Anyone who loves to cook Chinese food has already discovered that, after a wok, the most essential cooking utensil is a steamer. The problem is that there are so many choices that selecting the best Chinese steamer can be a mind-boggling project. Dim sum and dumplings are best cooked in a bamboo steamer, while other foods such as fish, rice, and vegetables can be handled by stove top, electric, or microwave steamers equally well. The best Chinese steamer will depend to some degree on the food being cooked, the needs of the chef, and the size of the kitchen.
Nearly everyone who cooks Chinese food has a bamboo Chinese steamer because they are very practical and very inexpensive. It is also designed to be stacked in tiers so that multiple foods can be cooked at once and in a small space, and the bottom of each tier basket is loosely woven so that the steam can rise through. These steamers are made to rest inside stove top or electric woks that hold simmering water. Other advantages to bamboo steamers are that the heat is contained, so the kitchen remains comfortable, and the bamboo sucks up excess moisture to keep water droplets from splashing onto the food.
Once a cook has mastered using a bamboo Chinese steamer, many decide to purchase a stainless steel stove top steamer, an electric steamer, or a steamer designed to work in the microwave. These steamers all share an advantage; using them means the stove itself is left to handle other tasks. Once the cook has decided which of these steamer types will be the best fit, there are a number of options to consider.
First, the type of material used in the steamer’s construction can make a big difference. The best choices are steamers that are dishwasher safe, that have glass or stainless steel trays, and that have built-in safety fail-safes. Plastic trays, which are less dense than steel or glass, can scratch easily and become havens for bacteria, and harmful chemicals can leach from the plastic into the food. Cooking with steam is generally very safe, but an automatic shutoff that stops the process in the event of a boil over or excess steam adds an extra layer of security.
Chinese food that is steamed rather than stir-fried or deep fat fried not only contains fewer calories, but it is more nutritious. That’s because frying leaches vitamins, minerals, and other healthy components from food, while steaming locks them in. The best foods for the steamer are those that are as fresh as possible; whether it is fish or chicken, snow peas or eggplant, or something else, the results will be delectable.