they’re able to maintain their heat with less effort – and lower energy consumption – than other cooking types.
Steaming Drains the Fat
When you cook meat in a pan, the fat that’s being rendered off absorbs back into the meat. When you’re using a food steamer, the high-cholesterol fat drips off instead.
Steaming Tenderizes Tough Proteins and Fibrous Vegetables
Steaming works by softening the tough fibers found in many meats and the outer layers of vegetables. This also makes these foods more easily digestible for enhanced health benefits.
Steaming is Smoke and Odor Free
When you’re cooking on the stove, it’s hard to avoid smoke and grease smelling up your home. With a food steamer, you don’t need to worry about any annoying smoke or lingering cooking odors.
Choosing Your Food Steamer
Choosing the best food steamer for home cooking will have a lot to do with your individual needs and expectations.
Before settling on a specific brand or model, make sure to consider these factors:
Frequency of Use
The number one question that you need to ask yourself before purchasing a food steamer is, “How often am I going to use it?”
If you’re planning to eat more steamed foods as part of a dietary change, you’re going to want to invest in a quality steamer that can be used for a variety of different dishes and meals. This means avoiding small-capacity options or low-cost brands that aren’t likely to stand up to the test of time.
For a dietary change, invest in high capacity, high quality food steamer.
Just planning to make the occasional steamed meal or dish?
If you don’t anticipate getting a whole lot of use out of your steamer, you’d probably be better off saving your money and purchasing one of the smaller or more affordable options.
Volume of Steamed Food
Food steamers come in all shapes and sizes – from tiny 1-quart traditional steamers to massive 10-quart or larger electric steamers.
If you’re only planning to steam the occasional side dish, a tiny, space-saving food steamer is probably your best bet.
If you’re planning to use your steamer to prepare entire meals for your family, you’re going to want to focus your search on models that have a capacity of at least 5 quarts.
For larger households – or if you plan to steam food for events or other people as well – you may want to consider a larger units that’s 8 quarts in size or bigger.
If you have a gigantic kitchen with a seemingly unlimited amount of counter space, you can skip right over this section. But if you’re like most of us, finding the room to store another small cooking appliance can be a real challenge.
Before purchasing any food steamer, make sure that you take a look at its dimensions and verify that you have the appropriate amount of room to store it.
Are you keeping it on the counter all of the time? Do you plan to put it away in a cabinet or pantry when it’s not in use? These are just a couple of the questions you should be sure to ask yourself – and have an answer for – before making your final purchasing decision.
How to Clean Your Food Steamer
Every wonder why some steamers last for what seems like forever, while others have a tendency to break after just a year or two?
While brand and construction quality has a lot to do with it, one secret to owning a food steamer will last for years to come is to make sure that you’re appropriately cleaning it after every single use.
To make sure you’re food steamer is fully cleaned and as well-maintained as possible, I recommend following these six steps:
- Empty your steamer and allow it to fully cool down naturally.
- Remove the steamer trays and soak them in warm, soapy water for at least 30 minutes.
- After they’ve soaked, used a non-abrasive sponge to scrub the trays and remove any leftover food particles.
- Unless your food steamer trays aren’t dishwasher friendly (don’t worry: nearly all modern electric food steamer trays are), you’ll next want to run them through your dishwasher’s cleaning cycle to ensure they’re spotless and sanitized.
- While your trays are soaking or running through the dishwasher, take the opportunity to use your non-abrasive damp sponge to gently wipe down the base of your food steamer.
- If you use well water, or if your area is known for having hard water issues, use a half-vinegar, half-water mixture to clean your steamer’s heating element at least once a month. By filling your unit with this mixture and running it for twenty minutes, you can eliminate and prevent hard water buildup on the heating element. Just make sure you clean out the reservoir tank well with pure water afterwards.
Food Steaming Tips and Tricks
Food steamers are pretty straight forward and easy to use: all you have to do is put in your raw ingredients, fill the water reservoir, and turn the appliance on.
But if you really want to get the most out of your electric steamer, there are a number of best practices that you should follow:
- When cooking meats, make sure to use lean cuts, or at least trim away any excess fat before steaming.
- Make sure that your steamer is well sealed so that no steam can escape.
- Use only high-quality fruits and vegetables – since foods retain their structure, using blemished or aging ingredients will cause them to retain – or even accentuate – their imperfections.
- If you’re preparing multiple items together in the food steaming, make sure that you’re paying attention to their different time requirements.
- With food steamers that have the trays right above the water reservoir, make sure that your food is placed well above the water line to avoid it boiling instead of steaming.
- When using a multi-tray steamer, be sure to arrange the food so that the steam can properly flow between the items and through the different levels of the unit.
- Always place meats and other “juicy” foods on the bottom tray. This will keep them from dripping onto your other dishes.
- During meal preparation, the items which have the shortest steaming times should be placed on the top tray. That’s because lower levels inherently receive more steam and heat than trays at the top.
- Ready to mix up your steamed dishes a little bit? Add some flavor to your foods by adding stock, spices, or wine to your cooking liquid reservoir.
Hey! Blogging can be a lonely business … I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on food steamers – drop me a comment below!
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