Steamer pans are perforated inserts that sit on top of deeper pans that hold water. When the water boils, steam circulates and cooks the food efficiently and without oil. Because no oil is used in the cooking process, steamer cooking is lower in fat than sauteing or deep frying. Unlike boiled food, steamed food also retains most of its nutrients because it doesn't cook in a pool of water that leaches these compounds. Steamer pans are especially useful for cooking vegetables.
Steamer Pan Basics
To cook in a steamer pan, add enough water to prevent it from boiling out during the cooking process. Use more water if you're cooking a large, firm vegetable like whole beets, which could take 45 minutes or longer. Less water will be sufficient for quicker-cooking foods, such as leafy greens; although they will cook just as well with a higher water level, it will take longer for the water to come to a boil. For maximum efficiency, use a tightly fitting lid to prevent steam from escaping.
Steaming Green Vegetables
As you cook green vegetables such as collard greens or broccoli in a steamer pan, the color of the vegetables will deepen and intensify before beginning to grow dull. Cook green vegetables until they're tender, and stop cooking them before they start to lose color. If your steamer pan has a glass lid, you'll be able to see the color changing. If your steamer pan has a metal lid, remove it frequently to check for doneness when steaming quickly cooking vegetables such as chard, or check more occasionally when steaming denser green vegetables such as broccoli.
Steaming Root Vegetables
Root vegetables such as beets, potatoes and turnips take longer to cook in a steamer pan because of their density. You can steam them whole or cut them into smaller chunks. The smaller the pieces you steam, the more quickly they will cook. Whole root vegetables usually take 30 minutes to an hour to fully soften, and bite-size pieces will usually steam to softness in 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how tightly you pack the steamer compartment.
Steaming Breads and Cereals
Some grain-based foods such as tamales and hum bow also cook well in steamer pans, especially buns or dumplings whose characteristic texture is moist. When steaming breads or cereal products, make allowances for the stickiness that can make moist dough adhere to a pan. Because they are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, tamales have built-in dividers that keep them from sticking. When steaming hum bow, either line the steamer pan with leafy greens such as collards or lettuce, or oil its surface to prevent sticking.
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