Why You Should Start Steaming Your Vegetables
Despite all the different dietary advice floating around, there seems to be one universal suggestion: Eat more veggies. From spinach to tomatoes, vegetables are packed to the brim with important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants necessary for lasting health and better running performance.
But not everyone gets excited about gnawing on raw kale. Luckily, research shows that steaming your vegetables produces favourable results for flavour and texture, which, in the end, could help you to eat more of them.
“Steaming softens vegetables, making chewing easier, and can make some vegetables easier to digest—like broccoli and cabbage,” registered dietitian and chef Michelle Dudash, R.D.N., tells Runner’s World. “Steaming vegetables adds moisture, too, making the vegetables juicier.”
Here’s why you should consider steaming your veggies, plus how to make them tasty without breaking a sweat.
What are the nutritional benefits of steaming?
Steaming is a healthy way to prepare food, according to Dudash.
“While boiling involves submerging the vegetables completely underwater, therefore causing some nutrients—like vitamin C and B vitamins, as well as antioxidants—to leach out into the water, steaming helps retain more of these nutrients,” says Dudash. (FYI: Vitamin C is good for your immune system and aids in the production of collagen, which renews and repairs connective tissues; B vitamins help keep you energised and help your body produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your muscles; and antioxidants reduce inflammation in your body and combat oxidative stress—a harmful chemical process.)
In other words, steaming keeps food separate from the hot water, which keeps all those valuable nutrients inside the veggies instead of in the cooking liquid. In fact, researchers found that, on average, boiling reduced vegetables’ levels of polyphenol antioxidants by 38 percent—mainly because they are leached into the water. (On the flip side, steaming increased polyphenol content by 52 percent in this study.)
However, when making a soup or stew, this might be less of an issue, as the liquid is eaten as part of the dish. Harsher cooking methods—like grilling, sautéing, and roasting—may break down vegetables’ tissues, laying waste to some, but not all, of their nutrients and antioxidants.
A study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that steaming does a better job at preserving phenols and glucosinolates—disease-fighting antioxidant compounds found in foods such as kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts—than other cooking methods like boiling. A separate study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology saw similar results. Steaming also appears to be a way to help preserve the anti-inflammatory powers of leafy greens compared to frying them.
In fact, steaming can make certain aspects of eating vegetables healthier for you. For instance, a report in the European Journal of Nutrition discovered that we can absorb more beta-carotene (good for a strong immune system and eye health) from cooked carrots than raw ones. Science suggests that getting more beta-carotene in our diets can improve brain functioning as we age.
This separate study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry also tosses shade at the idea raw vegetables are better for us by finding that water-cooking methods like steaming can boost the antioxidant power of carrots, broccoli, and zucchini.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that eating boiled or roasted vegetables isn’t helpful—they just might have a lower nutritional score than the steamed stuff.
Which veggies are best for steaming?
Nearly any vegetable from green beans to butternut squash to Brussels sprouts can be steamed with good results. Items like broccoli and cauliflower can turn soggy when simmered, so steaming is an excellent cooking method for them. “Steaming helps retain a nice bright colour, too,” adds Dudash.
Harder veggies like potatoes, beets, and carrots will take the most time, but cutting them smaller will quicken the cooking time.
Furthermore, you can steam vegetables first before cooking them using another method second. For example, steaming potatoes until slightly tender before roasting them will shorten their cooking time tremendously but still give you that oven-crisp texture.
What other foods can I steam?
One of the best ways to cook vegetables is to steam them, but this cooking technique can be used for other types of food as well, such as fish and chicken. Unlike grilling and roasting, meats won’t dry out if you happen to cook them too long. Choose quicker-cooking proteins, such as scallops, shrimp, fish fillets, and boneless poultry—including chicken breast— instead of tougher cuts or bone-in meats. You can also steam eggs instead of hard-boiling them. which results in more creamy yolks and shells that will effortlessly slide off the just-set whites. Steam whole eggs for 12 minutes and then immediately transfer eggs to a bowl filled with ice water. Let rest for 20 minutes before peeling.
Here’s how to steam properly
Steaming is a simple method of cooking using just liquid and heat. Liquid that is heated to the boiling point—past 212° F—turns to vapor (steam), which then circulates around the food, transferring energy and heat to the food in your steamer basket. Luckily, steaming is a straightforward cooking method that needs little equipment and even less skill in the kitchen.
Step 1: Fill a large pot about one-third full with water and insert a steamer basket. The water should come up to just below the basket—if the water comes above the basket, pour some out since your goal is steam the veggies and not boil them. Dudash says aromatics such as herbs, citrus peel, garlic, and/or ginger can be placed in the steaming water to add slight flavour. “You can also steam with broth instead of water—that will also boost flavour,” she adds. Instead of a steamer basket, you can use a bamboo steamer placed on top of your pot or use a plug-in steamer. Alternatively, you can crunch up a few big balls of aluminium foil, place them on the bottom of the pot, and place a heat-proof plate on top.
Step 2: Fill the steamer no more than three-quarters full with your vegetables. (Overcrowding your food results in uneven cooking.) If preparing large amounts of veggies, steam them in batches. Vegetables should be cut to similar sizes so they cook in the same amount of time.
Step 3: Cover the pot to prevent most of the steam from escaping, bring water to a boil, and steam until vegetables are tender-crisp. “Just be sure to leave the lid slightly ajar, which allows acidic compounds to escape, therefore helping retain any bright colours,” advises Dudash. You should be able to pierce the vegetables with a fork, but they shouldn’t fall apart when you do so. If steaming harder vegetables that take longer to cook, check periodically so that the water has not all vapourised—add more if needed so you don’t ruin your pot.
Step 4: You can go ahead and season your steamed vegetables with a sprinkle of salt and a dressing of your choice. In fact, a little bit of fat from a sauce or dressing will help you absorb more of the fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin K (good for heart and bone health) and beta-carotene found in your cooked veggies, giving them even more nutritional firepower.