The art of cooking is an extremely challenging one that cannot be developed overnight. It takes practice, perseverance and passion to master cooking. Perfection in cooking can be obtained only by observing and noting the key points that complete a dish. In Asian cooking, one such important factor is steaming. Out of the main cooking techniques used, steaming is the natural fit for lighter foods as it ensures texture and flavour of the ingredients are untouched.
Steaming is a great cooking technique which cooks the food very gently. Since the liquid never touches the food, there is a lesser chance of the food being overcooked. This means the food retains its colour, texture and shape. Cooking with a bamboo steamer is healthier even when compared to boiling because the latter allows water-soluble nutrients to leech from the food into the water.
A bamboo steamer is a round vessel with a woven bottom that allows steam to enter and cook the food. They are featured time and again in Asian recipes. The steamers can be stacked on top of each other to cook multiple foods at the same time. They sit above boiling water in a pot or wok and the top steamer has a lid. Bamboo steamers are inexpensive and easy to use. They can be used to cook vegetables, fish, chicken, crabs, dumplings and more.
Once you have given your steamer a good wash with mild soapy water, it is a good idea to soak all parts of it in water for at least 30 minutes. This helps with the heat distribution within the steamer.
Your steamer should fit nicely within the rim of your wok or pot, and not be wider as this will delay the cooking time.
Never place the steamer directly on fire or heat source as it will burn. During the cooking process, make sure the water in the pan is up to the rim of the bamboo steamer. And if too low do top it up with hot water to prevent the temperature from dropping drastically.
Always handle the steamer and its contents with care as they will be very hot. Use oven mitts or speciality tongs to move things about. Steam is water boiling at 100°C and can cause nasty burns. So always open the lid of the steamer away from you.
If cooking food that sticks easily, such as dumplings, buns, cakes or Bao, line the steamer with a base such as wax paper to prevent food from sticking to the bamboo. For additional flavour – lettuce leaves, bamboo leaves or banana leaves can be placed inside the steamer. The dumplings or other items are then placed on top of this.
If cooking juicy meals with gravy such as steamed tofu, meat, fish or prawns, choose a plate or bowl with at least 3cm depth to prevent the juices from your food being wasted into the boiling water below. Porcelain or untreated metal dishes work best but you can also use stoneware and glass dishes.
Vegetables and other foods that do not stick can be simply steamed without an extra dish or liner.
If cooking in multiple layers of steamers, place foods that have longer cooking time at the bottom of the stack and foods with shorter cooking times at the bottom. For different foods, do place foods with similar consistencies and cook times in the same basket so that they will be cooked at the same time.
Always try to place food in an even layer so that it is evenly cooked. Food like dumplings and baos, should be at least 1 cm apart as they can become stuck to each other.
As a guide, fish fillets usually take about 10 mins but do check your food at 2 mins intervals after 10 mins to prevent overcooking.
Soon after steaming, rinse the steamer with hot water and check for any food residue. Clean it with a brush and mild soapy water. Alternatively, you can also use vinegar as a cleaning agent. Once clean keep it in an air warm place to dry out naturally. Once dry storing the steamer correctly is very important to prevent mould and mildew.
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