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Steaming 101

The Martha Stewart Show, January 2009

These two Asian-inspired recipes -- Steamed Salmon with Peas and Steamed Whole Fish -- are not only easy to prepare, but they're just what people are looking for at this time of year after lots of holiday indulging.

Steamed foods are suspended over a simmering liquid, usually in a steamer basket, and cooked by hot vapor. Because steam transfers heat more efficiently than boiling water or hot air, steaming is among one of the quickest cooking methods. 

Steaming is considered a wet-cooking method, which produces foods that are exceptionally moist and tender throughout, with pure flavors, and not much more than subtle hints from the cooking liquid. It's this purity that makes steamed foods so versatile and delicious. And because little (if any) fat is required, steaming is among one of the most healthful. 

As part of a meal, a steamed dish can help balance the textures and flavors of richer food. A good example of this would be in Chinese cuisine, in which a steamed dish appears as part of nearly every meal. Yet despite its reputation as so-called spa cuisine, steamed food is far from bland or boring.

Some of the best cuts for steaming are tender, uniformly even fillets of fish; boneless chicken breasts; and shellfish. The pieces need to be relatively thin because steam heats only the surface of the meat quickly before it moves more slowly to the center of the meat. Thicker pieces tend to overcook on the outside while the interior remains underdone.

A variety of tools may be employed for steaming. But most important is the vessel you use for steaming -- it needs to be big enough so that vapor can circulate around the food. If the steamer is too small, the food will not cook as quickly or evenly. 

Some options include metal steamer baskets and pot inserts, and multilevel bamboo baskets are common in Asian cooking. A metal colander with small holes will also work in a pinch. And as we used in the steamed whole fish recipe today, a plate placed on a wire rack in a roasting pan may be used. 

Another method of steaming is to wrap foods such as fish or poultry in parchment paper (also known as en papillote) and then place the tightly sealed packets in the oven, where the food cooks in its own juices (and perhaps a little extra liquid). Aromatics such as herbs, ginger onion, and lemon, or thinly sliced or shredded vegetables may be added to cook along with the fish or poultry.

While the temperature of the water won't rise above 212 degrees -- the boiling point -- it's impossible to burn foods cooked this way. You do, however, run the risk of overcooking or undercooking the food. So it's important to keep a close eye on what you're cooking.

A few general rules apply when steaming no matter which implement you use. When steaming fish or other proteins, place aromatics directly underneath them. You could also use aromatics in the steaming liquid or add wine, vinegar, or citrus juice to subtly boost the flavor.