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Healthy Eating Gathers Steam | May 6, 2009

by SeAnne Safaii-Fabiano, PhD, RD, LD and Hilary Preston, University of Idaho Student

All things old are new again.

Steaming is one of the oldest cooking methods (dating back before the discovery of fire) and it is taking on new popularity due to its health benefits. Known as one of the “eight treasured tastes” in Chinese cooking, steaming became more popular over time for economic reasons; if water was already boiling on the stove it saved energy to steam food above it, cooking two dishes with the same water. Today, steaming is used mainly for vegetables, but can also be used for meats, such as chicken and fish, or for rice and light desserts. With the economic crunch in mind, steaming is a healthy and cheaper alternative to more traditional American cooking methods.

Steaming helps protect the color, texture and shape of foods. Because the liquid never touches the food, steaming is less likely to jostle, overcook or cause the food to absorb too much water. Steaming also maintains more vitamins and minerals in foods than boiling or baking, and it requires no added fat.

Be sure to add just enough liquid to produce a good steam, without penetrating the holes of the steamer or rack. Do not allow the food to touch the liquid, otherwise it will boil. Steam food for the minimum amount of time needed, otherwise the food will get mushy. Most vegetables take only a few minutes to attain that perfect “al dente” texture, which is crisp inside, tender outside.

If you are cooking several foods, place those with longer cooking times in first, then add another layer that take less time to cook, and continue to steam. Bamboo steamers with 3 compartments work great for several foods.

Recommended Steaming Times:




10 minutes per inch of thickness


20-25 mintues

Asparagus, thin spears

4 to 6 minutes


3 to 5 minutes

Brussels sprouts

7 to 11 minutes

Cabbage, cut in wedges

6 minutes


6 to 8 minutes


3 to 4 minutes

Corn on the cob

5 minutes

Green beans

3 to 4 minutes


4 to 5 minutes


2 minutes

Although water is used most often in steaming, wine, broth or juice can be flavorful alternatives. Foods can also be marinated before steaming. Since steaming can be considered bland cooking compared to sautéing in oils, seasonings such as ginger, chili, cumin and coriander may be added to savory recipes and cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and mint to sweet dishes.

In the grocery store, look for several new lines of frozen and fresh vegetable dishes that allow you to steam meals in pouches in the microwave. These are great for those wanting quick, healthy meal options. Steaming has been around for centuries, is highly recommended by health professionals and will continue to be a popular cooking technique for many centuries to come!