What is steam cooking?

Steaming is a cooking technique; in particular, it is a “convection” method, i.e. which transmits the heat through a secondary medium placed between the heat generator and the food to be treated.

In the case of steam cooking, the intermediate medium consists of a gaseous mixture made up of water vapor and atmospheric air ( nitrogen , oxygen and carbon dioxide). The other two cooking techniques are conduction and radiation.
Steam cooking can be practiced with:

  • Pots, casseroles and pots with special basket for steam cooking
  • Steamers
  • Oven with steam function
  • Pressure cooker .

Normally steam cooking can transmit about 100 °C ( water evaporation temperature ) but, if combined with an increase in pressure (up to 2 bar), the intensity can also increase by 20%.
There is the possibility of steam cooking even in a vacuum , thanks to the use of the special preservation system. It is a method that is rarely used because it is less effective than vacuum cooking by poaching or jar cooking .


Features and Differences

Features of steam cooking

In general, it could be defined that the characteristics of steam cooking are as follows:

  • It’s slower
  • It’s less intense
  • It preserves the organoleptic and gustatory characteristics
  • Avoid the dispersion of nutrients
  • It does not produce Maillard reactions
  • It does not produce toxic molecules
  • It is only suitable for the treatment of solid raw materials
  • It is particularly suitable for the treatment of raw materials that do not require excessively long cooking times , for example meat and fish products rich in connective tissue
  • It is particularly suitable for delicate foods such as fish, white meats
    ( chicken , turkey , etc.), shellfish ( shrimps , lobster, etc.), tubers ( potatoes , Jerusalem artichokes ) and vegetables
  • Regardless of the need for fat in cooking.

How does it differ from other cooking techniques?

Steam cooking differs from other cooking techniques in several ways.
Conduction cooks by exploiting the direct contact between a material/surface and the food, providing for the passage of heat between two adherent solid bodies (pan, plate). Irradiation is based on the transfer of electromagnetic radiation (infrared and microwaves– fire/embers and special electric oven) from the source to the food, without any physical contact. Compared to the latter two, which require moving the food to uniform cooking, in convection it is instead the secondary means of moving in the space surrounding the food. Also, while poaching (blanching/blanching) and frying (two other convection techniques) use a fluid convective medium (water and oil ), steaming uses a gas .
Steam cooking also has more or less specific characteristics which help to differentiate it from other techniques. Let’s see them in more detail.



What are the benefits of steam cooking?

Steam cooking is unanimously considered the healthiest cooking method, ideal – above all – for preserving the vitamin and mineral content of food as much as possible .
There are various and important advantages ascribed to steaming meat, fish and vegetables, compared to the use of other techniques:

  • It better preserves the original organoleptic characteristics of the food, not only in terms of a more lively flavour , but also in terms of appearance (colour) and consistency. This is due to the treatment temperature (relatively low) and the slowness with which it reaches the heart of the food. Furthermore, it does not cause dilution of the aromatic components which mainly remain inside the tissues.
  • Again thanks to the slowness and uniformity of heat transmission, it does not lead to the formation of substances that are difficult to digest, or even toxic or carcinogenic , deriving from cooking at high temperatures (as occurs when grilling or frying food ). However, it is not very suitable for denaturing the collagen of certain meats (used for overcooking or for broths) and the connective tissue of cephalopod molluscs ( octopus , cuttlefish , etc.)
  • It does not require the addition of various oils and condiments , which can possibly be added raw at the end of cooking. Furthermore, the fat component that “melts” due to the heat does not remain in direct contact with the food but drops into the boiling water (which does not happen, as well as in traditional conduction techniques, not even in vacuum cooking and in the cooking pot). In this way, steamed foods are easier to digest and have fewer calories; steam is therefore a cooking method particularly suitable for slimming diets
  • As anticipated, due to the contained temperatures and the lack of direct contact with the cooking water, the steam allows you to preserve a large part of the thermolabile vitamins contained in foods (especially in vegetables) and mineral salts
  • It’s a fairly practical cooking method but not always fast. We could define that the shorter the steam cooking, the greater the amount of vitamins preserved; sometimes however, to the detriment of digestibility.
  • It does not require particularly expensive pans and utensils, which are easy to clean after cooking, saving on the use of detergents .

All these advantages, of course, are valid only if certain rules are respected during cooking.



How to steam cook? Rules of thumb and advice

The two types of domestic steam cooking

This cooking method exploits the ability of water vapor to transmit heat from the outside of the food, with which it comes into contact, to the inside. At home, there are two types of steam cooking :

  1. At ambient pressure : in which the steam is generated by boiling water at ambient pressure (1 bar); once it reaches 100°C it turns into steam and its temperature does not rise even if it supplies additional heat to the system. All you need is a pot, the specific basket and a suitable lid.
  2. At a pressure higher than the ambient one : this is the operating principle of pressure cookers, in which – thanks to the presence of a hermetically sealed lid – the boiling temperature is higher (around 120°C); this allows to reduce the cooking times to about 1/3, making it more practical and maintaining the advantages expressed in the introductory part. It requires the use of a pressure cooker with the specific basket for steam cooking.

Indirect flavouring

Another advantage of steam cooking is the possibility of adding various spices and flavorings to the boiling water ( hot pepper , vinegar , white wine, cloves , bay leaves , cinnamon , black peppercorns , etc.), with which the food will be soaked by means of steam. It is important to underline that, in this way, the absorption of the aromatic components is only partial. It does not mean less intense, but limited to those potentially volatile components such as essential oils. Conversely, non-volatile compounds remain in the base water. This justifies the difference in taste between poaching and steam cooking. Furthermore, it is not possible to salt the food during cooking (or before or after) with steam, as the salt does not pass into the evaporated water.

“Simple” steam cooking

In general, if you don’t have a pressure cooker or modern electric basket machines available, it is sufficient to get a large pot, with very high edges, and fill it halfway with water embellished with the addition of various spices. At this point you need a fine mesh basket which must NEVER come into contact with water and which must be covered by a tight lid in order to avoid the dispersion of steam.

Steam cooking tips

  • If you don’t have a suitable lid, you can alternatively use aluminum foil or transparent film to limit the dispersion of steam from the pan.
  • As an alternative to the steam cooking basket, a metal strainer can be used for the first experiments.
  • The base of the basket, being made of stainless steel, can possibly be lined with baking paper to prevent food from sticking; the latter must be placed on the basket when the water is already boiling, preferably cut into thin layers to uniform the cooking by distributing the heat better.
  • To best preserve nutrients and organoleptic characteristics, the vegetables should be cut just before placing them on the basket.
  • The fire will be moderate throughout the steam cooking time, in order to limit the possibility of the boiling liquid reaching the basket or the food.
  • Steam cooking times obviously depend on the type of food and its thickness; a couple of minutes may be enough for green leafy vegetables, which can go up to 10 or more for vegetables such as potatoes and carrots .
  • It is possible to cook fresh legumes (especially broad beans, peas , snow peas , green beans) but, due to the tenacity of the peel, dried ones (even if rehydrated) are less suitable.

Cotechino Light (steamed) and Lentils



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