You really haven’t tasted food until you’ve steamed it. Carrots are marvelously subtle, onions lose their sharpness and green peppers are actually sweet. Some rice cookers can double as food steamers.
Throw a hunk of anything into a cooking pan –– if you could only hear the elemental screams.
One of the characteristics of American cookery is the frying pan. Consider what happens: the food molecules explode in the hot fat… actually, pop and zing. The food tries to curl up into the fetal position. Then, it burns. Meanwhile, the moisture so critical to tenderness rushes away in a cloud of steam.
Asians tell us we abuse food. They have a point, which you soon realize at a Chinese restaurant. The veggies are crisp and bright and the only explosion is their flavor in your mouth.
If the cooking pan is abuse, the food steamer is coddling. It gently cooks with steam that transfers the pot heat to the food efficiently but sanely. Good stuff here.
You’ve already got the gear because the most common American steamer is the microwave oven. It does steam, but it’s not exact. It overcooks after you remove the food.
A colander inside a pot will do it. Pour water in a pot up to the bottom of the colander and then load a handful of broccoli. Cover and boil. In five minutes, here’s broccoli candy, perfect. Corn is amazingly flavorful. Green beans taste bright and, well, snappy.
You really haven’t tasted food until you’ve steamed it. Carrots are marvelously subtle, onions lose their sharpness, green peppers are actually sweet and hot peppers are tempered.
Of course, there are health benefits to steaming food. Boiling can remove nutrients. Pan cooking can change them into something less desirable. One of the problems folks have trying to eat more vegetables is that they are almost always overcooked. That won’t happen with a steamer.
It all happens in seconds. Steaming is fast, but it takes years to master the technique. You’ve got to know exactly when to stop because the window of doneness is narrow. Experienced steaming cooks often use aroma, not time, as a signal of doneness.
One of the best selling appliances outside the U.S. is the rice steamer. It looks like a Crock-Pot, but it is entirely different. The pot contains an inner pot to hold the rice over the steam. Of course, modern ones come with sensors that decide when the rice is perfectly done. No more overcooking. No more exploded grains of mush.
It’s getting easier to justify a rice cooker in an American kitchen. These guys are moving to multipurpose. Rice cookers now pull double duty, gently simmering a variety of dishes including soup, chili, stew and even potpie and seafood casserole. One of my favorites is steamed dumplings in sauerkraut with pork loin.
Big plus: These cookers can act as a warmer, holding food for hours without overcooking.
Top makers, such as Aroma, are busy driving the old rice pot into new realms. Most of us avoid one-purpose appliances. Cookers are even moving into the Crock-Pot category as many can slow cook. Think of the new rice machines as automated kettles.
Rice cookers go way back. They were one of the first appliances. The British Museum shows one dating to 1250 B.C.
Mitsubishi was the first to apply electricity to the concept, rolling out a powered rice cooker in 1945. It required constant watching. Then in 1956, Toshiba marketed the first automated cooker.
The key is a thermostat because it keeps the heat steadily below the boiling point. The cooker shuts down when the water boils off. The thermostat allows the cooker to keep food safely warm for 24 hours.
These new machines reward creativity. You can steam cakes and puddings in them, even flans. Cook chicken breasts and rice together, and on and on. They should rename the machines from rice cookers to food steamers.
Some 95 percent of Japanese kitchens have rice cookers. They are telling us something.
Automatic steamers start at $25 for three-cup capacity and can run to more than $125. The top maker in model numbers and sales is Aroma. They make 30 models, including steamers used in commercial kitchens.
Steamed Chicken and Rice
Add one cup of water to the steamer. Place seasoned chicken breasts and one cup rice into the steam basket. Cook for about 10 minutes. Check for doneness (no pink meat).