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Getting Steamy: Faster, healthier, tastier, more beautiful vegetables

With the new year, you might have resolved to eat more healthfully. For many people that could mean including more colorful, fiber-packed vegetables! Experts have long recommended filling our plates at least one-third full of vegetables, and yet so many people avoid them. Why? I've always believed that not really knowing how to properly cook vegetables had a lot to do with that. My mom - true to her Great Depression Kansas roots - believed that vegetables were those things in cans. And, if she did cook some from fresh, they were normally boiled to the point of no-return. Urp!

Fortunately, by the time I was old enough to take over my working mom's kitchen duties (she was more than eager to hand it all over to me!) it was the early '70's and Americans were starting to learn about actual, real cooking ... ala Julia Child and public television. I was such a fan that I sought out live cooking classes in my community and never looked back.

There were suddenly so many new ways to cook food! The word sauté had entered the lexicon, and of course, 'stir fry'! Then, braising and roasting. Wow! But, steaming? Not so much for some reason. Maybe it just seemed too simple and straightforward.

Let's talk about steaming vegetables. Steaming is one of the most under-rated cooking methods. It was also a big part of the Forks Over Knives Rouxbe Ultimate Plant-based Culinary course. For good reason. Steaming is high efficiency and cooks foods quickly with minimal energy use. It cooks gently delivering perfectly cooked, tender, flavorful food. And, it cooks food without any additional oil - and those damn calories. If there's downside, I can't find it.

For most vegetables, I truly prefer steaming. Unlike some other methods which can result in drab, unappealing and over-cooked vegetables, steaming renders them vibrantly colorful. Steaming also preserves nutrients over boiling. Boiling vegetables leaches the nutrients into that water that you later pour down the drain. Sad face.

And, although roasting vegetables has become a 'thing' recently, it takes time to get most ovens up to temperature, and who wants to heat up a kitchen in the middle of summer?

Benefits of steaming vegetables also include: moister, juicier and tastier veggies. “From 20 to 50 percent of the vitamins, minerals and healthy plant matter can go down the drain with the used water if the vegetables are boiled,” says Grethe Iren Borge, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (Nofima) in Ås, Norway.

“If you steam the vegetables instead, you reduce this loss by half.”

Experts also say that you should use as little time as possible cooking vegetables. Get the water up to a boil first, whether you want to steam or simply boil the vegetables. Then, put your covered steaming baskets over the boiling water.

Steaming will save you loads of time in the kitchen. Even the vegetables that take the longest time - large chunks of potatoes or hard winter squask, for example - max out with under 15 minutes time. Most vegetables are perfection with around three minutes over the steam.

I use a multi-tiered bamboo steamer that came with a handy stainless 'platform' that can be positioned over almost any pot or saucepan. But, traditionally, Chinese-style bamboo steamers are simply placed in a wok over water. I did it that way for years!

It's important to steam the denser, harder vegetables using the bottom section of a multi-tiered steamer. I hold the extra basket aside with more delicate vegetables - spinach for example - putting it on top of the bottom basket when the hard veggies are almost done. This allows you to cook more efficiently, using the already hot steam from the first batch. Depending on what you're steaming, such as potatoes and hard squash, remember to peek at water levels occasionally. During a longer steam - like 15 minutes - I'll check water levels about halfway through.

Steaming success can largely depend on cutting up vegetables (like potatoes, root. vegetables or hard squash) into roughly same-sized chunks. Same holds with florets of broccoli and cauliflower. Tossing in widely different sizes will mean that the smaller bits get overly done too soon while the rest is under-cooked. So take the time at the cutting board and it will pay off in the end.

If you're cooking whole large potatoes, root vegetables or corn on the cob, I think boiling is better than steaming. I know some people recommend steaming or even pressure cooking in an Instant Pot cooking for corn on the cob. Wrong. Boil it in well-salted water. No longer than about 2-3 minutes. Result? Perfect corn on the cob.

A bamboo steamer, with proper care, will last for years. I simply rinse mine thoroughly - maybe with a bit of soapy water. Rinse. Let it dry on the countertop. Store.

I hope this gets you started cooking with steam! I've included a handy printable PDF 'cheat sheet' for you with recommended times - once the basket is placed over already boiling water. Remember, for purposes of planning your meals - that water takes longer to come to a boil at higher altitudes. If you live at sea level, you're good to go.

vegetable steaming times & tips
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