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Bamboo steamers are the staple of Asian cooking, but this doesn’t mean everyone can’t use them in their kitchen. While it might sound complicated if you have never used it, bamboo steamers are actually easy to use and clean up.
Cooking in a bamboo steamer is one of the gentlest ways of cooking any food, and it does a great job at preserving the natural flavors. So what exactly is a bamboo steamer and how do you use it?
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Bamboo steamers are usually inexpensive and quite easy to find – in Asian markets, online, or pretty much anywhere. A bamboo steamer may contain multiple round baskets that can be stacked together and allows you to steam different foods at once, as needed.
The bamboo steamer needs to be placed over (or rather inside) a pot with water, so you’ll also need an appropriate pot for this. What you want is for the food in the first basket to be just above the water level rather than submerged, so anything with gently sloping sides can work well.
In fact, woks are perfect for this, but a regular stainless steel pot, for example, can also work quite well. What you want to look for when choosing the pot is something the right size – it shouldn’t be a lot wider than your steamer, as this will make the cooking time longer.
If you don’t want to use a wok, it’s also possible to buy a steamer ring that adapts any stock pot into the perfect pot for steaming with a bamboo steamer.
This is pretty much all that you need to know about setting up your bamboo steamer. Regarding the food you will be cooking, if you want to use multiple layers of baskets makes sure to place foods that need longer to cook on the lower levels and the food that takes the shortest to cook at the top.
This way you can remove the baskets one by one, as needed. It’s also advisable to always spread the food evenly in a thin layer when placing it in the steamer basket.
When cooking with a bamboo steamer, it is often necessary to use some kind of lining for the baskets. This is especially true when it comes to sticky foods like dumplings and rice, as you don’t want them to stick to your steamer basket.
While it is possible to buy steamer liners made of parchment paper, you can also make your own using baking paper. You just need to cut it in circles to fit the bottom of the steamer basket.
The lining should be able to let the steam through and this can be achieved by punching little holes through the paper you are using as lining.
Another option is to use vegetable leaves or other greens as lining, which is the traditional way to use a bamboo steamer. Large cabbage, lettuce, or bok choy leaves can all be used for a neutral flavor.
Banana leaves, grape leaves, and corn husks are also often used for lining bamboo baskets, but you should be aware that these will impart a subtle flavor to the food.
These are the basics you need to cook anything in your bamboo steamer, so now that we have covered that, we can move on to see how to cook specific foods in a bamboo steamer.
How To Cook Sticky Rice In A Bamboo Steamer
Using a bamboo steamer is one of the gentlest ways to cook rice. By using this method, you can get wonderful fluffy rice with it’s natural flavor completely preserved. One thing to note, though, is that you need to use white rice. Brown rice takes longer to cook and for this reason it’s not appropriate for cooking in a bamboo steamer.
To cook rice in a bamboo steamer, you’ll need to soak it in water first to remove some of the starch. Some people suggest soaking for one hour, and some suggest soaking it overnight.
It’s completely a matter of choice, but soaking the rice in cold water for longer periods of time does reduce the cooking time in the steamer. In any case, once you are ready to cook the rice, rinse it under cold running water and drain.
At this point, you can start heating up the water for cooking, but before you place the rice in the steamer basket you’ll need to line it with a lining of your choice – either parchment paper or a some green leaves.
Additionally, you can spray the sides of the bamboo basket with cooking spray to prevent the rice from sticking, but this is completely optional.
When the lining is ready, you can place the rice in the basket. Make sure to spread it out in a thin, even layer, for best results. If you are using leaves as lining, you can also place another layer on top of the rice.
Before you place the steamer in the pot, you’ll want to heat the water up until it starts boiling, and then reduce the heat slightly. Place the bamboo steamer into the pot, making sure that the rice stays above the water level.
In general, the rice should be ready in about 20 to 30 minutes, but this highly depends on the type of rice you are using and the desired results.
Once the rice is ready, you can season with kosher salt if desired. If you are not eating the rice immediately and need to set it aside, spread it out on a large plate to prevent it from overcooking from steam residue.
Bonus tip: If you want to impart a spicy flavor to your rice, don’t add the spices to the rice. Instead, add whole spaces to the water in the pot. Using vegetable or meat broth will also give the rice a savory flavor.
How To Cook Dumplings In A Bamboo Steamer
Making traditional Chinese dumplings is actually not that hard to do, but it does take some practice, and you hardly ever need to make them from scratch.
Depending on your preference, you can make the dough and the fillings from scratch, or just buy the dough and fill it yourself. Of course, you can also buy ready-made dumplings, fresh or frozen.
Today, we are not going to talk about how to make dumplings from scratch (and there are many ways to do so). Instead, we’ll focus on the steaming – something you’ll want to do no matter how you get your dumplings. Dumplings can be boiled and/or fried too, of course, but steaming really gives them a unique, beautiful texture.
Steaming dumplings is fairly simple, just place them in a basket lined with parchment paper or leaves of your choice and let them steam for around 10 minutes.
You’ll want to spread the dumplings out evenly so that they don’t touch each other as this can lead to them sticking together. In case you are not sure if the dumplings are done, use a toothpick to poke one of them. If the toothpick comes out clean, the dumplings are cooked.
If you are using frozen dumplings let them thaw to room temperature before steaming.
How To Cook Fish In A Bamboo Steamer
Fish is another classic food to cook in a bamboo steamer. To cook fish, you’ll need to line the steamer basket with a liner, just like with most other foods. The details on how to cook fish will vary depending on the kind of fish you are cooking and the recipe you are using.
You might want to marinate fish before steaming it, or alternatively, it is possible to add spices to the water before steaming. In fact, many recipes require this. You may chose to add spices to the water on it’s own, or you can mix the water with wine, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, or soy sauce, depending on the recipe and your taste.
Generally, a 1-inch thick fish fillet will take somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes to steam. If you are cooking a whole fish, on the other hand, the cooking process might take up to 30 minutes.
Bonus tip: In traditional Asian cooking, it is also common to place a small plate or dish (heatproof of course) into the steamer basket, and place the fish in the plate. This way, the plate will catch the juices that drip from the fish, which can later be poured over the fish or used to make a sauce.
How To Cook Chicken In A Bamboo Steamer
Steaming is one of the healthiest ways to cook almost anything, and this certainly holds true when it comes to chicken. To steam chicken in a bamboo steamer, you might want to marinate it first.
You can use any spices you want, but for a classic Asian taste we suggest a mix of lime juice, oyster sauce, sesame oil, chopped shallots and grated ginger.
If using this method, marinate the chicken breast for 30 minutes to an hour and then steam it in the bamboo steamer for 8 to 10 minutes.
In order to keep the tasty drippings and the marinade in place, you’ll want to line the steamer basket with parchment paper, but with a slightly larger circle so that the paper reaches a little bit up the sides. In this way, the juices won’t drip away.
Alternatively, you can also use a small heat-proof plate or bowl – just make sure there is enough space left for the steam to come through and reach the chicken.
Bonus Tip: You can also place aromatics, like ginger and/or some herbs, in the basket with the chicken. This will help impart a subtle flavor.
How To Cook Vegetables In A Bamboo Steamer
Steaming vegetables is one of the rare cases where you don’t need to use a liner to in your bamboo steamer basket. Steamed veggies are not sticky and if cooked properly they will not fall apart, so there is really no need for a liner, although you can certainly use one if you want.
Just wash the vegetables thoroughly (you can use any veggies you like), cut them in bite-sized or slightly larger pieces, and you are ready to go. As we mentioned, you can use all kinds of veggies and probably the best thing is that you can prepare them at the same time, even though some veggies cook slower than others.
Just place the veggies that take the longest to cook at the bottom tier of the steamer, and the ones that need just a short time at the top. Carrots, potatoes, beets, and root vegetables in general take longer to cook, so they should go in the steamer basket at the bottom.
Broccoli and cauliflower should go into the middle basket (if you are using three baskets, which is not necessary though), and veggies like asparagus, fava beans and green beans go at the top.
Once the veggies are done, season with salt and a drizzle or olive oil or sesame oil if you wish.
Using plain water to steam vegetables is very common, but you can also experiment with additions like miso, vegetables, or meat stock.