Steamers: How to buy a steamer
Do I really need an electric steamer?
If you enjoy using a stovetop pan steamer, you might be considering upgrading to an electric model. Or perhaps you’ve been tempted by the dazzlingly low-priced steamers available in electrical stores and supermarkets.
You can buy a steamer for as little as £12 and as much as £100. Pay more and you'll get better features such as a digital timer, separate compartments and delayed start options.
But our advice is to think twice. There are loads of cheap models around, but steamers have plenty of drawbacks. They are one of those kitchen items that often end up relegated to the back of the kitchen cupboard.
Advantages of steamers
Steaming keeps more of the vitamins and nutrients in food than other cooking methods such as boiling, where nutrients leach away into the water.
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. It's 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.
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 and unadorned flavours.
Most instruction booklets advise you not to use seasoning or any liquid other than water in the cooking process – though 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
A steamer is not going to automatically take the pain out of preparing a meal.
To get the best out of it, 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.
Steamers can be rather slow. Cooking times will surprise you if you're used to steaming over a pan.
Water in an electric steamer generates far less steam than in a pan. This makes cooking take longer. 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.
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.
Where can I buy a steamer?
It’s almost easier to ask where can’t you buy a steamer.
Larger branches of supermarkets often have cheap own-brand steamers to tempt you into making an impulse purchase.
Recent tests have shown that very similar steamers can show up under different brand names.
Do I have enough storage space?
It's unlikely 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 reduce the height of the steamer considerably.
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.