Most weekday mornings, I start preparing breakfast by putting a splash of water in a pan, placing mugs with my oat milk and my daughters cow’s milk directly into the pan, and heating it gently with the lid on. By the time I have set out bowls with cereal, nuts, and fruit, our milks are hot.

Steam is underutilized in most North American kitchens. So many people rely on appliances like toaster ovens and microwave ovens to reheat food. I did, too, until I realized that I could efficiently use steam. Steam has advantages for some things. Over the last few years, I have found more and more applications for steam heat in the kitchen. Steam-cooking is not only healthy, it is also versatile.

Hot Breakfasts

In the chill of a winter morning, having a hot bowl of food is a pleasure. It is also easier on our stomachs to have warm food for breakfast. During my childhood, the default breakfast before school was cereal with cold milk. I often had a stomach ache after eating.

Not everyone is so sensitive to eating cold food, but there may be some wisdom behind the practice of having hot breakfasts. Japanese typically include a hot bowl of miso soup with their breakfasts. Chinese breakfast foods are often piping hot: rice or millet congee, soy milk with steamed buns, stuffed balls of sticky rice (fantuan), breakfast noodles in Southwest China, etc.

Adults in North America often start the day with a hot cup of coffee or tea, but we would do well to give kids something warm, too. My daughter and I have found that warming her milk before pouring it over her cereal makes for a satisfying breakfast with no tummy ache. We use nuts, seeds, dried fruit, frozen berries, and fresh fruit to boost the nutrition and flavor of whatever cereal we start with (such as quick oats or a low-sugar commercial cereal).

Steam-Heating Beverages

The technique is to use a tall pan with a tight-fitting lid. Put enough water in to just barely cover the bottom, about two tablespoons, depending on the pan. I don’t measure.

Place heat-safe (ceramic) mugs directly into the pan and fill these with your milk of choice.

Put the lid on and turn the burner on. If you are in a hurry, use a high setting (standing there watching it) until you hear water starting to boil, then turn it down to low. Otherwise, just put it on low and get busy with other breakfast prep.

The small amount of water in the pan will generate steam, which will condense on the cool surface of the mugs and flow back down. Water is an excellent conductor of heat. In a few minutes, the contents of the mugs will be either warm or hot, depending on how high you set the burner.

Don’t keep the burner on a high setting for too long! The water could overheat and be forced out of the pan. Too much heat will also cook milk proteins to the inside of the mug and cause the overheated milk to form a film when you bring it out of the pan. Use moderate to low heat. Try it a few times, until you get the hang of it.

Reheating Leftovers in a Bamboo Steamer

East Asian bamboo steamers are an ingenious tool. One can cook food in them, yes, but they also work extremely well for reheating leftovers. Steam heats things more evenly than microwaves do, and nothing explodes.

I often put leftovers onto two plates (one for my daughter and one for me), place each plate in a steamer basket, and place the lidded steamer over a generous amount of boiling water in a wok.

Note that bamboo steamers are porous and do not return the water to the pan (as does the above method for beverages). I often find my wok running dry when I use a bamboo steamer. Use several cups of water. When in doubt, add more water!

You can check the water level after some time has passed, but use hot mitts to lift the steamer from the wok, because the cloud of steam that is released can burn you.

I keep the burner on high or medium when using bamboo steamers. Vigorous steam heat seems to work best.

Once the lid of the steamer has been hot to the touch for several minutes, the food is probably finished heating. I often turn off the burner and let it sit for a few more minutes.

The plates will be hot. When I am ready to serve the meal, I unstack the steamer baskets and let the plates cool for a minute before reaching in for them. With a quick motion, I lift the plates from the basket to counter or table surface.

Hot Plate Hot Bowl Anti-Scald Dish Clip Tongs

If you are worried about burning your fingers, you can get a simple tool variously referred to as a “dish clip” or “hot dish tongs” or “plate gripper.” Also know as a “Kitchen Folding Hot Dish Plate Clip Plate Tongs Bowl Clips Pan Dish Gripper Clips Hot Plate or Bowls Clamp Holder Tong.”

(No one knows what this thing should be called. In Chinese it is sometimes referred to as “anti-scalding tongs,” fangtang jia 防燙夾, but there are other names.)

This is a folding stainless-steel device that clips underneath the edge of a plate or bowl, so that you can lift something hot without burning your fingers. Brilliant. Anyone who does a lot of steaming should have one.

Reheating Food in Glass Canning Jars

Glass canning jars are an excellent way to store small amounts of leftovers. When I have something like soup to heat up and don’t want to dirty a pan, I will often use a covered pan to steam-heat the jar. Sometimes I heat several different jars of leftovers at the same time.

With glass, one has to be careful. Glass is more prone to shattering from thermal shock than stoneware. Thermal shock occurs when one part of the glass is heating up much faster than another part and the glass is not strong enough to accommodate the different rates of expansion. You can see this happen when you put very cold ice cubes into warm water and they crack.

To avoid my jars cracking when heated, I keep them from touching the bottom of the pan where the heat is most concentrated. A small wire rack for cookies works, but may rust. I have a stainless-steel steaming platform, but one can also use a crumpled piece of aluminum foil. Use the crumpled foil to position the jar a centimeter or more above the water.

Use gentle heat at first. The glass needs time to warm up slowly from refrigerator temperature. After a few minutes, you can turn up the burner to medium.

A lidded jar heats more slowly than an open one, but the lid keeps moisture from condensing into the food. Something like baby potatoes in olive oil is best lidded; soup can be heated with the lid off. If keeping lids on, remember to loosen them. The air inside the jars will build up pressure if it cannot escape.

Reheating Bread with Steam

One of my favorite uses of steam is to reheat bread. Bread?! Yes, I think bread is best when the starches are moist, warm, and pliant, just like when it is freshly baked. There is no reason to eat stale bread.

For me, steam is better than toasting. Toasting bread heats up the starches in stale bread and softens them, but it also dries out the surface. I find that unless I eat my toast immediately, it quickly becomes parched and hard. I think this is why so many people load their toast with butter and jam.

Steam will not give you the crispy crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread, but it will give new life to the crumb. I am one of those people who loves to tear off springy pieces of moist bread and dip them in olive oil. Steam works well for this.

Any method of steaming that keeps the bread well above the water should work. I like to cut thick slices, put them on a plate, and steam them in a bamboo steamer. Sometimes I lay slices of cheese on them and let this melt into the crumb. Or I stack layers of cheese, watercress, and onion and fuse my “steamed-cheese sandwich” together when the cheese has melted.

Revisiting Steam

Steamed foods will likely garner more attention in future years, as we expand our culinary repertoires and learn from other cultures. In the United States, almost every stove comes with an oven; baking with dry heat is commonplace. In East Asia, ovens are specialized tools that not everyone owns, but most households are set up for steaming.

Cooking well with steam is an art. I had steamed buns with vegetarian fillings in Taiwan that were astonishingly good, but I cannot yet come anywhere close to recreating them (––flour in the U.S. has too much gluten for making good steamed buns). We are missing out on some fabulous foods that are steamed.

In a future post, I plan to talk more about cooking with steam in East Asia. Consider, for example, the ceramic steaming pots called qiguo 汽鍋, which are packed with soup ingredients, stacked up into a tower, and steamed slowly until all the ingredients cook down and release their aromas. Steaming is a culinary frontier.

Do you know of some great kitchen applications for steam? Feel free to share these in the comments section, below. 

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