Post # 57 Steaming Stuff

October 12, 2012 at 10:36 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Back in the early 90s, my ex-wife and I were newly married.  Like most newlywed couples, we didn’t have a lot of money, so every purchase had to be carefully thought out.  We were in one of the large discount shopping stores whose first name started with Wal and whose last name started with Mart and chanced upon a kitchen machine for only $12.  It was called a Multi-Use Steamer.  I looked at it carefully and was sold as soon as I saw that it steam cooked rice.  It could also be used to steam cook other things and when she saw that shrimp was among them, we grabbed it and took it home.  I liked that thing so much, I bought one as a birthday gift for our sister-in-law.  The beauty of this machine was that it wasn’t simply a rice cooker.  It cooked anything by steam heat.  For me, since I love rice so much, it’s best feature was putting a cup and quarter of water in the bowl, adding a cup of rice, filling the steam reservoir, setting the timer, turning it on, walking away, and just forgetting all about it.  Half an hour later or so, there would be two cups of perfectly cooked rice waiting for me.  I wore that sucker out and had to replace it.  I wore out the second one, but when I went to replace it, it was no longer being made!!  I was devastated.  I’m a big proponent of Alton Brown’s concept that you have no single-use machines in your kitchen, so I didn’t even consider a simple rice cooker.  Eventually, I found a multi-use steamer that was no only bigger than the one I used to have, but also came with stackable baskets so you could steam more than one thing at a time.  I still have that and I still steam rice when I want steamed versus boiled.

Steaming as a cooking technique goes back a long long time.  Nearly anything can be cooked with steam.  Steam is merely water heated to a gaseous temperature (212 degrees for those who have forgotten jr high school science.)  In a closed space, the steam heats up whatever it touches.  As that heat accumulates, the thing being touched cooks.  Anyone who has ever been in a sweat lodge (love ’em!) or accidentally moved their arm over a pot of boiling water knows how hot steam can be.  I’m constantly pulling blisters off my hands and arms from steam burns.

Steam provides a moist heat since the heating element is actually the water vapor.  When that water vapor hits a cooler surface it immediately turns back into water.  A lid on a boiling pot shows this really well.  Condensation on the outside of a glass of iced tea also shows this.  The condensation process is used to purify water and distill other fine liquids.

To steam a food, you need to raise it above the liquid that’s being heated otherwise you’re only boiling the food.  The simplest way to do this is to create a steaming basket.  There are lots of ways to do this.  You can place a colander with legs in a pot of water as long as the level of the water doesn’t get into the colander.  You can buy an actual steaming basket which is adjustable but sometimes awkward to use.  If you need more water than the legs of your basket will allow, you can raise the basket by placing a small bowl in the pot and putting the basket on top of the bowl.

Steam cooks quickly and evenly and keeps the food tender and moist.  It’s similar to poaching but without the fuss.  Nearly any food can be steamed, but not all foods benefit from steaming.  I wouldn’t consider steaming a rib eye steak, but the potatoes  on the side of the steak taste great steamed, as do the vegetables.  Shellfish like shrimp are wonderful steamed since they benefit from a more gentle cooking process.  Rice gets plump and fluffy.  Chicken stays moist and tender.  Potatoes and other roots stay firm but tender while flavors develop complexity.  Frozen foods can be thawed by steaming and cooked in the process.

One of the drawbacks of steaming is that while it cooks foods it doesn’t add flavor to foods.  Any seasoning that’s added can “washed off” as the water collects on the food and runs off.  Sometimes other liquids can be used to steam and can impart their own flavors, such as wines, broths, and the like.  Also, steaming does not brown foods at all which can give foods a visually unappealing look.  Serving with sauces overcomes this and adds flavor to the food.

Some desserts are cooked via steaming, mostly egg based.  The gentleness of the cooking process keeps the eggs from curdling and helps the desserts to set well.  Custards, puddings, some cakes and breads do well with a steam bath.  A “Bain Marie” or Mary’s Bath is used in those cases.  The oven is heated and a large pan of water is placed in the oven to heat along with it.  When the oven is at the right temperature and the desserts are ready, they are placed carefully in the pan of hot water making certain that no water gets in the dessert.  The water and steam provide the moist atmosphere the desserts need to cook properly.  Yogurt is also made using a steam process.

One of my favorite ways to cook potatoes is cut them up into one inch cubes.  I place them into a steamer (whether it’s my multi-use steamer or a pot with a steamer basket), sprinkle with a little salt, and steam for about twenty to thirty minutes until a test shows they’re done.  I put them into a bowl and allow to sit for a moment to “dry”, then I melt a tablespoon of butter with some fresh herbs and toss the potatoes in the butter.  Serve ’em hot and fry up the leftovers the next day.  Good stuff!


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