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Hot Tips on Steam Cooking


Hot Tips on Steam Cooking


by Jenny Stacey



Steaming, a cooking method thought to date back to before the discovery of fire, when foods were cooked over hot springs or stones, is now as popular as ever.  Oriental cooking has always made great use of steaming as a main cooking method, both for health reasons and because ovens are very rare.  Many foods are steamed, rather than baked, their main staple, rice, being perfect for this.  The Chinese have used steamers for at least 3000 years or more, with early steamers being made in stoneware and originating in the province of Yunnan.  From around the eighth century, thin cypress strips were used to make steamers and today they are constructed from bamboo with slatted bases.  They may be stacked, usually up to three tiers, and placed over a wok containing boiling liquid.  A tight-fitting bamboo lid seals in the steam.

            The classic steamer contains a chimney through the center, which distributes the steam among the tiers.  A variation on the theme is found in Hawaii, where for many years the Kalua or traditional pig roast has been steamed in a pit in the ground.  Stones and wood are used to create and retain the heat in the pit, which is covered with layers of leaves.  The pig is then cooked in the steam and smoke.

            So as you can see, steaming is no quirky fad, rather a tried and tested, versatile and rewarding method of cooking.  Gone are its associations with stodgy, bland foods — the true versatility and richness of steaming has been rediscovered.  Healthier, more nutritious dishes may be easily prepared by steaming; the results are colorful and flavorful, textures fresh.

            Suitable for most foods and a surprising variety of recipes, steaming has great advantages over other cooking methods.  A far higher level of nutrients, vitamins and minerals is retained than by other cooking methods.  Steam cooking reduces Vitamin C in vegetables by 40% whereas boiling reduces it by 70% because it is lost in the cooking water.  Steaming does not immerse foods in water into which nutrients, particularly in vegetables, can escape.  Foods are generally more nutritious when steamed, and as additional fat is not required for cooking it’s also healthier and lower in fat.  Even in recipes where higher fat content ingredients are called for, lower fat alternatives can generally be substituted, such as low-fat milk, cream and cheese, and poultry is always skinned to reduce fat content. Boiling does remain preferable for some vegetables such as mustard greens, turnip, collard greens or kale, which have strong flavors, as these may be imparted to other foods during steaming.

            Steaming is a moist cooking method, using the natural convection of heat that is traveling in air, steam or liquid.  This gives tender results because foods are not exposed to intense, dry heat as with other cooking methods.  Steaming protects foods, which are contained within sealed, perforated or slatted tiers, wax paper or foil parcels or heatproof basins, and never come into contact with the heat source or steam-producing liquid.  The tiers must sit at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the liquid so that it does not touch the food and overcook it. Steam produced from the heat of the liquid builds up inside the steamer, cooking food in a very moist atmosphere.

            Flavorings may be added to foods in a variety of ways.  Either in the cooking liquid, which may be water flavored with a bouillon cube or herbs and spices, fresh stock or wine, or by marinating foods before steaming.  Spices such as ginger, chile, cumin and coriander may be added to savory recipes, and nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mint to sweet dishes.  Herbs both fresh and dried, citrus juices, wines, spirits, oils, condiments and fruit juices may also be used to make interesting and flavor-enhancing marinades for many foods before steaming.  It is therefore useful to always have a selection of these on hand.  As the flavors are kept within the cooking vessel, the resulting dishes are quite intense and enjoyable.  Simple steaming suggestions include flavoring vegetables with a squeeze of citrus juice or a sprinkling of chopped herbs, garlic or shallots, or a drizzle of flavored, good quality oil.


The Three Main Methods of Steaming

• The most popular and the quickest method for cooking meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and light desserts, is to suspend over boiling water, cover tightly and cook in the steam.  This method may also be used for reheating and thawing foods.

• A longer method is cooking in a basin, bowl or paper or foil parcel over hot water.  Foods are sealed within pleated wax paper or foil and secured with string.  This is done to allow for expansion as the steam fills the parcel or basin.  The string secures the paper to the basin and gives a tight fit to prevent steam escaping.  Food cooks in its own juices, since the boiling water and steam do not come into direct contact with it. This method gives an exact and even cooking temperature throughout the cooking time, which is why it is used for melting chocolate and other tasks requiring consistent heat.

• In the Oriental method of steaming rice, which is used for dishes such as risotto and paella, the rice is immersed in water or stock, covered, and steamed until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked.


Some General Rules

There are a few rules which should be followed when steaming to obtain perfect results every time:

Ensure the ingredients used are of the best quality and in perfect condition.  Choose lean meats which will be tender and not require lengthy cooking.  Trim away excess fat before using and always cut across the grain for extra tenderness.

Ensure the lid fits well to prevent the steam escaping and thus prolonging cooking time.

When choosing fruit and vegetables, look for unblemished skins and good color.  Do not use “old” or bruised fruits, because steaming enhances flavors and aromas and any slight taint in a food will be accentuated.

Make sure foods to be cooked together are of a similar or even size so that they will cook in the same amount of time.  This applies to chopped foods and meat, fish or poultry portions.

Do not allow the liquid in the base compartment to touch the food, or the food will boil and not steam.  Suspend it at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the liquid.

Liquid levels in the base of the steamer should be maintained for constant cooking, although it should never be more than two-thirds full.  Top up with boiling liquid to maintain cooking.

Cook food in a single layer or adjust cooking times accordingly, as cooking will be slower.

Arrange foods in the steamer compartment with space in between to allow steam to circulate and cook more efficiently.  Always defrost frozen meats, fish and poultry before cooking, to allow for correct and complete cooking within the recommended times.

Place meats, fish, or juicy foods in the bottom tiers so that they cannot drip onto foods below.

Allow an extra five minutes for foods cooked in upper tiers because they are further away from the steam.

Finally, be sure to continue cooking foods that are not cooked through or not cooked to your liking, despite having been cooked for the recommended cooking time.


Sample Recipe: Orange and Ginger Marinated Whitefish

Makes 4 servings

Marinating the fish in orange, ginger and onion gives it a delicious flavor and keeps it lovely and most. A colorful and flavorful feast, it may be made with any white fish. A small grapefruit may be used in place of the orange, using only the flesh and not the zest.

4 whitefish fillets, skinned (about 6 ounces/175 grams each)

Juice and zest of 1/2 medium orange

1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated

2 garlic cloves, crushed

4 scallions, shredded

1 medium orange, segmented

4 tablespoons (50 mL) dry white wine

2 tablespoons (25 mL) butter

1 tablespoon (15 mL) minced fresh chives

1. Rinse the fish under running water and pat dry. Place in a shallow glass dish. Mix half the orange juice and zest, the ginger, garlic, scallions and half of the orange segments in the dish. Cover and marinate for 1 hour, turning occasionally.

2. Remove the fish, orange and scallions from the dish, reserving the marinade and place in a wax paper-lined steamer tray. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and steam for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, pour the marinade into a small saucepan with the remaining orange juice, zest and the wine. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly for 2 to 3 minutes to reduce. Remove from heat. Stir in the butter to give a glossy sauce and add the chives.

4. Serve the fish on warm plates with the sauce. Garnish with fresh chives and orange segments and serve with freshly steamed rice.


From Steam Cuisine by Jenny Stacey. Copyright © 1999 by Quintet Publishing. Excerpted by arrangement with Firefly Books. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-387-5085 or click here.




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