The most common steamer at Chinese homes. Nothing fancy. Cheap and space conscious.
Heat tends to destroy nutrients in the food, and cook often adds extra fat and carcinogens onto the food. Steaming is the healthiest way to cook your food and eat it too. Also, steam food doesn't have to taste blend or soggy. Here is some ways to steam your food and eat it too.
1. I didn't grow up with a steamer. My mother would put a small plate upside-down inside a wok and, on top of that, another bowl or plate for the food. There would be about 2 inches of water in the wok. For Chawamushi, my grandmother would use a large pot instead of a wok.
2. My aunt introduced the steam rack (first picture above) with specialized utensil to grab the dish out of the wok. This simple yet ingenious device made steaming pain free. Look for these at T&T or Chinese appliances store at Richmond or Chinatown.
3. Dennis's grandmother uses a foldable steamer to prepare her Greek styled vegetables. (left picture) Because it can fold, it fits easily in all sizes of pots and pans. It can also act as a plate or a bowl. The hook in the middle makes it easy to pull the steamer out. Although it cannot retain juice from the food for sauce, it is sufficient for Western cooking. You can find these at most kitchen appliance stores. I saw them at Save On Food too.
4. For restaurants and hardcore foodies, there is the stackable traditional bamboo steamer. It is big, bulky, and not very space conscious. It also absorbs the juice from the food and stains easily. So what is the point? First, volume, you can steam a lot of food at once by stacking as many levels as you like. Second, bamboo, if well maintained, gives the food a subtle woody aroma which are beautiful in dumplings and fish. Third, it offers great presentation when you serve your dinner straight from the steamer. I bought one for Tracy's Bridle Shower from The Bay. Again, you can find these in Richmond or Chinatown. I bought mine at Call The Kettle Black on 4th Ave (it was grossly overpriced).
5. Machine steamers are hit and miss. The bad ones are difficult to use and smells bad after awhile. The good ones are better than all the steamers mentioned above. The temperature gauge is very useful and it has the stackable function like the bamboo steamer. For steamers that can be useful for Chinese cooking, it can take up a lot of space (They usually also cost an arm or leg).
How do you steam food in a wok/pan/pot?
Step 1: Fill the pot, pan, or wok with a small amount of water. How much water depends on the size of the pot and how high the steamer sits. The water level should be low enough that water won't touch the food when the steamer's placed in the pot. A good rule is to start with 1/4 - 1/2 an inch of water, or enough water to reach 1 inch below the bottom of the steamer.
Step 2: Bring the water to a simmer (A.K.A. almost boil but not yet). Then turn the heat to low or simmer.
Step 3: Arrange your food on the steamer. If you wish to retain the juice of the food or ensure the food won't fall through the rack, put the food on a plate or bow and then put it in the steamer. If you have the bamboo steamer, you can also use aluminum foil or parchment paper instead, but do not line the steamer completely.
Step 4: When the food is read, turn the heat off and take the lid off the pot (watch out for the steam!). Carefully remove the food, plate, or rack out. You can use chopsticks, oven mitts, BBQ tongue, whatever works for you.
Step 5: (Optional) Sprinkle your favourite seasoning and toss.
How do you know if the food is cooked?
Everyone's stove is different and each food is different. It's hard to pinpoint an exact amount of time. From experience, broccoli takes 10 minutes, kale 15 minutes, fish filet 20 minutes, and whole fish 25 minutes. It is best to periodically taste your vegetable before removing it from heat to make sure it is ready. A meat thermometer is also very handy for meat dishes.
Be creative! There is no exact way to steam food. I have seem some awesome application of steaming to make delicious food from breads to desserts!