Steaming is surely one of the most-used, straightforward, and energy-saving of Chinese cooking techniques. With a pot of water, a reliable heat source, and a platform by which to raise whatever one is steaming above the crest of boiling water, one has a beautifully simple means by which to cook the most plebeian or grandiose of Chinese dishes. On the more humble side of things edible, steaming is the way to cook one’s daily rice or steam one’s daily bread or buns. At Chinese gastronomy’s more complex extreme, steaming is the means by which to cook a whole, celebratory, pumpkin-size winter melon—hollowed out and filled on the inside with a colorful variety of meats and vegetables, and “embroidered” (as the Chinese would say) on the outside with an intricate knife-carving of a mythological dragon chasing the sun. And in the middle, one finds something like a steamed whole fish, its skin slit deep with score marks and the flesh drizzled with wine and seasonings. Steamed only minutes, it is simple but admirable, understated yet memorable—the easiest and most noble method by which to cook a fresh fish.

In the everyday Chinese kitchen, mine among them, steaming is a trustworthy, practical, and as-creative-as-you-like method by which to put food on the table. It is not dramatic (like stir-frying), messy (as deep-frying can often be), comforting (like stewing), or terribly demanding of space, time, or attention. Steaming is what I call no-hands cooking. Put a dish in the steamer and you are then free to stir-fry, deep fry, or simply dream away the time until dinner. Once you have mastered the knowledge of how much water is needed in the pot, or as I do, have learned to choose an outrageously large pot in which you can boil copious amounts of water without needing to even think of having to replenish it, you may dance around the block while your supper gets cooked.

In a good metal steamer set, quality is a matter of design more than of money or materials. The best ones I know are made in Taiwan of cheap, lightweight aluminum, come in 11-, 13-, and 15-inch diameters, and sell for less than the price of a single, fancy saucepan. The pot should hold at least 1½ gallons, capacious enough so you never need to worry about replenishing the steaming water. The steamer trays should be sturdy, not flimsy, so they will support a whole, hefty bird on a heavy plate without buckling. The flat surface of the trays should be liberally and evenly perforated with small, pea-size holes to allow the steam to jet up all around and to permit you to steam dozens of tiny dumplings directly on the tray without having to worry that they’ll half-slip through the holes. The cover should have a high, smooth dome and a deep “lip” around the inside of the rim. The sloping dome causes the water droplets which condense inside the lid to slide directly down to the rim, where they are caught in the lip. Covers designed with a plateau-like top or covers that are simply flat will send the water raining down on the food.

Once you have such a set, you have more things than you think. The pot is ideal for a multitude of everyday kitchen jobs, from boiling up pasta to hard-boiling eggs, and can be used like most big pots as a capacious mixing bowl. The steaming tiers with their sturdy handles make excellent colanders, and may also be used as serving trays for glasses and carry-alls for whatever needs lugging about. The stack even “folds up” for easy storage. If you put the pot inside the topmost steaming tier, then invert the cover inside the pot, the dimensions are reduced by half and you have a very stowable item!
metal steamer set in “nesting position,” ready to store
All in all, I am fairly wild about these contraptions. They are honestly simple and practical, easy to clean and virtually indestructible. But what about alternatives?

For the aesthetically and traditionally minded, certainly the choice steaming tool is the bamboo steamer. These are beautiful and practical, simultaneously objets d’art and batterie de cuisine, without which a traditional Chinese kitchen would seem soulfully lacking. Woven by hand of bamboo, and traditionally put together with bamboo nails and bamboo lacings, the bamboo steamer serves several functions and has several advantages. The shallow dome-shaped bamboo lid absorbs water, so one never needs to worry about condensation sprinkling down on the food. The woven steamer tiers are simultaneously cooking tools and serving pieces. Unlike a metal steamer, the bamboo one may be brought to the table with a flourish, garnished with leaves or left beautifully bare. The tiers double as fruit baskets, serving trays, and wall decorations. Hung simply on a nail, the bamboo tiers and lid stay exposed to light and air, resisting any tendency to mildew and looking gorgeous in the bargain, with their simple, clean lines and beautiful woven geometries.

bottoms-up view of woven bamboo steamer tier
Side by side with their advantages, bamboo steamers have several disadvantages, not insurmountable but worth knowing. They are by nature prone to mildew, burning, and falling apart, and hence must be stored properly in reach of air and light, placed on the stovetop beyond the range of flames, and chosen with an eye to construction. They must be washed carefully, with only hot water and a stiff brush, then dried carefully. A bamboo steamer is expensive relative to a metal one, and is furthermore only half as deep. It is more adaptable to the steaming of small items than to the steaming of a high-breasted chicken, a plate of tall pears, or a wheel of high-puffed steamed bread. While the lid goes some way toward accommodating larger items, and one may occasionally find deep bamboo steamers, the bamboo steamer is limited, as beautiful things, alas, many times are.
Bamboo steamers do not typically come in ready-made sets, so the first issue is what to get. To begin, buy two steaming tiers and one lid. Even if one tier seems enough at the outset, you will soon be wanting another. Most recipes involving small items like dumplings require two tiers to steam the whole batch simultaneously, and whereas a fish needs only one tier on which to steam, what about a place for those buns or leftover rice you may wish to serve with it? In my kitchen, steamers are like potholders: one is ridiculous, two are sufficient, and usually I’m capable of finding good use for three or four.

Diameter is the next question. Choose either a 12-inch or 14-inch steamer, depending upon your stove and your needs. A stove whose burners are arranged close together will accommodate a 14-inch steamer only at the expense of losing 1 or more neighboring burners, so you are in that case better off building up with more tiers than building out with inches. If, on the other hand, you’ve an army to feed, long fishes waiting to be steamed, or burner space to spare, then the larger size may be what you require.

Regardless of size, look closely at construction. Many of the bamboo steamers now coming out of Asia are shoddily and shamefully constructed. (The ancient steamer-makers who lived down the road from me in Taipei would weep and roll their eyeballs if they could see what has become of their craft!) Wire is now used in binding the steamers, and often the rusting sort at that, nails poke out here and there, and the material being used is flimsy enough to be mistaken for the sort used to build model airplanes. An honest, serviceable bamboo steamer should be heavy in the hand, made mostly if not entirely of bamboo, and look and feel like it will last a lifetime. The lid should be tightly and meticulously woven, and should be crowned by a sturdy loop-handle that will accommodate modate two fingers. The woven steamer rack should sit securely in its round frame, and not wiggle or jiggle when you tug on it. The tiers and the lid should fit rather snugly together. If there is a lot of shimmy-shammying from side to side, then it’s likely that the steam will escape when the water is bubbling beneath it. Check also for any tiny holes in the wood. Those holes mean worms, and discovering a colony of them when you put the steamer to use is interesting but not terribly amusing.

Once armed with the perfectly made, carefully chosen bamboo steamer, you still need a vessel capable of holding boiling water on which to perch it. There are several possible arrangements, some more serviceable than others.
The traditional arrangement, which I like least, is to put the steamer inside a wok of a slightly larger diameter, so the metal comes up in a 1- or 2-inch wide collar around the lower tier. My strongest objection to this system is that it robs the wok of its hard-won patina, and simultaneously robs the cook of the freedom to leave the stove. (Neither of these a problem in the usual Chinese household, where the patina was reinforced thrice daily and the cook never did leave the stove!) The capacity of the average wok requires that one remain vigilant to replace the water that steams away, a job which is mostly hassle and guesswork. In addition, the width of the wok oftentimes encroaches on needed burner space, not to mention that using the wok as a steaming vessel robs the cook of the wok! The one time I do use a wok in preference to another vessel for steaming is when I am steaming a giant fish and my 20-inch restaurant-size wok is all that will hold it. Bar those rare occasions and rare fishes, a wok is never a steaming vessel in my kitchen.
the traditional arrangement: bamboo steamer tier and lid seated in a wok

My own heretical preference, tried and proven through the years, is to use a large, lightweight, and preferably cheap stockpot as the base for a bamboo steamer. This can be your grandma’s aluminum stockpot that lies ignored in the basement, one you can purchase cheaply from a hardware store, or simply a pot pulled from your kitchen shelf. It should be deep, so you can fill it to the gills with water and never even have to think of replenishing it. It should be about ½ inch smaller in diameter than your steamer, so the steamer, no matter how tall it grows, will sit securely on top. It should be lightweight, so it will heat quickly and stand to be moved easily, if necessary. And it should be cheap, so that if you do run out of water and the bottom burns hideously dry, it can be roughly scrubbed clean or tossed out without incurring great damage to your pocket or your honor.

bamboo steamer sitting directly atop uncovered stockpot

A variation on this theme, involving the modest purchase of a flat, metal, and circular perforated Chinese steaming tray, is to put the metal tray on top of the stockpot, and then pile the steamer tiers on top of the tray. The tray makes a stable base for the steamer, especially useful when the diameter of the stockpot is exactly that or just a bit larger than the diameter of the steamer.

a flat, metal Chinese perforated steaming tray (top view)

There is yet another way of using a bamboo steamer, and that is to perch it atop a metal steamer. This, in fact, is what I do most often in my own kitchen, where I have both sorts of steamers and frequently juggle them in combination. Sometimes, I simply borrow the metal pot as the base for the bamboo steamer when the one matches the other and there are no handles in the way. At other times, I put the bamboo tier on top of one or two of the metal tiers. This is useful either when a protruding handle gets in the way of the bamboo tier balancing directly atop the pot, or when I need a full array of steaming racks, some for steaming small items, and others for steaming larger items in a deeper space. Steamers are to the kitchen what modular book shelves are to the study, a flexible way to rearrange space imaginatively to suit your needs.

bamboo steamer sitting directly on uncovered base of metal steamer set

Now to the question of improvising a steamer. You don’t have or you don’t want to purchase a metal steamer set or a bamboo steamer. You want to tackle some of these recipes right now, so what do you do? There are several possibilities, all more or less workable, many using things snatched from one’s usual cache of kitchen objects.

Most primitive and capable of being erected over a campstove is the partnership of one large pot and several tin cans, the cans emptied of contents and with both ends cut away. The pot must be wide enough to hold whatever you are steaming with room to spare, and the cans must be tall enough to hoist the dish you are steaming at least ¾ inch above the water. The two typical combinations are a stockpot outfitted with tall cans, or a roasting pan outfitted with short cans, the choice depending upon the size of the thing to be steamed. For instance, a plump chicken requiring an hour of steaming would do best in a stockpot with an ample amount of water beneath it, while a long fish that will steam to doneness in minutes can better recline in a roaster and requires only a shallow bit of water. Being a bad one for balance, I prefer 3 cans to the usual recommended 2, or the conscription of one large can on the order of the sort which holds vegetable shortening. With this system, you need to put the cans in the pot and hold them in place with a dish prior to adding boiling water to the pot, or else they will be washed askew by the bubbling of the water.

stockpot-tin can steamer
roasting pan-tin can steamer
Owing to this, I encourage the consideration of one of two helpful items, cheaply bought in a Chinese hardware store or in many Oriental markets, and bound to ease the life of any steam-it-yourselfer. Both provide a single, stable steaming base for an improvised steamer, with no need to worry about float-away cans.

The first, designed expressly for this purpose, is a long-legged steaming trivet, a simple rack or arrangement of metal bars permanently attached to 4 tall legs. Designed to be put into a wok, it may also be used in a stockpot (preferably, in my thinking, for the reasons stated above). Be sure it is sturdily made! My first resembled a squashed grasshopper when it collapsed on its maiden voyage under the weight of a plump duck. The longer the legs and broader the platform, the better, as you can thus fill the steamer with more water and balance the dish you are steaming more securely on top.

non-collapsible Chinese metal steaming trivet with 4 tall legs

Another stable alternative to the set of tin cans is an ordinary wok ring or wok collar, the ring of metal that comes with many wok sets and may be easily and inexpensively purchased on its own. Here, as with the trivet, you have a dual-function item. The ring will raise whatever you are steaming several inches above the water, and concurrently support the dish on its crown. The higher the wok ring the better, to permit more water for steaming, and one with a dual-diameter may prove most flexible in supporting both big and little dishes.

dual-diameter wok ring or collar
inverted wok ring used as steaming base for improvised stockpot steamer
wok ring used as steaming base for improvised wok steamer

Whatever the propper-upper, the choice lid for any of these improvised steamers is a dome-shaped wok lid or an overturned metal bowl. The dome shape causes the water that condenses on the inside of the lid to skid down the sides free and clear of the food, instead of raining down on top of it. Another choice, and a last resort, is to line a flat lid with a cloth towel, so the cloth absorbs the moisture from the steam. In this case, be careful to bring the towel up in some fashion around the lid, securing it with pins or string, so there’s no chance for it to drape down around the pot and catch on fire.

Three other tools are worth mentioning to improvisers, here in the order of their relative worth.

The first is the flat metal perforated Chinese steaming tray, already pictured. This pizza-pan type of contraption may be put on top of a stockpot or inside a wok, with the plate or thing to be steamed laid on top, then covered with a dome-shaped lid. It is a lot of function for the price and can be very useful indeed. It permits you to fill the wok or pot with the maximum amount of water.

a perforated Chinese steaming tray in its traditional position in a wok, allowing maximum water below

A lesser recommendation, though worth trying if you already have one, is the wooden crossbar platform that is frequently sold with wok sets. It is a simple platform designed for a wok, and my primary objection is that it sits so deep in the wok as to severely minimize the water available for steaming. The metal crossbar platform that I recommend for smoking is a modern variation on this primitive scheme and may be used exactly the same way. The metal model is longer and larger, and will lift the food higher, permitting more water in the pot, so though I have mentioned it second, I would recommend it first.

simple crossbar of wood with interlocking, take-apart bars

A final possibility for on-the-spot improvisation is the collapsible metal steamer basket that became a standard item in Western kitchens a decade or so ago. If you have the sort with a permanent pin in the middle, it is adequate for steaming a limited number of dumplings or buns. If the pin screws out, then you can balance a plate on top, though frequently with some peril. The short legs require you to stint on water and the basket shape severely limits the capacity and type of things you steam, but it is a possibility nonetheless.

Western-made collapsible steamer basket

Once the heat source is chosen, the next issue is the boiling water on which the whole process depends. It is the general rule to bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil before the food to be steamed goes in—thereby searing the food immediately, as opposed to slowly heating it to a sweat—and this is the ideal. However, sometimes with an improvised steamer, you may first have to position the food in the steamer and then pour the boiling water around it, to prevent the platform from otherwise sloshing away. In any case, be certain to have plenty of boiling water at hand, either directly in the pot and/or bubbling in a kettle alongside if you will need to replenish the steamer. Having extra water already boiling means minimal interruption of the steaming process if you are forced to replenish the pot.

What is important when filling the vessel is not to let the water touch the food or the dish or tier on which it is steaming. Add as much water as possible to lessen or eliminate the need to replenish, but leave at least a ¾-inch clear space between the top of the water and the bottom of the rack or plate.

Equally important is that the plate on which you are steaming be at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than the diameter of the steaming vessel, so the steam can rise easily and evenly up and all around the food. For the same reason, the lid should not touch or hover too closely above the food. If things are to steam properly, they need room in which to steam.

Something to put the food on is the next (if it wasn’t the first) question, and the answer will depend largely on the item to be steamed. Some things like dumplings, which have no sauce, may be put directly on an oiled bamboo or metal steamer tier, or on an oiled plate if you are working with an improvised steamer that lacks a rack-type platform. There are several variations on this direct steaming method—wet cheesecloth, blanched Chinese cabbage leaves, squares of parchment paper, or beds of oiled pine needles all being possibilities with greater or lesser degrees of lyricism—but the primary issue is that the food does not stick to the rack, and I find oiling the rack itself the easiest and often most attractive solution.

Other things, like fish—which are first drizzled or rubbed with seasonings and will render precious juices as they steam—require steaming in a heatproof shallow bowl, deep enough to contain the juices yet flat enough to allow for an even absorption of seasonings. My first choice in this case is a heatproof Pyrex pie plate. They come in many sizes, in both diameter and depth, and are conveniently unobtrusive if one wishes to serve in them. A fish steamed in a Pyrex dish inside a bamboo steamer may be brought directly to the table, with the pretty bamboo lattice still visible through the glass. Sometimes a flat heatproof plate will do where there’s little juice, and sometimes a cookie rack is needed inside the pie plate to hold the item above its juice, but in general have a Pyrex pie plate on hand and you’ve a most valuable tool in which to steam things. A second choice would be a heatproof gratin dish, whose shape is restricted but particularly suited to steaming a whole fish.

So here the water is at a rolling boil and the item is properly readied to be deposited in the steamer, and there arises the question of how to approach all that steam barehanded. Don’t!! For any work at all around steam, use and treasure a pair of elbow-length cooking mitts. These are not the sort that end at your wrist. What is needed are gloves that will come clear to the elbow, to protect both your hands and your upper arms. The thicker, the better, in my opinion. Steam, while it’s clear and innocent-looking, can leave a nasty, painful bum, and no amount of improvising with towels, potholders, or last year’s long prom gloves will protect you like a sturdy, well-padded pair of elbow-length mitts.

long, padded, elbow-length cooking mitts

Mitts, in my opinion, are a necessity, but what is handy if you want an additional tool is a Chinese steamer-retriever. This ingenious device is a simple set of metal “arms,” which expand to reach around an item, then contract to grasp it tightly. It is ideal when you need to pull a plate or bowl from a steamer, the only catch being that the dish must have a lip by which the steamer-retriever can grasp it.

Another possibility when it comes to retrieval is to hook a series of strings under and around the dish, then knot them at the top so you have a string sling by which to lower and raise the dish into the steamer. I am a poor knot-maker at best, and would sooner use mitts or the metal retriever than rely on strings, but the possibility should not be forgotten if you’ve no other tool at hand.

homemade string-sling
Chinese steamer-retriever with open-and-close metal arms

If the first issue is to get the thing into the steamer and the last is to yank it out, then mention must still be made of the interim when one is frequently required to lift the lid—to check or replenish the water, to baste the food, or to check it with one’s eye, a knife, or a chopstick for doneness. As a crucial safety consideration, remember to lift the lid away from you, and to resist any impulse to stick your face into the pot. Peer discreetly from a distance, poke and baste, or refill as you must, then return the cover as soon as possible. Lift the lid at an angle rather than pulling it away entirely, to cause less of an interruption to the steaming. With a metal steamer set, make sure the angle is slight or lift the lid straight up, lest the water collected neatly in the lip go spilling over the food. Whatever the steamer, the rule is to uncover it slowly, discreetly, away from you, and as infrequently as possible.

lifting the steamer lid at an angle away from you (bamboo steamer atop metal steamer base)

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