How NOT to Steam Foods – Part 2

More Steaming Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

This is Part 2 of How NOT to Steam Foods. If you want to read Part 1, click here.

Mistake #5  Covering the Pan Loosely

If you think that you are steaming in a vessel without a lid, or just loosely covered with a piece of parchment, you are sadly mistaken.  Steam travels in one direction:  away from the heat source.  This means that, while the food closest to the liquid might get cooked even without a lid, the top surface of the food will remain cold and uncooked.

The Fix—Use a Tight-Fitting Lid

I might be dating myself, but do you remember the old Atari game Pong?  The little rectangular “ball” traveled in a straight line until it ricocheted off of the edge of your TV screen.

Think of steam as a bunch of little Atari Pong balls moving in straight lines.  They will continue to move in those straight lines, away from the heat source, unless they hit the edge of the TV screen, or in this case, the lid.

Keeping the steam enclosed ensures convection – the hottest steam, the steam closest to the heat source, rises to the lid, cools somewhat as it comes in contact with the metal and then sinks, only to be reheated as it again gets close to the heat source.  This rising and falling ensures that the food will be cooked from all sides, including the top.

The tighter-fitting the lid, the more steam is trapped and the more quickly and evenly your food will cook.  Of course, there will always be some loss of steam, unless you are using a pressure cooker.  You just want to minimize the amount of steam that escapes by using a pan with a tight-fitting lid.

Mistake #6  Overcooking

The difference between crisp tender steamed vegetables and mushy ones might only be a matter of a minute or two, and if you wanted mushy vegetables, you probably wouldn’t be steaming in the first place.

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The Fix – Check Your Foods.  Also, See Mistakes 2, 3 and 4

If you cut your foods in uniform size, make sure the water is boiling before you add the food and allow adequate space for the steam to penetrate, you will be going a long way towards minimizing the chance of overcooking.

Most recipes you will find for steaming will give a specific amount of time until the food is done, but unless you’ve cut your foods exactly the same size as the recipe and the liquid comes back to a boil in exactly the same amount of time as it did in the test kitchen and you like your foods done exactly the way the recipe author likes theirs done, consider the amount of time a guideline.

Quickly check your food a couple of minutes before the time specified in the recipe, and if it is not done to your liking, put the lid back on quickly to minimize the loss of steam.

Mistake #7  Peeking

While you do want to check your food for doneness after a few minutes, you gain nothing by continually lifting the lid and checking to see what’s happening in that pan.

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By peeking, you are losing moisture, and chances are you will have to add more liquid at some point during the cooking process.  If you add cold liquid, you are just increasing the cooking time and also increasing the risk of over-cooking.

The Fix – No Peeking!

You just have to trust that steam plus convection will cook your food with no outside assistance from you, so leave that lid closed.  If you really, really must see what’s going on, buy a pot with a glass lid, so you can see without lifting the lid.

Mistake #8 Overcooking, Part 2

As you may already know, carryover cooking is the cooking that takes place once the food has been removed from the heat source.  Heat is energy, and that energy will continue to radiate through the food from the surface to the center until it the temperature falls enough.

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In some cases, as in roasting large pieces of meat or poultry, we allow for carryover cooking by removing the food from the oven when the temperature is still a few degrees below the target temperature.  The temperature continues to rise while the meat is resting.

Since foods to be steamed are usually cut in small pieces, there is not a lot of mass to absorb all the carryover heat, so foods can overcook very quickly.


The Fix – The Shock
If you are planning on serving your steamed foods hot, make sure that you that steaming is the last thing you do before serving.  Minimizing the wait time between cooking and serving reduces the amount of carryover cooking.

If you are planning on serving your steamed vegetables cold, you will want to shock them, or rapidly stop the cooking process, by immersing them in a bowl of ice water directly after cooking.  The heat in the vegetables rapidly dissipates into the ice water, allowing your foods to be served perfectly cooked, even hours later.

If you need to steam well before service time and still plan to serve the steamed foods hot, steam them until just under-done, shock them, and then reheat them right before serving.

Mistake #9  Not Enough Time

Sometimes on a weeknight, you just want a cooking technique that is very easy, only dirties one pot and doesn’t take too long.  For these reasons, you might choose steaming.  Even on the busiest evening, between getting home from work, ferrying kids to classes, clubs or team practice and homework, a nice steamed, one dish meal is only a few minutes away.

The Fix – Don’t Forget the Microwave

Place bite-sized pieces of fish in a microwave safe baking dish.  Add tender vegetables such as sugar snap peas, mushrooms, green beans, broccoli and cauliflower florets.

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Season with salt and pepper, drizzle with a bit of olive oil or a couple of small pieces of butter.  Add 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable or chicken broth.  Cover with plastic wrap with one corner turned back.

Steam on high for six minutes, stirring and rearranging the fish every two minutes so it cooks evenly.  Serve with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

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This is just one example of an easy, healthy, one-dish microwave meal; use this technique and vary the vegetables, protein and seasonings to come up with almost limitless possibilities.  Now, you have a healthy alternative to the lure of weeknight fast food.

Mistake #10 (referring to starchy grains such as rice)  Not Rinsing Before Steaming

Rice and other grains can be steamed directly in liquid, generally at a ratio of 1 cup grain (rice, amaranth, quinoa, barley, etc) to 2 cups of liquid.  Cooking whole grains is pretty straightforward.

Bring the liquid and the grains up to a boil, stir a couple of times, put on a tight-fitting lid and turn down the heat to low.  Most grains will completely absorb the liquid within 20-30 minutes.

Brown rice and other grains with a tough bran layer can take up to 50 minutes to completely absorb the liquid.

Regardless of how easy it can be to steam grains, I’m sure we have all had the experience of ending up with rice that is all sticky and clumped together.  Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for this one.

The Fix—Rinse your grains first

The best way to achieve light, fluffy, separate grains is to rinse them first.  Rice in particular is very starchy, and when the grains begin to swell up and the starches start to gelatinize, they can often stick together.

Rinse the grains in several changes of cold water, until the water no longer looks milky.  Then, add your cooking liquid, bring to a boil, cover and steam over low heat until all the liquid is absorbed.

How NOT to Cook Book Chapters

Introduction Cook Pasta Grill – Part 1
Start a Recipe Steam – 1 Grill – 2
Start a Recipe – 2 Steam – 2 Grill – 3
Mise En Place Poach Roast – 1
Equipment Simmer Roast – 2
Season Foods – 1 Bake – 1 Roast – 3
Season Foods – 2 Bake – 2 Pan Roast – 1
Spices & Herbs Bake – 3 Pan Roast – 2
Season with Salt Saute – 1 Braise – 1
Boil Saute – 2 Braise – 2


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About the Author: Thien Bao

Hello, my name is ThienBao. I am a freelance developer specializing in various types of code.