A Guide to Bamboo Steamers
Discover the delicious and healthy art of steaming
The bamboo steamer is a piece of kitchen equipment usually purchased for that one dish, that one time. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, when it comes to cooking up deliciously healthy dishes in a flash, it’s exactly what you need. A simple to use, effortless to clean, and easy to love culinary essential that we think deserves pride of place in your cupboard.
In this helpful hint-packed guide, we’re going to unlock the secrets of the bamboo steamer and learn just how you can use it to enhance the flavours of some of the best meals. First, let’s find out how it came to be.
What’s everyone steaming about?
Famed for its stackable woven basket form and moisture locking domed lid, the bamboo steamer is a simple, but powerful, piece of cookware that will totally transform any bad tastes left in your mouth about steaming.
According to archaeological findings, steaming is an ancient Asian cooking method. (One of the oldest in history, actually). While the original bamboo steamers of 5000 years ago may have looked a lot different, the art of cooking in this way is still much the same.
Bamboo steamers are loved all around the world for many rightful reasons — like the fact that they’re naturally anti-bacterial and are purse and planet-friendly. But the real joy in these baskets is their natural ability to weave wonderful flavour into food.
The basics of a bamboo steamer
The bamboo steamer has been around for some time — a staple piece of kitchen equipment woven with history. As time has evolved, it’s been reinvented in different forms in an attempt to meet the needs of modern-day diners.
They’re typically 10-inch wide and 6-inch high round interlocking baskets, made — as the name suggests — with woven straws of bamboo, cleverly designed to be stacked.
As a cooking method, steaming has gotten a bad reputation as the destroyer of texture — turning all it touches into a pile of plain tasting sogginess. However, due to its special woven structure, bamboo steamers allow the steam to gently pass through the different stacked layers, enhancing its contents with flavour rather than taking it away, and doing it all without a drop of oil or butter — clever, delicious, and healthy.
Bamboo steamer vs metal vs electric: what’s the difference?
The main benefit of the bamboo steamer (versus an electric or metal steamer) is that the moisture is absorbed into the bamboo, controlling the humidity and avoiding any unpleasant broiling.
They’re also more eco-friendly (and easier on the purse strings) than their counterparts, as they don’t require electricity and are made using natural fibres.
To top it off, the signature domed lid works smarter to control the temperature, allowing excess heat to pass through rather than sitting inside and causing food-damaging condensation.
Metal steamers are incredibly long-lasting, and can easily fit on the hob — perfect for whipping up midweek veggies and proteins in a flash, confident that it will stand up to the heat each and every time.
The downsides to metal steamers? They’re not always the cheapest, and they aren’t environmentally friendly by nature — of course, if you take care of it, it will last which saves mounting products up at landfill sites.
With electric steamers, they have the same benefits previously mentioned for metal steamers but their biggest advantage is convenience given their ability to automatically switch off and keep the food warm once it’s cooked.
The downside of these part plastic, part metal towers is that they have a habit of turning the crunchy into the mushy — the ultimate enemy of steaming.
Japanese vs Chinese
While both Japan and China have a rich culinary heritage and utilise bamboo steamers in their cuisines, there are some notable similarities and differences between the two styles.
For starters, Japanese bamboo steamers, known as “Mushi Nabe” or “Mushi Kiki”, are typically smaller than Chinese steamers, “Zhēnglóng”, both in width and depth. The more shallow Japanese steamers allow for quicker cooking times while the larger Chinese bamboo steamers can accommodate more food. They are also constructed in a slightly different way, with Chinese steamers using a lattice of bamboo slats, while Japanese steamers use strips of tightly-woven bamboo strips.
Both Chinese and Japanese bamboo steamers are known for their ability to help food retain its natural moisture and preserve the natural flavours, textures and colours of the ingredients without overcooking them.
Japanese bamboo steamers are commonly employed in the preparation of dishes like chawanmushi (savoury egg custard), nimono (simmered dishes), and steamed buns (known as “manju” or “nikuman”), while Chinese bamboo steamers are instrumental in the making of popular dishes such as dim sum, including steamed dumplings, baozi (steamed buns), and even delicate desserts like sponge cakes.
How do bamboo steamers work?
Bamboo steamers are traditional cooking vessels that have been used in East Asian cuisines for centuries. These simple yet effective tools are renowned for their ability to gently steam food, resulting in tender, flavourful dishes. But how exactly do bamboo steamers work their magic? Let’s take a look at the mechanics of bamboo steamers and their cooking process.
To understand how bamboo steamers work, you need to understand their construction. These steamers are predominantly made from natural bamboo, a sustainable and heat-resistant material. They consist of multiple tiers, usually two to four, stacked on top of each other. Each tier comprises a woven bamboo base and a fitted lid.
This vertical system allows steam to rise from the boiling water and into the tiers where the bamboo steamers facilitate proper steam circulation. The woven bamboo base and the gaps between the strips allow steam to permeate through the tiers, evenly enveloping the food. The fitted lid helps to trap the steam within each tier, creating a gentle cooking environment that helps retain the natural flavours, textures, and nutrients of the ingredients.
The construction of bamboo steamers allows for proper steam circulation, ensuring even and gentle cooking. By using steam rather than direct contact with water, bamboo steamers help retain the nutrients and flavours of the ingredients, offering a healthier and flavourful cooking method.
How to use a bamboo steamer
Step 1: Gather your ingredients
Choose the ingredients you want to steam. This can include vegetables, rice, seafood, dumplings, buns, or any other food that benefits from gentle and moist cooking.
Step 2: Line the bamboo steamer (optional)
To prevent the food from sticking to the bamboo base, you can line it with a layer of parchment paper, cabbage leaves, or bamboo leaves. This step is optional, but it can make cleaning easier and enhance the presentation of the food.
Step 3: Boil water in a pot or wok
Select a pot or wok that is large enough to accommodate the bamboo steamer. Fill it with water, ensuring that the water level is below the bottom tier of the steamer when it is placed on top. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat.
Step 4: Arrange the food
While the water is boiling, place the food you want to steam onto the bamboo base (or whatever you’ve used to line the base), making sure there is enough space between each piece for steam to circulate. Keep in mind that different ingredients may require different cooking times, so consider their individual needs when arranging them in the steamer.
For example, if steaming a meal of chicken, rice and broccoli, you’ll need to start the rice first, then the chicken, then the broccoli, and you may choose to have them in separate tiers so you can add them in more conveniently.
Step 5: Stack the tiers
If you have multiple tiers in your bamboo steamer, stack them on top of each other, ensuring the lid fits securely on the top tier.
Step 6: Place the bamboo steamer on the pot or wok
Carefully place the bamboo steamer on top of the pot or wok, making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the steamer. The steam will cook the food without direct contact with the water.
Step 7: Cover with the lid
Place the fitted lid on top of the bamboo steamer, ensuring it fits snugly. The lid helps trap the steam within the tiers, ensuring even cooking.
Step 8: Steam the food
Allow the food to steam for the recommended cooking time. The cooking time can vary depending on the ingredients and how well done you’d like them. Check the food periodically to avoid overcooking.
Step 9: Serve and enjoy
Once the food is cooked to your liking, carefully remove the bamboo steamer from the pot or wok using oven mitts or kitchen tongs. Be cautious of the hot steam when removing the lid. Transfer the steamed food to a serving platter and enjoy it while it’s hot and flavourful.
How to clean a bamboo steamer
The beauty of the bamboo steamer (next to its other wonderful qualities) is that it is super simple to clean. In fact, the real trick to making it last for a long time is more about the drying. So, once you have cleaned your steamer with a sponge and mild soap and have thoroughly rinsed it out, leave it to air dry for a couple of days before storing it away.
Bamboo is extremely absorbent, so even when you think it might be dry, it may still be retaining some moisture, and that could develop any unpleasant mildew while resting in your cupboard.
To get the most out of your bamboo steamer, here are some of our favourite tips.
TIP 1: If you’re steaming through multiple baskets, put the food that takes the longest to cook in the bottom tray — closest to the heat.
TIP 2: To ensure even cooking when steaming vegetables with stems (like broccoli or asparagus), point the firmest end towards the middle of the steamer.
TIP 3: When cooking marinated meats or fish lay a piece of parchment or greaseproof paper underneath to avoid the scent directly infusing into the wood.
TIP 4: For extra flavour, swap the water in your pan for broth or stock and layer fresh herbs between food.
TIP 5: Space out the contents of each basket to ensure your foods cook evenly — if it’s overcrowded, spread it over other layers.
TIP 6: You just have to trust that steam plus convection will cook your food with no outside assistance from you, so avoid temptation and leave that lid closed.
How to use a bamboo steamer without a wok
If you don’t have a wok, don’t worry! You can still get simply delicious bamboo steamed food from other pans too. Find a pan or pot that is just smaller than the size of your steamer, half fill it with water and bring to a rolling boil. Then place the bamboo steamer on top and you’re all set up to steam.
Hot tip: if your bamboo steamer overhangs your pot or pan considerably, gently wet the steamer before placing it over the top — this will avoid any creeping flames from the hob catching and burning the steamer.