Steamers: How to buy a steamer
We're always being encouraged to eat more healthily, and it's well known that steaming your vegetables, meat and fish helps you to keep the nutrients locked into them. Here we answer the questions you should consider when deciding whether to buy an electric food steamer.
How much should I spend on a steamer?
Less than you might expect. We've found Best Buy steamers that you can pick up for well less than £30.
Pay a little more and you can get better features, such as a digital timer, separate compartments and delayed-start options.
Why should I buy a steamer?
Steaming keeps more of the vitamins and nutrients in food than other cooking methods, such as boiling where nutrients leach away into the water.
Pictures of steamers normally show them stuffed with fresh vegetables, but you can use them to cook much more than greens - other foods you can cook in a steamer include chicken, salmon, rice, pasta, couscous, shellfish, hard-boiled eggs and even fruit.
However, while gazing through transparent plastic at stacks of nutritious-looking vegetables may make you feel virtuous, an electric steamer isn't actually the healthiest way of cooking - microwave steaming retains more of the food's nutrients. Microwaving is also quicker and uses lower temperatures and less water.
An organised cook can prepare all their food for steaming in advance, and just add the baskets to the steamer when it’s time to start cooking.
This could be a big advantage on occasions such as Christmas Day, where a stovetop full of pans of sprouts, carrots and gravy can be a lot to juggle, and bringing it all together at the end of cooking can be a struggle.
Most steamers can fit up to 9 litres of food, which should easily be enough for a main meal for a family of four. One of the things that we test in our lab is the size and depth of the steaming baskets, so that you know whether the model you have your eye on will be able to cater for your whole family.
What are the drawbacks of steamers?
Taste and appearance of steamed food
Steamed food isn't to everyone’s taste. Although it’s a good way of bringing out the natural flavours of the food, you might find it a little bland unless you prefer the simplest, unadorned flavours. But each steamer is different, and so is the taste of the food that they cook. Our reviews tell you you which models cook up the most - and least - delicious meals.
Most instruction booklets advise you not to use seasoning or any liquid other than water in the cooking process – although this shouldn’t stop you from spicing things up a bit by laying fresh herbs over your steaming food.
Our lab experts didn’t find any mixing of flavours when they steamed vegetables and fish together, but fish and chicken were both a bit pallid and created juices that coagulate unattractively on the surface.
Getting the best from a steamer takes practice
To get the best out of your steamer, you’ll need to learn which times and cooking positions to use to get your food cooked how you like it.
With practice, it’s possible to pull off entire meals in a steamer but, like any other kitchen appliance, the skill of the cook is largely what leads to success or failure.
Water in an electric steamer generates far less steam than in a pan, so steamers can be rather slow. Cooking times will surprise you if you're used to steaming over a pan - cooking thinly sliced carrots, for example, can take up to 15 minutes in an electric steamer, compared with about seven minutes in a pan steamer with the lid on.
You also need to be careful to calculate the steaming time for the weight of food you are cooking, or it can easily be overcooked. Guideline cooking times for typical portion weights are often included in the instruction manuals.
Our reviews contain information on how quickly each steamer we test cooks, so that you can avoid the ones that will keep you waiting around.
Cleaning your steamer
Cleaning most electric steamers isn't easy, as perforations and holes in the cooking baskets' bases are dirt traps.
Some baskets have removable, slot-in bases that make cleaning easier, but it's still hard work. Base units get messy, too. Food juices and overflowing water from condensation drip trays leave a yucky residue that is tough to clean.
White plastic water chambers also get quite badly stained by vegetable juices that drip down. This is normal, but they are very hard to clean away.
What features will my steamer have?
Most steamers come with three stackable baskets that have holes in the base to allow the steam to circulate.
There are two main types: equal-size and variable size. Equal-size baskets are stackable in any order and so can be rearranged up or down to vary the temperature intensity. Conversely, variable-size baskets require you to plan and co-ordinate the cooking sequence in advance, but they stack inside each other, making them more compact to store.
Some baskets have removable bases that click into place. By removing the base you can create a taller steaming compartment for larger foods, giving you more cooking flexibility.
Many steamers come with a rice bowl – a smaller dish that sits in one of the steaming baskets. Rice can take between 20 and 40 minutes to cook in a steamer, but the results are generally impressive. And if you're intending to cook eggs in your steamer, then look out for a model with egg supports so they can be cooked upright.
Steamer base units
It's useful to have a unit with an external water gauge to show you how much water remains in the steamer chamber. This can help you avoid letting the steamer boil dry. Most steamers also have minimum and maximum filling marks in the water chamber to avoid drying and spitting.
Steamers with external water inlets allow you to add more water to the water chamber without removing the baskets, which reduces the opportunities for scalding yourself. That said, most external pouring lips don't project out very far from the appliance, so you’ll still need to take care to avoid spilling the water.
Most steamers have a clockwork timer that you turn to set the cooking time. We found that clockwork timers aren't always accurate – some stop before their allotted time.
More expensive steamers tend to have digital timers, which are much more accurate. Some of these also feature a delay function, so you can set the steamer up and leave it to come on later in the day. You shouldn’t use your steamer with a plug-in timer or remote control system.
Some steamers can keep food warm for an hour or two after cooking. You need to set this function during cooking, and make sure you top up the water level - it won't work if there’s no water in the appliance at the end of the cooking time.
If any of these features are particularly important to you, then you can narrow down the steamer for you by using our tool to compare steamer features.
Do I have enough space for a steamer?
It's unlikely that you'll want to leave the steamer out on your kitchen units all the time, so it’s a good idea to choose one that's easy to store in a cupboard.
Look for a steamer where you can stack the baskets inside each other, which will considerably reduce the height of the steamer.
A good tip is to consider the size of the box that the steamer is sold in. A tall box means the baskets won't store inside each other – you'll need cupboard space that's similar in size to the box.