How to buy the best steamer
By Matt Clear
Looking to eat more healthily? Steaming your vegetables, meat and fish is a great way to keep the nutrients locked into them. But food steamers aren't for everyone. Here we answer the questions you should consider when deciding whether to buy a steamer.
We'll also explain what to look for when buying a steamer. Once you know what kind of steamer you want, head to our round-up of the best steamers to find one with the features you're looking for.
How much do I need to spend on a steamer?
Less than you might expect. We've found Best Buy steamers that you can pick up for less than £30. Pay a little more and you can get some useful extra features, such as a digital timer, separate compartments and delayed-start options.
Why should I buy a steamer?
Cooking more healthily is the main reason why people look to buy a food steamer, but there are several benefits to 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. So if you usually boil all your dinner veg, switching to steaming may help you to get more out of them. It's also an easy way to cook perfect rice (as long as you buy a steamer with a rice bowl).
The marketing images 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.
Most steamers can fit up to nine litres of food, which should easily be enough for a main meal for a family of four. It also takes the pressure off when preparing big meals as you can free up space on the hob by steaming vegetables and sides separately.
Are there any drawbacks to steamers?
Taste and appearance of steamed food
Although steaming is a good way of bringing out the natural flavours of the food, you might find it a little bland. When testing steamers, we found that fish and chicken both came out a bit pallid and created juices that coagulate unattractively on the surface. 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 food.
It's also worth knowing that microwave steaming actually retains more nutrients than using a standalone steamer, plus it's quicker. So you may want to get a multitasking appliance and plump for a Best Buy microwave instead.
Steamers generate less steam than a normal pan of water, so they can be rather slow. 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
Steamers can be frustrating to clean, as perforations and holes in the cooking baskets' bases are dirt traps, plus food juices can drip down into the base and condensation trays. Some baskets have removable, slot-in bases that make cleaning easier. Our steamer reviews will tell you which models are easiest to clean, so you don't end up spending ages cleaning up after dinner.
The best steamers will cook food well, quickly and be easy to clean. So if you're keen to get steaming, make sure you read our steamer reviews to find the best steamer for your budget, and avoid a slow or annoying model.
What steamer features do I need?
Steamer baskets - 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 during cooking to vary the temperature intensity.
- Variable-size baskets - require you to plan and coordinate the cooking sequence in advance, but they stack inside each other, making them more compact to store.
Some steamers 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. They are also easier to clean.
Rice cooker - some steamers include a rice bowl. This is a smaller dish that sits in one of the steaming baskets and allows you to steam rice. It can take 20-40 minutes to cook rice in a steamer, but the results are generally impressive. And if you're also hoping to cook eggs in your steamer, then look out for a model with egg supports so they can be cooked upright.
Water gauge - an external water gauge will 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.
External water inlets allow you to easily add more water while steaming.
External water inlets - these 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.
Timers - 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.
Keep-warm function - 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.
Do I have enough space for a steamer?
It's unlikely that you'll want to leave the steamer out on your kitchen worktop all the time, as they can take up quite a lot of space, so it’s a good idea to choose one that's easy to store away 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.
Now you know what to look for, find the perfect steamer for you by checking out our steamer reviews.