The Importance Of Steam In Chinese Cookery


Steaming is one of the three main cooking techniques used in Chinese cuisine, alongside stir-frying and deep-frying. It is a healthy cooking method that allows the ingredients to truly shine without adding oils. It doesn't require mixing or stirring so it’s the preferred cooking method for delicate foods that might otherwise break apart.

The Importance Of Steam In Chinese Cookery

As the term implies, steaming involves suspending food over simmering or boiling water and cooking it with the resulting steam. Steaming as a method is valued in Asian cookery for the fact that it preserves vitamins and minerals in the food that might otherwise be washed away with boiling. It is also a way to cut back on fats or excess oils needed for frying, grilling or roasting. Many vegetables are ideal for steaming, as are proteins like fish, duck, chicken and many types of shellfish. The steaming process enhances the vibrant colours of vegetables.

Some of our favourite steamed dishes include:

  • Buns/Bao
  • Wontons
  • Pot Stickers
  • Siu Mai
  • Har Gao
  • Cheung Fun (steamed rice noodles)
  • Steamed Chicken
  • Sticky Rice In Lotus Leaf
  • Egg Custard
  • Ginger Soy Fish
  • Daikon & Turnip Cakes

How To Steam

The two types of methods you can use are direct and indirect steaming. Direct steaming refers to cooking food directly from the surrounding steam eg dumplings or steamed chicken. Indirect steaming refers to the heat provided (by the steam) to cook a concealed item eg custard in a covered ramekin or fish wrapped up in a parcel.

The simplest way to steam food is to place a steamer basket in a saucepan over about 5-10cm of boiling water. Place your seasoned food to be steamed in the basket (either directly or on a pate) and cover it with a lid. Most foods will finish cooking anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes, depending what you’re cooking. 

Chinese bamboo steamers are ideal, but the metal ones are just as easy to use. With metal steamers, simply spray the base with cooking oil spray to ensure your food doesn’t stick. Both types can be placed in a wok or over a pot they fit tightly. Bamboo steamers come in a range of sizes and are great for cooking for dim sum items like steamed buns, wontons and dumplings. Make sure to clean your bamboo steamer well and let it air dry to avoid any mould growth on the wood. When steaming in bamboo, you may need to lay some baking paper at the base to stop your dumplings or other food getting stuck. It is important that the bottom of the steamer basket does not touch the simmering water; this add too much moisture to the cooked item. 

Tips For Steaming Bao

  1. The bamboo steamer should be the same size as the saucepan you are using underneath. So, if you are using a bamboo steamer which is 20cm in diameter, your saucepan should also be 20cm in diameter.
  2. If you plan to make bao buns (or even dumplings) often, we recommend buying at least two steamer baskets which can sit on top of each other to save on cooking (and waiting) time.
  3. Fill the saucepan about one-third with boiling water, and place the steamer baskets on top.
  4. Place the saucepan with the steamer baskets on the stove over low-medium heat. If you steam the bao buns at too high a temperature, there is a risk that the buns might over-cook or they might even become soggy.
  5. Place the bao buns in each steamer basket, giving them some room to rise and expand upon cooking.
  6. Place the lid on the top steamer basket and steam for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until the buns have risen and are light and fluffy once opened.