A vegetable steamer is an essential part of a well-stocked kitchen. You can buy one in a kitchenware store and also in most supermarkets, where they often hang out in the vicinity of the produce department. You can buy an expensive perforated steamer pan that serves the same purpose, or you can prepare vegetables in a bamboo steamer designed for dumplings, but a folding steamer basket has the advantages of being inexpensive, compact and quite versatile.
To use a vegetable steamer basket, open the basket in a pan, fill the bottom of the pot with water and boil the water until the vegetables are tender.
How Much Water?
The bottom of your pot should hold enough water to keep from boiling out and burning but not so much that the vegetables are sitting in the water. The legs of a vegetable steamer basket are typically 1 to 2 inches high, so some will allow for more water than others.
Perfect Steamed Veggies
When you steam vegetables, their color initially grows richer and deeper, and then they start to lose color and take on a grayish tinge. The ideal length of time for steaming vegetables is until they take on this rich hue but before they start to lose color and vitality. If you won't be serving your vegetables right away, they may continue to cook as they sit, especially if you leave the lid on your pot, so account for this extra cooking time and turn off the heat while they're still slightly underdone.
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Steam tender vegetables such as green beans and zucchini for three or four minutes. Give sturdy root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips a little more time, as much as five to seven minutes. Delicate greens such as spinach or chard can cook in as little as two minutes, while heartier greens such as collards and kale can take about five minutes. Vegetables will steam more quickly on high heat than on a low flame.
Personal preferences vary, of course. If you like your vegetables extremely soft, allow them more time to steam, and if you prefer them al dente, steam them less. Smaller pieces will cook more quickly than large ones, and your vegetables will also cook more quickly if there's a small amount in the steamer than if you pack it full. When in doubt, open the lid and try a piece.
Working With Steamed Veggies
Steamed vegetables offer the health benefits of light cooking without oil and without losing their nutrients as they would if they were boiled. On their own, steamed veggies have no flavor other than the flavor of the vegetables themselves, which is underrated but still not enough to make your dinner really pop. You can toss steamed vegetables with just about any sauce, from your favorite salad dressing to spicy barbecue sauce to your favorite salsa.
You can enjoy steamed vegetables hot or cold. Served hot with a sauce, they make a worthy side dish for meats or hearty vegetarian main dishes. Served cold, you can toss them with oil, vinegar, fresh herbs and salt and pepper to make an elegant and flavorful salad.
Steaming is also a convenient way to precook vegetables that you'll add to other dishes. Cooking a medley of ingredients together in a stew is a process rife with wild cards. Meats cook far more slowly than vegetables, and if you add your vegetables too early, it's easy to overcook them, especially if you're working with tender varieties such as green beans and zucchini. If you steam your vegetables separately and add them close to the end of the process, you'll have much more control over the results.
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.