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How to Steam Food in a Bamboo Steamer

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As a certified health and wellness coach, I love discussing food, health benefits, and how to keep weight in check.

Steaming food is a viable healthy option to eating.

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courtesy of

Next to the indispensable wok in the Asian kitchen, the bamboo steamer probably comes in a close second. Bamboo steamer may seem like a side-kick to the mighty wok, but it can actually pull its own weight when it comes to healthy food preparation. After all, what utensil in the kitchen can stage a three-course dinner all in one cooking? Growing up, steaming food was almost synonymous to delicious food. Need a cake? Use a steamer. Feel like lobsters? Stick them in a steamer? How about tofu casserole? Well, use the steamer, what else? In the same way, my mother churned out a variety of healthy treats—meats, vegetables, dumplings, paos—all using a cheap bamboo-weave steamer. She even used it to brew herbal soup and reheat food. Now, what can the bamboo steamer not do?

Why Steam Food?

If an oven uses dry heat, steaming uses moist heat. The heat is generated by steam, which in turn is generated by the boiling water. Without being a technical prude, water becomes steam at 212 degree Fahrenheit. The steam is allowed to circulate in the steamer and cook the food quickly and evenly. This indirect way of cooking causes no agitation to the food being cooked, and therefore is gentler on any inherent nutrients and vitamins found in the food. It prevents food leaching (in the case of boiling) and preserves both nutritional value of the food and the aesthetic qualities (shape, color, flavor and texture) of the food being steamed.

Sounds like a winner? There is more. Steaming doesn’t require using any fat, oil or butter to enhance the flavor unlike baking, broiling,  braising or grilling. There is no fear of carcinogen in charred food or dry morsels annoying your taste buds. In fact, the taste and texture can remained pure and separate if you cook different types of foods in different bamboo baskets. In addition, bamboo steamers also absorb excess moisture, so steam is not collecting and condensing on the lid and dripping on the food.

Types of Bamboo Steamer

There are many types of steamer, of course. Go to any cookware store and you will find an assortment of steaming pots, stovetop steamers, expandable vegetable steamer and electric steamers, but for me, bamboo steamer will always feature strongly in my kitchen. After all, I’m inherently biased, being raised in an Asian family.

So what’s this bamboo thingy? The basic bamboo steamer is a three piece ensemble with two stacking steamer baskets (see how you can cook 3 different types of food in at one go?). It is circular and measures 10 inches in diameter and is 6 inches high. There are also bigger sizes. The much smaller ones (4 inches) are good for steaming little eats, like dim sum. You will see these little steamers bouncing around on push carts at your Dim Sum restaurants.

Two-tier bamboo steamer

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courtesy of

How Does it Work?

Back to our wok and bamboo steamer association, side-kick or not, they work like the  yin-yan duo of utensils.  The bamboo steamer is designed to fit nicely in a wok. Just fill the wok with enough water, so  the bamboo steamer sits about an inch above the water level. Bring water  to a boil and place bamboo steamer on top. Place food inside baskets and allow the steam to work its magic and expect a great meal. Let’s get to it.

Recipes Using Steaming

Steamed Seafood Medley with various dipping sauces:

Steamed Artichokes

Steamed Thai-style Sea-Bass and Rice

Steamed Chicken with Lemongrass and Ginger

Steamed Chinese Pork Loaf

Steamed Pear with Honey

Choices of Food

What can be steamed? Short answer—just about anything edible! Alright, that doesn’t quite answer the question, so here’s a list:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Shrimp
  • Lobsters
  • Crabs
  • Vegetables
  • Asian desserts
  • Dumplings
  • Rice
  • Casseroles
  • Tofu dishes
  • Herbal soup.

You can choose to season foods before steaming or add seasonings after the fact. Placing food directly on slated base is permissible but that may increase your cleaning duties. Use a plate or shallow bowl to hold food before placing it in the bamboo baskets. In Asia, they love to use banana leaves, lotus leaves or lettuce leaves to line the steamer to prevent food from sticking to the slates. Other examples include parchment paper, corn husks or if you are in a hurry, use aluminum foil, like I often do.

If you’re planning on steaming more than one type of food, always place the larger foods or foods requiring more cooking time on the lowest tier as the heat is most intense. Then place another tier with another dish to be steamed on top and another. Think tier and stagger cooking times if needed.

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Cooking Time

Cooking times differ with the types of foods, the size and quantity of food. In Chinese cooking, there is often a commonly understood intangible  element –-the art of approximation—not very scientific but it has to do with having an intimate understanding of how food works. This art of approximation is particularly helpful when steaming vegetables—the vegetables are cooked when the color becomes more vibrant. The eyes becomes the gauge, not some science.

  • Cooking Fish

Logic tells us that filleted fish is easier to cook than whole fish. In Asia, it’s quite the norm to steam fish whole. As a general rule, a one-inch thick fish fillet will take approximately 10 minutes. Thinner fillets may take less time. A whole fish generally takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Not sure? Use the fork test—insert fork into the thickest part of the fish—if it flakes, it’s cooked.

  • Steaming Chicken

You can steam thinly sliced chicken strips or a whole well-seasoned chicken. Deboning chicken will shorten cooking time too. Steaming time can take anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes depending on thickness of the meat. To determine doneness, use a meat thermometer: it should read 165 degree Fahrenheit.

  • Steaming Vegetables

Steaming vegetables is quite like doing laundry—you sort them by size and types. Here’s a general guide:

  • Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans: about 5 minutes
  • Carrots, cabbage, corn: about 8 minutes
  • Brussels sprouts: may take as long as 10 minutes
  • Root vegetables—taro, yam, potatoes, sweet potatoes: anytime from 15 to 25 minutes
  • Spinach, leafy vegetables: about 3 to 5 minutes
  • Peas: about 2 minutes

Just remember , overcooked vegetables can be mushy.

If you purchase a food steamer, it usually comes with instructions and cooking times for different types of food, so no guesswork is involved.

Kick it Up a Notch

To steal the famous line from Emeril, the popular TV cook, you can “kick it up a notch,” by adding more flavor to your food. How? Add herbs to the water. The flavor of the aromatic herbs will circulate within the steamer and enhance the flavor of the food. Examples of herbs include lemon grass, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, garlic, ginger, star anise, peppers, wine, lemon juice---the list can get creative.

Improvised Steamers

If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, don’t fret. You can improvise. A steaming rack is relatively inexpensive. Just pop it on a pot, fill the pot with water and place food on top of rack. Cover with lid and and steam. Just make sure water level is below the top of the rack.

You can also crunch aluminum foils into large balls and place a few of these on the bottom of the pot. These will act as a platform for your food. Just fill pot with about 2 inch of water and place dish of food on top of foil and steam.

Copyright @ Angeline Oppenheimer

Other food hubs:

Try green curry

Chinese Herbal Chicken Soup

Singapore Girl Makes Singapore Noodles

How to make the best Beef Rendang

Saffron from the beautiful Crocus flower

Spice up your life with red chili pepper

The Art of Poaching

Horseradish: A condiment with a kick

Curry: A blend of spices

Different Ways of Cooking Fish

© 2010 anglnwu


anglnwu (author) on August 19, 2011:

Happypuppy, bamboo steamers are very versatile. Every household should have one. Thanks for commenting.

happypuppy on August 18, 2011:

I use my bamboo steamer only to steam buns. Never knew that it can be used to steam other foods. Thanks for sharing. The videos are very informative.

anglnwu (author) on February 12, 2011:

I'm reading this as I'm drinking my green tea with vanilla cookies and I couldn't help but smile (again!). I applaud your creativity. Empanada dumplings--lol--now, you can tell your son you're Chinese/Jewish and a little Spanish (Latin). Glad they come out delicious. Now, I wish I were there, savoring your tasty morsels of delights. Anyway, Happy and Prosperous New year! Love you and have a great weekend.

ReuVera from USA on February 12, 2011:

Hi, Angeline! Celebrating Chinese New Year with you! I made today an authentic-one-of-a-kind-improvised international dish. My son asked if it was Chinese or Jewish. I said, that it was my own, but Asian inspired. I finely chopped vegetables (cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli, carrots), added to vegetables smashed eggs, added all kinds of spices and some virgin olive oil; part of it I mixed with browned ground beef. For myself, I made a resemblance of large dumplings from vegetables and egg-roll wraps. For my son I made the same with beef mixture. The form of it resembled "Chebureki", i.e. empanada.

It took a long time to steam it to condition when the color of egg-roll wrap looked like cooked. But the wait was worth it!

It was delicious! With hot green tea it was superb!

anglnwu (author) on February 12, 2011:

Vera, you make me smile. You're such a good example of living life to the fullest. Good luck on your steaming adventure. Call if you need any help and help me know how you like your bamboo steamer. And now, please send some of the food's still Chinese New Year! Thanks for updating me.

anglnwu (author) on February 12, 2011:

Thanks, Eric, for dropping by to comment. Steaming vegetables is definitely a good way to eat healthy. Good luck on helping your mom.

ReuVera from USA on February 12, 2011:

yay, my bamboo steamer arrived and today is an experimenting day! Let's see- vegetables for me and beef dumplings for my son, how about this? Wish me good luck.

Reports to follow.

anglnwu (author) on January 07, 2011:

Thanks, Pamela. Have fun trying different herbs.

Pamela N Red from Oklahoma on January 06, 2011:

I use my steamer all the time but never thought to put herbs in the water for flavor. Wonderful idea.

anglnwu (author) on September 15, 2010:

Vera, can't wait. Start making plans:))

ReuVera from USA on September 14, 2010:

Thank you, Angeline, so nice of you. It is a big temptation, you know... all this food you describe....

I'd come just to meet you, at the first possible opportunity! Promise.

anglnwu (author) on September 14, 2010:

lol, vera, on your take on dumplings and grandchildren. I make my dumplings in the bamboo steamer too and if you come, I'll make you some--no pork, unlike the "tim sim." I'll also make you a ginger-scallion dip that goes very well with dumplings. So, hurry, when can you come? Thanks and have a great day or what's left of the day.

ReuVera from USA on September 14, 2010:

I like the idea that bamboo steamers also absorb excess moisture. When we lived in Kazakhstan ( and it is Asian kitchen in a way), we had a steamer in which we cooked "manty", a version of dumplings :) If Russian pelmeni are great grandchildren of Chinese dumplings, then "manty" are probably, grandchildren :)

anglnwu (author) on September 14, 2010:

Vera, you're totally sweet. I wish i can reciprocate in some ways...what with your beautiful set of spatulas and now, your offer to buy the bamboo steamer...i'm speechless! Anyway, if you decide to use one and have any question, you know where to find me. Thanks for your wonderful support.

ReuVera from USA on September 14, 2010:

I am going to come back to this one and study it thoroughly. I loved the idea. It is ancient, but new to me..... I have a strong feeling that bamboo steamer is my next purchase. I am buying it from you. I suppose, your Amazon account is set up?

anglnwu (author) on June 19, 2010:

Sparkle, I love anything made with bamboo too. Being Asian makes me quite partial to this "green" gift of nature. Try the bamboo steamer, with some practice, you can be a pro and cook very healthy meals, two dishes, even three at a time. Thanks.

Cate from Chandler, AZ on June 19, 2010:

I have always been intrigued by bamboo steamers.. and anything else bamboo. I have always thought of a bamboo steamer as a specialty cooking item, and been afraid to try it out. Thanks for showing how versatile and easy it is to use!

anglnwu (author) on June 18, 2010:

Om, the bamboo steamer is very versatile. Thanks for dropping by with your kind comments.

Om Paramapoonya on June 18, 2010:

When I was a kid, I thought bamboo steamers were only for dim sums! LOL Silly me. This is a fantastic hub loaded with useful advice. Thumbs up! :)

anglnwu (author) on June 17, 2010:

Jayb, good morning, good to see u again. Yes, your mom will find making food this way a breeze. Have a great day!

anglnwu (author) on June 17, 2010:

habee, queen of seafood, thanks and when you go fishing, don't forget to send some shrimps my way. Thanks for dropping by.

anglnwu (author) on June 17, 2010:

LOL, Tom, you're funny, but hey, you don't just have to steam vegetables. In fact, you can steam a whole leg of ham in the bamboo steamer. Sounds fatty enough? Love it when you dropped by with your candid comments and please drop by anytime. Thanks!

jayb23 from India on June 17, 2010:

Brilliant and informative hub anglnwu. Iam going to make my mom read this hub, so that she can try this at home. Thanks for sharing :-)

Holle Abee from Georgia on June 16, 2010:

wonderful hub! Those shrimp are calling my name! lol

anglnwu (author) on June 16, 2010:

Pamela, thanks for dropping by with your thoughts.

Maita, now, you can have one more gadget in your kitchen. Thanks for dropping by.

tom hellert from home on June 16, 2010:


Unfortunately my distain for vegetables prevents me from doing anything to accentuate their natural taste-what can I say I am still an 11 yr old kid at heart- i really wish I could wok better and steam more but I am an old short order cook that makes all the fatty bad for you American style meals- and I am afraid to try new things alot of times how sad is that... but I am honest about it.

great Hub even for me maybe I'll try something with the old steamer or wok again Thanks for the inspiration

anglnwu (author) on June 16, 2010:

Money, pretty soon, both our kitchens will have the same utensils, what with our crockpots and now, bamboo steamers. Not forgetting our preference for white meat. Always nice to see you. Thanks for dropping by.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 16, 2010:

Anginwu, I use to have a steamer several years ago and should purchase another as this is such a healthy way to cook. Thank for sharing all this information.

prettydarkhorse from US on June 16, 2010:

This is so new my angel, never heard of it although of course I love bamboo, Thanks my dear for your congratulatory to me, just vote your best pick, rated awesome, Maita

Money Glitch from Texas on June 15, 2010:

Wow another great hub. Looks like I'm going to have to invest in a bamboo steamer. Thanks for sharing another healthy eating hub. :) Rating up!

anglnwu (author) on June 15, 2010:

Wildiris, thanks for dropping by with your thoughts. It's very easy to use a bamboo steamer. Before long, you will be cooking the whole meal just using this.

WildIris on June 15, 2010:

I have always wonder how to use a bamboo steamer. After watching the video it seems so simple. Great Hub! Very informative. I'm going to try cooking this way. I like the recipes too. Thanks.

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