Many cooks and health buffs have argued on whether steaming is better than boiling when preparing food items, especially vegetables. The result, no doubt, of commercials pushing sales of multi-layered electric steamers on late night TV to home cooks who dream of eating the close up-ready handcrafted, food stylist-adjusted vegetables and fish on the screen.
This article is a rundown of what boiling and steaming do to your food, and it answers the question of whether you should buy that TV steamer or if you should brush up on the culinary basics.
Understand The Basic Difference Between Steaming and Boiling
Steaming as a cooking process is defined as the use of high-temperature water vapor to cook food. It is a versatile means of food preparation that can be applied to sundry meats and vegetables.
Boiling meanwhile is a cooking process involving the immersion of food items in water or a flavored liquid heated to at least a hundred degrees Celsius or 212 on the Fahrenheit scale.
On the subject of temperature, although steam is hotter than boiling water, steaming cooks slowly compared to boiling. This is the reason boiling is more efficient when cooking huge amounts of food.
In terms of ease, there is no question that boiling wins by a significant margin. It’s a great method of cooking for those who have a minimum of kitchen equipment. Essentially all cooking vessels can be used for boiling with great effect, with pasta and vegetables being the obvious, common subjects.
Everything from a clay pot to a metal roasting pan can be used for boiling. Steaming requires a setup slightly more complicated: a steam-penetrable platform on which food can rest while being steamed. This can vary widely in terms of material and price.
Dimsum cooks prefer bamboo to steam and serve their wares, most of which cost around five to six dollars wholesale, while professional restaurant kitchens in the West can have steaming setups as big as your average refrigerator and as pricey as a secondhand car.
Of course, any cook worth his salt can jerry-rig a steamer. A wide inverted bowl in a big lidded pot can be an efficient platform for most home-steamed dishes, as it can let steam rise to cook the food item in question, so a dedicated steaming pot isn’t de rigueur for the smart home cook.
Steaming vs. Boiling: The Vegetable Battle
We eat with our eyes. That’s a fact. This is even truer when you cook vegetables. The greener the broccoli floret, or the more crimson the tomato slice, The healthier and more delicious we perceive them to be so steaming is an effective way to cook when seeking the preservation of the color Mother Nature bestowed on your groceries.
There is no other method even remotely similar to steaming in this aspect, except for sous-vide. But then again, it’s a terrible waste of time to sous-vide green beans anyway.
Boiling has a fundamental weakness when preparing side dishes or accompaniments. Many a baby boomer’s childhood meals was terrorized by bland side dishes of boiled vegetables cooked to absolute submission by clueless homemakers. If you’ve ever met a person who claims to hate broccoli or baby corn, chances are, he was probably victim of this culinary catastrophe.
There is also the not-unfounded belief that boiling has a significant impact on the nutrient content of vegetables. The truth is, most home cooks don’t realize that vegetables have substantial amounts of water-soluble nutrients. Even washing them before cooking causes their inherent nutrients to leach out into the water destined for the sink.
Total immersion in liquid compounded by the application of heat only exacerbate this phenomenon. This is the main reason why there are many advocates of the healthy value of steaming, as gentler treatment is given to vegetables when steamed.
A Question Of Texture and Palatability
Boiled food has a nasty reputation of being tasteless. “Boiled chicken” doesn’t have the same appetizing ring to it as “pan-roasted chicken”. “Steamed chicken” doesn’t do much better either.
We have to establish that neither cooking method is above the other when it comes to flavor. Whether you decide to steam or boil your average vegetable, it’s important always to keep technique in mind. While an eggplant boiled for an hour can look pale and unappetizingly limp and soggy, there’s no doubt an eggplant steamed for the same duration can look equally insipid.
There is also the reason why steamed meat isn’t on restaurant menus everywhere. The Maillard reaction that triggers the release of flavor in meat does not manifest itself in steamed food. This is its weakness. Although, a snapper steamed and doused with light soy sauce or a poached cod with hollandaise would serve as great ambassadors for both steaming and boiling, not to mention being lower in calories and fat.
The Steamy Hot Truth
For food to be steamed to delicious results requires a keen eye on the time. This is something to remember when steaming foods that are particularly heat-sensitive. Many sources are presenting steam cooking tips actually fail to mention proper steaming times. This is a bit ironic since even a humble breast of chicken can be steamed to an amazing texture, provided the steaming duration is on point.
As for boiling, temperature control is key. For delicate foods, like a fillet of white fish or an egg, we must think more along the lines of simmering or poaching, respectively; both milder forms of the process of boiling.
As for produce, while steaming and boiling are both effective methods of preparing vegetables, Harold McGee, renowned author of On Food And Cooking prepare him in a slightly different fashion. “Use your microwave,” he advises.