How To Steam Without a Steamer: Easy Chef’s Hack
by HexClad Cookware
People have been cooking for thousands of years, and they didn’t always have fancy gadgets to steam vegetables. This means if you want some steamed deliciousness but don’t own a steamer, we’ve got a few chef’s hacks to get you by.
Steaming is a great way to cook softer veggies, starchier options, and a few delicate proteins that might fall apart otherwise. But without a steamer basket, you may have shied away from the technique in the past. Not anymore.
Today is the day you level up those culinary skills, and we are going to show you how. We will take you through the history of steaming, why it’s an important cooking technique, and how to DIY if you don’t own a steamer.
It’s also important to know that just because steamers exist doesn’t necessarily mean that all professional chefs use them. So try out these hacks before running to your nearest kitchen supply warehouse.
What Is Steaming?
While it’s fun to buy gadgets and tech for your cooking arsenal, many home cooks simply don’t have the space for all these culinary finds. You may want to buy every new blender or steamer that hits the market, but a quality set of pots and pans definitely takes priority for cabinet space.
But, we should first define what it means to steam food. To steam food is to cook it using the heat from moisture. You’ll need boiling water and an enclosed space to capture the steam created from the boiling water. This steam will then cook food at about 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
A very traditional French technique of utilizing steam for cooking is called “en papillote,” which involves food wrapped in parchment paper that is then cooked in its own steam.
What’s important to understand about the art of steaming is that while boiling water is a critical piece of the puzzle, your food should never actually touch the water. You need boiling water to create the steam, but the moisture from a mere inch of water is the only element that penetrates the food.
Why Might You Steam Food?
Steaming is a beneficial cooking technique to master for two specific reasons.
First, steaming is a great way to cook delicate and soft foods as well as those heavier, starchy items. Starchy items can be a pain to roast as they require plenty of time to cook, meaning you better have those carrots in the oven at least 40 minutes before you want to serve them.
Delicate foods like flaky fish can break apart in pans or fall right through a grill, so steaming these fish varieties will ensure that all the food hits your plate.
Items like green beans can go from raw to burned in no time — yet can also soften beautifully in a steamer versus a roasting pan. This method allows them to retain all the delicious flavors you expect.
The second benefit to steaming is how healthy steaming can be versus other methods of cooking. Using steam to cook your foods means that you can skip the unnecessary calories and unhealthiness of butter, oils, or other fats that detract from the flavors of your food.
Steaming also helps keep all the moisture in the food, so you don’t lose the nutrients in those veggies.
What Foods Should You Steam?
We’ve talked a little about what types of foods can benefit from a steaming process versus another traditional method, but it’s time to go into specifics. Starchy veggies, soft veggies, and delicate proteins do well in a steamer.
The best veggies to utilize in a steamer include:
- Sweet potato
- Bok choy
Heavy, sturdy veggies work well in a steamer because they can be softened with steam without losing all of their texture and shape. Dark, leafy greens do well in a steamer as they are softer ingredients that can fall apart easily with other methods of preparing them.
Steam until fork tender and season to your liking. With leafy veggies, season with a little salt and pepper and add atop your favorite dishes.
The best proteins to cook in a steamer are:
- Flaky fish: haddock, cod, salmon, tilapia, and Mahi Mahi
Due to the lightness and absence of fats in many of these proteins, steaming won’t cause the foods to be bland. You will be able to steam these items and add the seasonings of your choosing later without losing any of the nuances.
For other proteins, like beef, the fat in the meat will need to caramelize to really get the most out of the natural flavors of the protein, so these should be handled using a directly heated surface.
Did you know that you can also utilize a steamer for cooking some dessert-ready options? Steam fruits stuffed with sweet cheeses or nuts make a delicious ending to any meal. It will satisfy your sweet tooth without the refined sugar of cookies or cake.
Some great options to use in a steamer include:
Reduce fruit juices or a little maple syrup in a pan for a light sauce or topping to really amp up the flavors.
What Is a Steamer?
Now that you understand why you might steam food, let’s go over what a standard steamer looks like and how it functions. A steamer is a cookware device, similar in size and shape to a rice cooker or crock pot. This product comes with removable steaming baskets.
The bottom of the steamer will hold water to heat it up to boiling temps. The baskets hold food and the different levels allow you to steam items of varying sizes. In addition to this, baskets are riddled with holes, similar to a strainer, and can also vary in size.
These holes allow you to steam a fish in a shallow basket with many small holes while also steaming a head of cauliflower in a deeper basket with larger holes.
One of the best reasons to invest in a steamer is the convenience factor. You add the water, add your food, set it, and forget it. The steamer will do all the magic while you enjoy a cocktail before dinner or catch the last few minutes of the game before setting the table.
What Are the Different Types of Steamers?
There are two main types of steamers currently on the market. Many variations of these two types exist, but you can choose from these primary options. These options include boilerless steamers or a la carte.
Boilerless steamers take longer to steam food but require less water and maintenance. Conversely, a la carte steamers offer a faster cooking time. But they use a hefty amount of water and need more regular descaling and cleaning.
New iterations of these systems are being brought to the market every day. We do think, with our hacks, you would be better off investing in a high-end pot that is large enough to fit a steamer basket and comes with a tight-fitting lid to make steaming a breeze.
Does Your Kitchen Need a Steamer?
We say it’s definitely up to you. If you prefer to have all the latest gadgets and gizmos, you should definitely invest in a high-quality steamer.
However, if you’re short on space and it’s between a steamer or a pan that can do more than one job, we say opt out of the steamer. Our hacks not only work, but they will help you steam foods without needing a bunch of extra equipment.
For smaller, everyday jobs, we recommend the 1 Quart Hybrid Pot. For more substantial meals and bigger families, you will find more use for the larger 8 Quart Hybrid Pot. Both items come with a tight-fitting lid and have the luxury of our hybrid technology — so they are perfect for steaming all your meals.
How Do You Steam Without a Steamer?
Finally onto the good stuff! Here are our chef’s hacks for steaming foods without a professional steamer. These hacks utilize everyday items that you are likely to already have on hand or items that can be purchased and stored easily until you need them.
Use an Aluminum Pie Pan
One of the surest ways to DIY a steamer is by using an aluminum pie pan as the steamer basket. Using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, poke holes in the bottom of the pan. Then, fill your pot with water and put the pie pan into the pot, concave side down. This way, the pan will have a flat surface, and there will be a little more room between water and food.
You’ll then use the pot with a fitted lid to steam food. This is the perfect hack for options like dumplings and dim sum, as it mimics the steamer baskets used at a variety of restaurants very well.
You can find these pie pans at your local grocery store. Since they are so compact, you can keep a few on hand for easy steaming whenever you need them.
Use a Cooling Rack
A cooling rack, preferably a round rack, will sub in nicely for a steamer basket. Before cooking, ensure that the cooling rack will fit well in the pot, and the lid will still close, so you can lock in the steam.
Once you have practiced this move, add just enough water to the bottom of the pot so that you can steam broccoli or whatever else your heart desires. The water should never touch the top of the rack, nor should it hit the food while it’s boiling. It’s just that easy.
This method is perfect for proteins or steamed veggies, so long as the veggies don’t slide through the rack.
Use a Strainer
A metal colander or a metal strainer can also fit well into a large pot and will steam foods without issue. Many pots come with a colander or strainer that fits into the pot or are available as an add-on accessory.
This duo can also be used to steam food as well and will make a great option for steaming a lot of veggies or a large dish.
Try the Plate and Foil Trick
This hack requires using the oven, so any plate you choose will need to be stone, ceramic, or made from another oven-safe material. Use a roasting pan or a deep saute pan that has a tight-fitting lid. You’ll also need three pieces of aluminum foil of equal size and an oven-safe plate.
Ball up the three pieces of tinfoil to make three balls in equal shape and size. Add enough water to the pan to cover the bottom, then place the aluminum balls in the water. The aluminum will act as a stand, so place the plate on top of the balls of aluminum foil, keeping them equidistant to keep the plate level and balanced.
Get your food on top of the foil balls, secure it with a lid, and you’re ready to go. This steaming method is great for flaky fish or anything really delicate. It’s an easy way to make sure fragile foods can’t fall through the cracks.
We recommend the 7 Quart Hybrid Deep Saute Pan. It’s strong enough to withstand the hottest temps in the oven and deep enough to steam your best meals to perfection.
Last Resort: The Microwave
The microwave can steam veggies in no time. In a pinch, turn to this hack. Add a few tablespoons of water to the bottom of a microwave-safe bowl or heatproof plate, then add seasoned veggies on top. Cover with a damp towel or a wet paper towel and microwave.
The damp towel and water will create enough steam to cook the veggies and still have dinner on the table on time. It’s a safe cooking method to steam veggies when you are short on time but need an easy side dish.
We are sure these chef’s hacks for steaming will help get your food cooked to perfection, without having to buy expensive gadgets or another kitchen tool you won’t use every day. Steaming food can help keep nutritional value in your dishes and cook the food well with minimal effort.
Even if you have a little trouble off the bat, practicing these hacks will help you perfect the techniques and get them down to a science. Turn to a large pot that can pull double-duty for a smart way to save time and money. HexClad can cover all the bases.
Gallery: How to Cook En Papillote | Serious Eats
Steaming is a Quick and Healthy Way to Cook Foods | EatFresh