Steaming Vegetables

Steaming Vegetables

Steaming vegetables is an underutilized cooking technique in my kitchen. After my last trip to Japan, I pledged to remedy the issue. This simple, direct method of cooking is one of the reasons I love eating in Japan. I mean, let's be honest, I probably like steamed vegetables more than most, but I enjoy them exponentially more there. Somehow, many of the things I love about traveling there are summed up in this simple preparation.
Steaming Vegetables - assortment of colorful vegetables
I'd often receive a sampling of seasonal produce as part of a combination lunch. The vegetables arrived at the table beautifully arranged in the bamboo basket they were steamed in. I'd work my way through a rainbow of vibrant, tender potatoes, squash, mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and the like, sometimes adding a pinch of zesty shichimi togarashi, but more often than not, a casual toss of a few grains of salt would be all. Each meal was a vibrant, satisfying reminder of just how good vegetables can be when prepared simply with care and intent. Their natural flavors coming through direct and perfect.

Break out the Steamer!

After this past trip, my inexpensive, tri-level bamboo steamer was promptly dusted upon my arrival home, and put into proper rotation. The thing that never ceases to surprise me is the speed even the most hearty chunks of root vegetables or squash become tender - ten minutes, often less.Bamboo Steamer

Choosing a Steamer

Bamboo steamers are easy to come by, and relatively inexpensive. Go this route if you aren't sure how often you'll use your steamer. The one downside is they take up a good amount of storage space, not much more than a big pot, but still. These steamers are available in a range of diameters, and are made of interlocking trays intended for stacking on atop of the other. Placed above simmering water, the steam from the water rises through the trays and cooks the food. It's a simple premise that works astoundingly well. I use three trays, but you can certainly go up or down a level.
Steaming Vegetables in Bamboo Steamer
I eventually graduated to a ceramic steamer, and also picked up this Mushi Nabe, donabe steamer. Both are nice because you can make a broth or curry in the base, and then use steam the ingredients up above at the same time. Any of the steamers make a nice jump from cooking to table. If you want to expand beyond steaming vegetables, you can also steam everything from dumplings and tofu to eggs, tamales and certain rices.

Colorful Vegetables in a Bamboo Steamer Basket

Some Tips on Steaming Vegetables:

  • While steaming with water is most common, I've also played around using miso broth, vegetable broth, vegetable dashi, or tea in place of water. Each imparts a different scent and flavor to the vegetables. More times than not though, I use water.
  • Arrange your slowest cooking vegetables in the bottom basket, working up to the quickest. Another time saver is to get your densest, slowest cooking vegetables started in in the bottom tray, while you prep the quicker cooking vegetables for the mid and top baskets. Place the lid on whatever basket is on top at the time.
  • Some people line their steamers with cabbage leaves or parchment. I don't bother, placing the vegetables directly on the steamer instead. I like how it seems to keep the steam circulating. A quick scrub with hot water and the rough side of a sponge makes clean-up simple.
  • When using the bamboo steamer, you can use a wok (steamer sits above the simmering water) or wide skillet (I set the steamer directly in a shallow skillet of simmering water)...A wok is more traditional, and easier on your steamer, but both techniques work well.

Plate of Assorted Vegetables to be Steamed

So, less of a recipe, and more of a reminder today of how good the most basic preparations can be. A few years after I initially posted this, I did another deeper dive into Using your Underutilized Steamer. Have fun! -h

 

Steaming Vegetables

3.5 from 2 votes

This is how I put together a rainbow sampling of steamed vegetables. I use a three-tiered bamboo steamer, the sort that is available in most culinary shops. But, if you only have two-tiers, that's fine!

Ingredients
  • a sampling of seasonal vegetables
  • flaky sea salt
  • to finish: good olive oil, a few drops of toasted sesame oil, or shallot oil
Instructions
  1. Wash your vegetables well, and cut them into bite-sized pieces. I tend to leave peels on, but it is a personal preference. Arrange them, in a single layer, in steamer trays according to needed cooking time. For example:
  2. Bottom tray: equal-sized chunks of slower-cooking vegetables. For example: sweet potato, potato, winter squash, beets. These usually cook through in about ten minutes. Middle-tray: equal sized pieces of broccoli, cauliflower. Top-tray/last minute: asparagus, fava beans (inner pods), snap peas.

  3. Bring an inch of water to a simmer in a skillet large enough to accommodate the diameter of your steamer. Alternately, you can use a wok. The water should not be so high that it makes contact with the vegetables when the steamer is placed in the skillet - do a quick test if you're unsure, and remove some water if needed.
  4. The goal here is to have your vegetables perfectly cooked and ready to serve just before you sit down. And, ideally, all of the vegetables finish cooking at the same time. Here's how you do it. Roughly ten minutes before you're ready to serve, place the slow-cooking, bottom tray vegetables over the simmering water, covered. Let them steam there until they're about 2/3 cooked, about 6-7 minutes. Test, and cut into any root vegetables toward the end to make sure they're going to be cooked through.
  5. The mid tray only needs 3-4 minutes, so add that next, moving the lid up a level. And the top tray vegetables, like snap peas and asparagus, just need a kiss of steam to brighten, barely a minute. Add that last. Or if you only have two baskets, add these to the broccoli/cauliflower basket to finish. You'll have to make slight adjustments based on the sizes of your vegetables, but this is the general idea. Cook them until they're bright, just tender, and taste good to you.
  6. I like to quickly arrange the steamed vegetables, nested, in one basket to serve along with a drizzle of good oil - toasted sesame, shallot, olive oil, herb, etc. With a sprinkle of flaky sea salt.
Notes

Serves 4

Serves
4
Prep Time
10 mins
Cook Time
10 mins
Total Time
20 mins
 
 
If you make this recipe, I'd love to see it - tag it #101cookbooks on Instagram!

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Comments

  • Completely obssesed with my bamboo steamer! I often combine the veggies in one basket and take it to work in my lunch tote. Toss it with some greens and I am good to go! Thanks for the post!

    Intrinsic Beauty
  • L'arôme subtil de bambou dans le panier ouvert. Les légumes entourés par la simplicité.

    Cristina
  • I put off buying one of these steamers for the space issue, but it's worth it for one of those meals of steamed veg with aioli that take me eons to prepare using one boiling pot. Your meal looks beautiful.

    Christine
  • I've never used my steamer in a skillet. I have a saucepan whose rim is the perfect size for my steamer. (It also happens to be the saucepan that my double boiler fits...) I've also used a steamer the way a Chinese friend taught me - sit the steamer in your wok - the steamer does not go all the way to the bottom and the sides of the wok hold the steamer up out of the water. I also have metal steamer with overlapping "leaves". This steamer has three legs on it and sits in my saucepan. The "bowl" of this steamer expands so that it fills the whole saucepan or folds inwards for smaller items. I usually put the water in the pan then set the empty steamer in it to make sure that I haven't put in too much water, fill the steamer put the lid on the saucepan and start the water boiling.

    HS: Hi Cathy, I think the wok method is likely the best/most traditional, but the skillet version works for those who are wok-less.

    Cathy
  • For Natasha: I have two sizes of bamboo steamer baskets that I bought on Amazon a few years ago. They fit over two different pots, and I hadn't thought of using them in a skillet. Thanks, Heidi! While I'm steaming vegetables, I like to steam chicken or fish in a bowl along with ponzu or soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and a splash or two of sake. Happy steaming!

    David in San Antonio
  • A quick storage tip: We keep our steamer baskets inside our largest pot in the drawer. It doesn't take up any extra space that way and it is easy to access!

    HS: brilliant suggestion! Thanks Noah.

    Noah
  • And wonderful use of bamboo steamers! Now, to find where I put them...

    diary of a tomato
  • Thank you for this. My steamer needs a good dusting off and the ideas posted here are exactly what I needed as incentive to get it out. Can't wait. YUM>

    Dena
  • Heidi, Veggies and Japan- these are a few of my favorite things :) thank you for always inspiring!

    Alex
  • this was an especially good post for me. I really lag in the steaming dept. I even tell my cooking classes "I don't steam vegetables" due to their potential dullish nature. But your slant on it (anything Japanese holds my attention) totally convinced me to pull out the bamboo steamer too xo

    Jessica
  • Beautiful post Heidi. I love the simplicity of steamed veggies with a touch of sea salt. They're so flavorful on their own. I haven't tried the bamboo steamer but may have to purchase one thanks for the idea. lovely photo!

    Flip Flops and Avocados
  • Yum! I used to have those steamer baskets, you're right! They take up mega space. Now I want them again..... :D

    Jesse
  • you know, sometimes the simplest, most obvious preparations are those that most need spot-lighting. i'm amazed at how methods go in and out of favor ... and my (deeply untrendy) mind loses sight of them, along the way. i've recently fallen for steaming all over again, for the clear, clean flavor it brings; the pitch-perfect tenderness i can achieve; and the opportunity it provides to embellish whatever's fresh with the sauce or seasoning (simple as salt and oil, often enough) i feel like, at the moment. thanks, heidi, for this reminder.

    molly
  • Where can I buy one of these steamers? They sound fantastic!

    HS: Hi Natasha, you can find them in most kitchen supply stores, Asian houseware markets, etc. I haven't searched to see who has them online, but that might be worth looking into as well.

    Natasha
  • This is so helpful! I've always been curious about how exactly those steamers are used- and I love a bunch of veggies for dinner, so I'm going to pick a steamer up and try this out!

    Sarah R.
  • I have an identical bamboo steamer that I can't even remember when or where I purchased--but it's one of my favorite kitchen tools. One note: if steaming fish, which I do, it is best to line it with something and not just lay the fish right onto the bamboo. It will clean up--just takes way longer. My fave use is still homemade pork & shrimp dumplings!

    Lesli
  • I read your post and instantly got an urge to steam...all the vegetables! Went to China Town here in Glasgow on my lunchbreak and got myself a two-part steamer with lid, and I can't wait to use it! I also bought a sushi mat, and sushi sheets, so I foresee an Asian influence in my future cooking, perhaps perhaps! Thank you for the tips, I can't wait to use it! :D I hope Wednesday is treating you well so far :) xJ

    Julie
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