Hot & Steamy

by Mark R. Vogel

        Contrary to popular belief, Robert Fulton did not invent the steamship.  Other men had built such vessels before him.  What he did invent was the first commercially successful steamship, and that eternally linked his name with its creation.  Sadly, the wealth that served to unjustly credit him with the steamship’s invention, largely evaporated in court battles over the piracy of his patents, and challenges to his state granted monopoly.  In fact, after testifying at a legal hearing in 1815 he suddenly became ill and died. 

         Historically, steam has been primarily employed for driving turbines, which in turn produce electricity.  But it is steam’s culinary applications that will be the focus of the present discussion.  Steam is water vapor.  When water is heated, eventually it reaches a temperature where its molecules break free of the liquid mass, overcome the force of atmospheric pressure, and evaporate into the air.  At normal atmospheric pressure it occurs at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.  However, as air pressure decreases, so does the temperature needed to achieve a boil.  This is because with less air bearing down on the surface of the water, less energy is required for the water molecules to overcome the atmospheric force. 

         Steaming is a wet cooking method whereby heat is transferred to the food via conduction (from direct contact with the water vapor), and convection (from the upward motion of the water vapor).  Steaming is a highly effective mode of transferring energy yet gentle at the same time.  Thus, it is ideal for more delicate meats and vegetables which would be damaged by the greater agitation and disruptive force of boiling or simmering water.  Moreover, steaming doesn’t leach away nutrients like immersion methods do since the food is not surrounded by roiling liquid.  Steaming is also the cooking method of choice for dieters everywhere since there is no fat employed whatsoever.  Steaming and “health food” are practically synonymous. 

         As for the hardware, there are a number of options.  First is the classic bamboo steamer, traditionally used to make a plethora of Chinese goodies.  They can be stacked on top of each other, thus allowing the simultaneous steaming of multiple items.  Then there’s the folding steamer insert, designed to conform to the diameter of any pot within its particular range.  Of course there’s the non-folding steamer insert.  This is basically a sauce pan with holes in the bottom.  It sits snugly on top of another saucepan which holds the steaming liquid.  There’s a specialized fish steamer which is elongated to conveniently hold an entire fish.  And for those wishing to multi-task, and save a few bucks, you can always place a small metal colander inside a larger pot of simmering fluid. 

        Streaming is pretty straightforward.  Bring the water to a gentle boil and place the food in the steamer and cover.  Just make sure the food is not in direct contact with the liquid water.  If you’re steaming something that takes an extended amount of time, you may need to add a little hot water during the process to compensate for evaporation. 

        Most vegetables can be steamed in five minutes or less.  Do not exceed seven or your green vegetables will start to lose their vibrant hues.  Thin fish fillets will take three to five minutes, six to eight for a one inch thick piece.  When it turns translucent and just starts to flake, it’s done. Never cook fish until it is completely flaking, as that is overdone.  If the fish is thick enough, you can use a meat thermometer and aim for 135-140 degrees.  Clams and mussels are finished as soon as they open.  A one pound lobster will take about ten minutes while a two-pounder will need closer to eighteen.  Chicken breasts, depending on their size, require ten to fifteen minutes. 

        Basic steaming is obviously performed with water.  But why not use a flavored liquid and impart additional flavor to the food?  Court-bouillon is a broth made from water, wine, vinegar and/or citrus juice, aromatics and herbs.  Traditionally it is employed for poaching but you can use it as a steaming liquid as well.  Moreover, when the item is done steaming you can utilize what’s left of the Court-bouillon as a sauce.  For more intensity of flavor, boil it down. 


2 cups water

6 oz. white wine

Juice of one lemon

1 onion, chopped

1 stick celery, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon salt

2 bay leaves

Fresh thyme

Fresh parsley

        Bring all of the ingredients to a boil; simmer for eight to ten minutes and strain.  You can use the court-bouillon as a poaching or steaming liquid for a wide variety of seafood, vegetables or chicken.



Court-bouillon from above recipe

1 lb. tilapia fillets

Lemon juice as needed

Salt and pepper to taste

Paprika to taste

Couple sprigs of thyme and/or parsley


         Bring the court-bouillon to a boil.  While it’s heating sprinkle the fish with  lemon juice, salt, pepper and paprika.  Place the fish in the steamer, add the herbs on top, cover, and steam three to five minutes or until done.  Spoon some of the remaining court-bouillon over the fish as a sauce. While you’re at it, steam some broccoli, sprinkled with lemon, lemon-pepper seasoning, and salt for a tasty no-fat side dish.



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