The Humble Bamboo Steamer Is About to Become Your Favorite Kitchen Tool

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If you want perfect dumplings (you know you do), you're gonna need to learn how to use a traditional bamboo steamer. It's a basic but essential cooking method.

Once you've mastered the art of the dumpling, you'lll want to use your steamer for everything: vegetables, meat and seafood. You'll be amazed at just how much this low-tech, age-old device can do.

A note on the equipment

Bamboo steamers are easy to find at Asian markets, cooking supply stores and even many big grocery stores. You can find a good steamer for under $20, so no need to pay more. Many steamers will have multiple "tiers" (baskets) so you can cook a few dishes at the same time.

Along with the bamboo steamer you'll also need a pot that fits the steamer snugly and suspends it just above a few inches of water. The curved shape of a wok makes it ideal, but a pan or skillet can work too.

How to use a bamboo steamer

1. Fill, but don't crowd, your steamer

Line the bottom of the basket(s) with cabbage or lettuce leaves so food won't stick. Banana leaves, corn husks or grape leaves will also do the job while adding a little more flavor to what you're cooking.

Lay your food on top of the leaves, in a single layer. It's OK for things like dumplings to lightly touch, but they shouldn't be jammed in or they'll stick together once cooked.

2. Preheat your liquid

Fill your pot with about two inches of water or broth. Make sure the bottom of the basket will be above the liquid when you place it on top (but don't do this yet!).

On medium heat, bring the un-covered liquid to a simmer. Don't let it come to a full boil.

4. Get steamed!

Once the water has reached the simmering point, place the steamer (lid on!) over or in the pot. The leaves of your "liner" will start to wilt right away — this is normal. Things will start to get steamy inside the steamer after a few minutes. Allow to steam until the food has cooked through.

If you feel like the liquid might be running low, gently lift the steamer to check (use gloves!). Add more liquid if you need to, then place the steamer back on the pot.

To remove food, use tongs or a spoon, as the contents of the steamer will be very hot, and the rising steam will be, too.

Foods you can cook in a bamboo steamer

Dumplings

Steam for 15 to 20 minutes, then serve with dipping sauces.

Dumplings can be steamed a day ahead. Store, covered, in the refrigerator, then re-steam for five minutes before serving. Let frozen dumplings thaw to room temperature before re-steaming.

If you prefer your dumplings crispy, you can transfer steamed dumplings to a frying pan and cook in a couple tablespoons of oil on high heat until lightly browned on the sides and bottom. Since they're already cooked, you only need to fry very briefly — keep a close eye on them.

Meats

Steaming keeps the meat very moist, which is obviously awesome. Keep in mind, though, that steaming doesn't tenderize meat the way other methods (like braising) might. So it's best for cuts that are already tender to begin with.

Seafood

It's so easy to steam seafood in your bamboo steamer. Cook fish until it is tender enough to flake with a fork; shrimp will turn pinkish when done.

Poultry

Poultry loves steaming. To add flavor, marinate the bird first, or use a tasty broth instead of water as your steaming liquid. Make small cuts in the top and bottom of thicker cuts of chicken for even cooking.

Vegetables

Steaming helps vegetables keep all their nutrients even while the texture turns nicely tender-yet-crisp. Steaming times vary depending on your veggie; for instance, carrots would require more cooking than finely sliced broccoli. When you can easily slice a vegetable at its thickest part, you know it's steamed to perfection.

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