Articles / Steamy Summer Nights


Steamy Summer Nights

Published May 22, 2023

Why the most versatile — and neglected — cooking technique is the absolute best for the hot months

Microwave steaming is so cool. Photo: Kerri Conan

By day three of the fluke Pacific Northwest heat wave last week, I had it up to here with raw vegetables. No matter how hot the kitchen is, a cook’s gotta cook. Does anyone really eat salad for dinner all summer? Of course not. Nor do you want the oven or stove on for hours, or to eat all your meals off grill grates.

Enter steaming, perhaps the most misunderstood of all cooking methods. As with its evil stepsisters boiling (good for little more than pasta, stock, and certain seafood celebrations) and poaching (acceptable for eggs, salmon, and chicken if you know your way around a slotted spatula or spoon), the heat delivery system is water.

But with steaming, since the food isn’t submerged in a roiling pot of liquid, you can easily keep an eye on things. Bye-bye waterlogging. The cooking happens quickly and efficiently above the fray, under a watchful eye and prodding knife tip. Anticipate, slow, or stop doneness before it’s too late. And because it doesn’t take long to bring an inch of water to a bubble—and even less time to steam in a microwave oven—and you cook with the lid on, you’re barely transferring any heat into the kitchen.

Also in the pro-steaming column: capturing the freshness, color, and texture of peak seasonal produce to enjoy immediately or chill for later. What a terrific way to salvage anything languishing in the refrigerator drawers. You can cook a big batch of something then season and dress it differently each time you serve some. Plus, the methods also work on tofu, chicken, and seafood. This. This is what makes steaming the best way to cook in summer.

What follows is a photo-driven walk-through of techniques, recipes, and ideas:

  • Steaming over boiling water

  • How to rig a steamer

  • Microwave steaming

  • Steam Any Vegetable (a master recipe)

  • Anticipate doneness or stop cooking

  • 10 easy ways to use steamed vegetables

  • Links to more steamed stuff

The ideal boil for steaming is less than rolling but more than simmering. Photo: Romulo Yanes

Steaming over boiling water

Whether you have a designated covered pot fitted with a basket, an electric steamer, or two plates that fit well in your faithful Dutch oven, the mechanics of steaming remain the same: Keep the food above water that’s boiling steadily enough to generate steam; provide space above the food for the steam to circulate and form a convection of heat; and stop the cooking a little before your desired doneness. (More on that below.)

How you prepare food for steaming is a personal matter, decided case by case. The advantage of even-size pieces is that they cook evenly. This might be considered a disadvantage if you a) have a devil-may-care attitude at the cutting board, or b) prefer multiple textures in your mouth at the same time. I can only advise that since steaming applies heat by swirling vaporized water in a compact space, if you cut food the same way, it will cook the same way.

Whatever you choose, the food will cook fast. The master recipe that follows in a couple clicks provides some timing guidelines for different vegetables. The best way, though, is to check early and often, looking for clues with changing color; aroma; and resistance when poked with a thin knife, fork, or skewer. In reality, soft vegetables are never a crime; they’re always useful and often desirable.

The inverted-plate method in action. Photo: Romulo Yanes

How to rig a steamer

If you don’t have a basket or liner, rig a steamer with two heatproof plates or shallow bowls that fit comfortably in the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven. Put one upside down in the water, the other right side up on top of the first. Add enough water to the pot so that it just submerges the upside-down plate while keeping the upright plate high and dry.

Vintage heat-proof glass and ceramic make the best vessels for microwave steaming since the loose-fitting lids release just enough steam to prevent explosions. Photo: Kerri Conan

Microwave steaming

I steam vegetables in the microwave almost every day. (And tofu once a week.) As long as you commit to periodic stopping and checking, it’s just too easy to resist. And the idea that their internal water gets excited and produces steam to cook so beautifully is exciting to visualize.

Put the vegetables on a microwave-safe plate or in a shallow bowl. You only need to splash them with a little water; don’t drown them. And greens need nothing. Cover loosely with a towel, a vented microwave cooking lid, or another microwave-safe plate (inverted).

Since timing will depend on your microwave’s power, cook in 2-minute bursts on high until you’re comfortable with how your machine behaves. Every minute or two, stop the machine and—being careful of wafting steam—check for doneness. Look for color cues and the level of resistance when poked, always compensating for the effect of continued cooking as the food sits and cools. (Or stop cooking quickly as described below.)

Some inexpensive clay pots come with steaming baskets, which are gorgeous for serving. Photo: Jim Henkens

Steam Any Vegetable

By thinking of vegetables in three wildly general categories—greens, tender, and hard—all you need is this recipe to prepare and cook virtually everything. The “greens” category includes the most delicate, like watercress, spinach, and arugula, as well as those that require longer cooking, like collards and escarole. What we call “tender” vegetables are those that are firm but pliable when raw: celery, green beans, asparagus, snow peas, sugar snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms, and those that fit the description when you chop or slice them, like eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, onions, leeks, shallots, and fennel. Everything else is “hard”: root vegetables, tubers (like potatoes), and winter squashes.

For each vegetable in a category, you control how long it takes to cook by choosing how to cut or slice it. Even hard vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes will cook relatively quickly when they’re cut in pieces less than 1 inch thick; they’ll cook fastest if you grate them. Making peace with the peels—which are nutritious and can actually be delicious—saves you several minutes of prep time.

And though this recipe is designed for vegetables, you can steam fish fillets or chunks, shelled or shell-on shellfish or mollusks, or boneless chicken breasts the same way. The latter will take 5 to 10 minutes but the seafood will usually be ready in 3 to 5 minutes.

Your choice: Anticipate doneness or stop cooking with an ice bath like this or with a colander in the sink under running tap water. Photo: Aya Brackett

Anticipate doneness or stop cooking

No judgment about how crisp or soft you like your vegetables. I’m just here to make sure you get what you want. When you apply heat—regardless of the method—that heat will continue to radiate within the food until it naturally dissipates. This is where we get the term “carryover cooking.” The only way to stop this process is to apply cold. 

An ice bath is the quickest way to do this. You plunge the vegetables into a bowl of ice water, let them sit until cold, then drain and pick out any remaining cubes. Running the vegetables under cold water—either in their steaming basket or a colander—is slower but works fine if you already accounted for the delayed chilling by undercooking a little bit more.

To skip all that, pull the food off heat well before it’s to the stage of doneness you ultimately want. You will learn the exact timing for “anticipating doneness,” which is determined case-by-case, through experience and practice. The carryover cooking depends on how long the food was steamed, how much you made and whether you leave the cover on or off, and the heat of your kitchen. I don’t want to make this sound harder than it is. You can always run under cold water if things aren’t chilling as fast as you expected.

Perfectly crisp-tender string beans tossed with fried shallots and sliced almonds. Photo: Romulo Yanes

10 Easy Ways to Use Steamed Vegetables

Here’s a shortlist, followed by a recipe. 

  1. Dressed like salads, either at room temperature or chilled.

  2. Topped with poached, fried, or chopped hard-boiled eggs

  3. In frittatas or scrambles

  4. Scattered with fried seasoned breadcrumbs

  5. Stirred into stir-fries

  6. Chopped and added to taco, burrito, wrap, or sandwich fillings

  7. Added to sauces for pasta or noodles

  8. Tossed into rice or grain bowls

  9. Included in crudite (cooked vegetables served cold breathes new life into cocktail hour)

  10.  Pureed for cold soups, dips, spreads, and sauces

Cold Steamed and Dressed Greens or Other Vegetables

This recipe is inspired by a Greek dish called horta, where you sort of overcook hearty greens until they’re silky-soft and then dress them with flavorful olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper. Turns out you can serve all kinds of steamed vegetables this way, including asparagus, snap or snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, or summer squash, or young root vegetables. In terms of texture, they can be anywhere along the crisp-tender spectrum. In addition to the dark greens listed here, try Asian greens like bok choy, gai lan, vitamin greens, or tatsoi. Be sure to check out the variations that follow for even more ideas.

More steamed stuff

I’m going to assume you’re sold on steaming. What follows are links to some vegetable recipes in the archive that have interesting sauces that can be used on steamed vegetables, followed by a couple for steamed seafood just for fun. We’d love to hear what else you come up with.

Snap Peas with Walnuts and Blue Cheese
This is a nice little recipe for snap peas, which are in season right now, but later in the summer, you can do this with green beans like haricot vert — anything else that’s crisp. Cook about a pound of snap peas in salted, boiling water until crisp-tender, about a minute. Drain and shock in ice water to stop the cooking. Soften a minced shallot in olive oil until it’s translucent, for another minute or so. Add a handful of chopped walnuts and cook until fragrant, about another minute. Add the peas, salt, and pepper and warm through. Serve with blue cheese, such as Roquefort, crumbled on top.

Mark’s Vinaigrette
Simplest dressing ever, as perfect for steamed vegetables as it is for salad, followed by lots of variations.

Cabbage with Crisp Tofu and Peanut-Lime Dressing
Lift the easy dressing from the salad recipe here and put it on hot or cold cooked vegetables.

Endive and Radicchio with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
Same deal here as the previous link; you want to lift the dressing from this recipe for steamed vegetables.

Stir-Fry Sundae (with Steamed Tofu)
Also great with steamed vegetables and a drizzle of soy sauce, sesame oil, and lemon juice.

Steamed Lobster
Not boiled. Steamed.

Steamed Clams with Pasta
Emphasis on the clams.

Steamed Fish on Kale