The origins of steam-cooking go back thousands of years. Earthenware steamers have been unearthed in China that date from 5000BC, but the pursuit of more healthy ways to cook has driven the popularity of steam cookers in recent years. Two and three-pot cookers that sit on a stove-top are still widely used but many cooks have turned to an electric steam cooker to make healthy, perfectly steamed meals easy to reproduce every time.
Benefits of steam cooking
- Preservation of important nutrients: The high temperatures used in other cooking methods destroy vitamins and minerals in vegetables. Gentle steam heat maintains the integrity of most nutrients
- Improved digestion: Steamed foods are claimed to be more digestible, improving the performance of the gastrointestinal tract and assisting detoxification
- Vegetables keep their taste and colour: Steam heating retains the freshness and juices of vegetables
- Reduces cholesterol and calories in meats: Frying and grilling tend to ‘seal-in’ fat while steaming allows fat to escape. Cooking without butter or oil also contributes to the benefits
- A cleaner kitchen: There is no oil or smoke from frying
- Energy saving: Steam cookers stack food above a single heat source, instead of cooking a meal in parts in different pans on several gas or electric rings.
Because of steam cooking’s benefits, it is widely deployed in macrobiotic diets and healthy, low-calorie cooking such as cuisine minceur.
Electric steamers generally mimic traditional designs by heating water in a basin and circulating the steam through closed perforated bowls stacked above the basin. Most electric steamers have three cooking bowls, to separate different tasting foods, but this is not a fixed rule. An alternative design is the horizontal steam cooker where steaming compartments are arranged in a layer above the steam. Different machines add a variety of features such as a ‘no water warning’; timers; controls pre-programmed for certain foods, and digital controls. Cooking bowls are usually dishwasher safe but the base-water-heater contains electrical elements and should never be immersed.
There are some basic tips that will help you get the most from your cooker: try to cut vegetables into similarly sized pieces so that they will all be cooked at the same time. You should expect food from an upper bowl to drip into a lower bowl, so don’t put anything with a strong taste above something more bland, and anything fatty should always be in the bottom bowl.
In looking for an appliance to meet your needs you’ll need to consider the steam cooker’s capacity and features but also its ‘footprint’ and ‘storability’ and, of course, its price.
Andrew James 9L 3-tier Food Steamer
This is a budget-priced 800W machine with some digital features. It has three cooking tiers with a combined 9L capacity and a digital timer control with 6 buttons for pre-set times for various foods; a button for the user to set a cooking time, and an on/off button. There is no delay-start function but this appliance does have a keep-warm feature: an alarm signals the end of cooking and ‘keep-warm’ is then automatically engaged for up to one hour (after which time the machine turns off). A red stainless steel band surrounds the reservoir and includes a window, marked with ‘max’ and ‘min’ to allow the user to gauge the water level. The cooking trays can be stacked and inverted on the base, and the oval base-footprint on the kitchen counter is 32 cm x 23cm. Reviews are generally favourable: an efficient machine with some useful features; well worth a place on our list.
VonShef 8L 3-tier Digital Steam Cooker
The VonShef is a competitively-priced digital appliance with three, stacked cooking bowls. The timing software allows delayed-start and pre-set timing for a variety of foods and a buzzer signals when cooking is complete. Completely assembled, with lid, the machine is 37 cm high and its oval footprint is 22.5 cm across. The three see-through bowls, which combine for an 8L capacity, have removable bottoms for easy cleaning and to allow the steaming of large items (think Christmas Pudding). The capacity is reasonably ‘family-sized’. The base is finished in brushed stainless steel with a black plastic control panel containing a blue LED display. The power rating is 800 watt. Complaints centre around the limited capacity of the bottom drip tray which can overflow into the reservoir and the light plastic bowls; one user complained of a slow heat-up time. In the main, though, this is a well-reviewed machine that produces good results and will be an excellent pick for anybody hoping to try steaming without a huge outlay.
Russell Hobbs 3-Tier Steamer 21140
A basic, easy-to-use steam cooker from a well-known brand. The three trays have a combined 9L capacity and the cooker is power-rated at 800 watts. This machine has a ‘turbo-steam’ feature that generates steam, and can begin cooking, within 40 seconds of being turned on. A single timer-dial, with red ‘on’ indicator light, graces the front of the base. The reservoir contains 1.3 L of water which is sufficient for at least one hour’s steaming. Fully assembled the 21140 is 38 cm tall and has an oval footprint measuring 24 cm by 18 cm. When not in use, the cooking bowls pack inside each other, and inverted over the base, for easy storage. Unfortunately, the manufacturer recommends hand-washing the bowls to avoid discoloration and abrasion but this appliance is a firm favourite with many reviewers and we are confident it will give good service over long use.
Tefal Mini Compact Food Steamer VC135215
Designed for smaller households, the 3-tier Tefal Mini-Compact has a 6.5 L total tray capacity, which is more than adequate to prepare a meal-for-two. It has a 650 watt power rating. A reservoir-window is marked with water levels required for different foods. A beeper sounds to let you know when the food is cooked, and the reservoir runs dry. 1, 2 or 3 cooking trays can be used depending on the foods being cooked (and on the time required for each food). When not in use, the cooking bowls stack inside one another and over the base. Packed-down, the steamer is 30 cm wide; 20 cm deep and 20cm high, similar to a stack of dinner plates. All elements, except the base are dishwasher-safe. The Tefal Mini Compact is available with a black or white base and is a good choice for couples, and anyone coping with limited kitchen storage.
Tefal Convenient Series Stainless Steel Steamer
Another compact steamer from Tefal, we feature this machine for its two stainless steel cooking bowls (which collapse for storage). Many buyers are concerned that plastic cooking trays can crack or warp but these bowls are unbreakable, and BPA-free. The lid is tempered glass. The controls are simple: a round knob is used to set the required cooking time according to the guide displayed next to the dial, and a window slot shows the water level in the reservoir. This appliance has an oval base 30 cm across.
It is a good choice for a small household willing to pay a little more for a solid, well-built steamer.
Morphy Richards 48781 IntelliSteamer
The 48781 IntelliSteamer is a digital machine that employs a different design approach by arranging its cooking trays horizontally. This allows different cooking times for separate compartments. Cooking times are set for individual compartments, either on pre-set buttons or manually, according to the food being cooked. The steamer starts with the longest cooking time first and takes the others in order so that the entire meal finishes cooking at the same time. Once cooking is complete, the machine engages a 40-minute keep-warm cycle. The water level can be seen through a window slit in the front of the reservoir and there is a ‘boil-dry’ safety cutout; the plastic cooking compartments are dishwasher safe. The design is solid, with a white plastic base, including a large black control panel with flat buttons and an LED display. The 48781 has a combined capacity of 8.2 L and a 1600W power-rating. We picked this machine for functionality and versatility.
Best Steamers Summary
|Price||Tiers||Capacity (l)||Power rating (W)||Key features|
|Andrew James Food Steamer||£28||3||9||800||Budget price, digital|
|VonShef Digital Steamer||£50||3||8||800||Value-for-money, digital|
|Russell Hobbs Steamer 21140||£50||3||9||800||Well reviewed|
|Tefal Food Steamer VC135215||£40||3||6.5||650||Compact Storage|
|Tefal Convenient Steamer||£55||2||6||900||Stainless steel trays|
|Morphy Richards IntelliSteamer||£100||3*||8.2||1600||Versatility|