Steaming is one of the oldest techniques in Chinese cooking—far older than stir frying. Some early examples of cookware used for steaming come from bronze pots called zeng, which date back to the Yin Dynasty in 1046 BC. There’s even evidence of clay pot colanders being used for steaming from some 5,000 years ago. Thanks to steaming, today we have dishes like dumplings, steamed buns, lo mai gai, and all the various dim sum fare you can find when you go to yum cha on a Sunday. Steaming is also the key to larger-format dishes like steamed fish, steamed meatballs, and various steamed meat cakes.
Why is steaming so great? It’s gentle cooking. Unlike a rapidly boiling cauldron of water, which can jostle and potentially damage delicate foods, hot steam lazily circulates around food as it cooks. Sometimes steaming is the only proper way to cook dumplings and buns; for rice, that gentle cooking ensures that rice isn’t blown out or mushy. Green vegetables are a perfect candidate for steaming: Vegetables can be rapidly steamed over just a couple cups of simmering water, and the gentle steam doesn’t dilute the flavor. And meat? Steaming is a great way to cook delicate shellfish and seafood, as well as fatty cuts of meat, such as steamed pork ribs. It's also useful for par-cooking meats and vegetables until soft and tender before finishing them in stir-fries..
A wok is perfectly designed for steaming. “A wok is wide, so you can fit virtually anything in there and steam it,” says Serious Eats contributor and chef Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen and Niceday Chinese. And with the right equipment, you're able to use multiple steaming configurations in a wok, depending on what you want to cook.
What Equipment Do You Need to Steam in a Wok?
Depending on what you want to cook, steaming in a wok involves a couple different setups. Here’s a rough breakdown of the equipment you might choose.
Perhaps the most recognizable piece of steaming equipment in Chinese cuisine, a bamboo steamer (zhēnglóng/蒸笼) remains the standard for home use today. It’s been around for centuries: The earliest prototypes are thought to have been like the bronze and ceramic models seen in murals within the Dahuting tombs of the Han Dynasty (first century AD).
Bamboo steamers are cheap, efficient, and almost perfectly designed for serving. And due to the wok’s convex shape, just about any sized bamboo steamer works with a wok. As long as the steamer’s diameter is smaller than your wok's, it should fit.
Bamboo steamers can also stack, allowing you to steam at least three or four different items over the same wok of simmering water. For most home cooks, a 10-inch steamer is sufficient for cooking most foods. Still, steamers come in all sizes—from 6 inches wide all the way to 36 inches in diameter (though any steamer larger than 12 inches isn’t ideal for home use, since it wouldn’t easily fit in a wok with a 14-inch diameter).
From a flavor and texture perspective, bamboo steamers are unique. The bamboo surface is thought to capture condensation, so that it doesn’t drip onto delicate food. Others also believe that the subtle scent from the bamboo steamer improves the flavor of food—lending a special aroma to dim sum dishes in particular.
Bamboo steamers are ideal for smaller items, like dumplings or bao, but they can also accommodate larger items, such as portions of sticky rice. The key is to make sure that whatever you're cooking is the appropriate size, and that there is adequate circulation within the steamer.
As versatile and traditional as a bamboo steamer may be, the technology isn't without its limitations. For starters, if you’re steaming directly on the surface of the bamboo, you generally need to use perforated parchment paper rounds (you can buy these), or some other form of nonstick protection, like cabbage leaves. Otherwise, you risk having food like dumplings and buns stick to the steamer, ripping the food to shreds when you try to lift it out.
The bamboo steamer is also something of a black box as far as the water level below goes: You can’t see underneath it easily while food is cooking, making it difficult to know if the wok has run dry until you smell the bamboo beginning to scorch on the hot wok. Depending on the construction of the steamer, evaporation can be faster than expected, making this a potentially frequent issue. “It’s so easy to burn the bottom of the steamer if you’re not careful,” says Sin. “It happens more often than you think.”
Finally, if you want to steam larger items—whole fish, large plates of savory egg custard, or a whole chicken—then a bamboo steamer often isn’t the best option. It’s difficult to fit these items in the limited diameter of a bamboo steamer, and (if you manage to make things fit) even harder to fish them out after cooking.
Low-Profile Steaming Rack
For steaming larger items, a better option is a simple, circular steaming rack with a large lid. Steaming racks are cheap and, like bamboo steamers, they come in various sizes. For example, to steam a whole fish, you fit a steamer rack at the bottom, fill the wok to the appropriate water level, get the steam going, then place a large plate with the fish on top of the rack. A well-fitting, domed lid traps steam and provides the perfect cooking environment with ample circulation.
For those with limited kitchen space, low-profile steaming racks are a great overall option for all wok-steaming tasks—and they can double as trivets or be used for other cooking methods, like indoor smoking.
The primary drawback of a steaming rack setup is that you can't really steam multiple items. Unlike the tiered structure of a stackable bamboo steamer, a steaming rack generally only fits one item (or one plate’s worth of items) at a time. You also need a pretty large, domed lid to accommodate the food and to ensure adequate circulation—though it's worth having one anyway since it's useful for a wide range of wok techniques.
A Pseudo-Essential Tool: The Hot Dish Steamer Tong
Steaming in a wok is a relatively straightforward endeavor, so you don't need that much extra equipment. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one tool: the hot dish steamer tong. I’d argue (based purely on anecdotes, as well as my experience as a Cantonese-American) that these claw-like tongs can be found in the drawer of nearly every Chinese household kitchen. They’re the perfect tool for picking up large, hot plates safely.
Tips for Success
Whatever steaming setup you choose for your wok, there are a few key concepts to keep in mind for success.
- Maintain an Adequate Water Level
It might seem obvious, but you need water to make steam. For a bamboo steamer, it’s best to add water until it is about halfway up to the bottom of where the steamer sits. For a small, six-inch steamer, you'll only need a cup or so of water; for a 12-inch bamboo steamer, you'll need closer to three cups. Second, the water level must be maintained, which means you should be routinely monitoring for signs of excess evaporation. It’s easy enough in a steaming rack setup—just lift the lid and peek. But for a bamboo steamer, it’s best to lift the whole steamer up to see what’s going on underneath.
- Make Sure There Is Steam
You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to sustain a steady supply of steam—especially over a long cooking period. After bringing water to a simmer, proper heat regulation is essential. If the heat is too low, then you may not produce enough steam to cook your food properly. Conversely, if you crank the heat too high, you risk excess evaporation, which might lead to periods of little to no steam if you don’t replenish the water reservoir. (If you really want to maintain a steady supply of hot water, it’s worth keeping a pot of simmering water handy so that you don’t have to wait for the water to come back to a boil.)
- Regulate Steam Level
In Chinese cooking, there is a distinction between high-heat and low-heat steaming. In practice, you can see this in action as you raise and lower the flame level: as you increase heat, there’s more steam generated. For certain delicate foods, like small dumplings or tender vegetables, low steam might be preferable; for steaming rice, a full head of steam might be more appropriate.
- Make Sure There Is Enough Circulation
Without adequate space inside the steamer, the steam won't be able to swirl around and cook the food evenly. No matter the setup, it's important not to block the steam: Any liners should be perforated so that the steam can travel up from below and reach the food. There should also be enough space around the food, and ample clearance above the food for the free movement of steam.
June 28, 2010
This article was originally written by J. Kenji López-Alt. It has since been significantly updated and rewritten by Tim Chin, with additional guidance and input from Kenji and several other wok experts.