The Best Type of Food Steamer for Your Kitchen
Whether you’re steaming dumplings, vegetables, or anything else, here’s what to expect from different types of steamers
Before the pandemic, Lunar New Year meant going out for dim sum, my family’s annual Chinese brunch with delectable, often fatty bites served tapas-style. The dishes often embrace me and many other Chinese tea house patrons so deeply that the literal translation of dim sum, touch the heart, is almost true.
Those restaurant gatherings are on hold for the second year in a row, but the pandemic can’t keep me from my dim sum. In May 2020, I ordered a wholesale-sized 150-piece pack of siu mai, the pork and shrimp dumplings dotted on top with bright orange fish roe.
Editor’s Choice: Jia Large Ceramic/Cedar Steamer Set
Where to buy: Amazon, Wayfair
This steamer set comes with a ceramic pot and lid, as well as a steamer basket made of cedar and a terracotta steamer base. Our evaluators unanimously agree that this steamer would be a beautiful addition to the kitchen. But for the price, it had better be.
In our evaluations, it took about twice as long to boil water in it vs. a regular pot of water, but the dumplings we steamed in it came out evenly cooked. The cedar basket even imparted a light and pleasant cedar fragrance. And the pot retained heat, which can be a plus, especially in chilly weather.
“The pot was made of a cuddle-worthy smooth ceramic,” says Perry Santanachote, a CR writer who evaluated each of the steamers we mention here. “It was a cold, wet day, and I literally hugged the pot for warmth while eating dumplings.”
But like many expensive things, it’s pretty high maintenance. Jia, the manufacturer, says before using this steamer for the first time, you should make some congee (rice porridge) by filling the pot with water until it’s about 80 percent full, adding one cup of rice, and letting it simmer. By making this porridge, you’ll fill the pores of the pot with starch, which can enhance its durability, the manufacturer told Consumer Reports.
Even then, you may want to avoid using metal utensils in this pot. In our evaluations, scooping out congee with a metal spoon left marks on the bottom. Plus, its white exterior can darken from the heat. If that happens, Jia says marks can be removed by applying water and baking soda in a 10:1 ratio and letting it sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
Steaming Made Easy: Bella Two-Tier Electric Food Steamer
Price: From $32.24
Where to buy: Amazon, Walmart
The only thing you’ll need ahead of time with this steamer is a power outlet and counter space. You’ll add water, add your food, set a timer, and forget it. When time’s up, the steamer shuts off. The tiers are clear, so you can check your food for its doneness without picking up the lid.
“There is an illustration of the device in the instructions, with clearly labeled parts,” says Angela Lashbrook, a CR writer who also evaluated each of these five steamers at home. “This was very helpful for an anxious idiot such as myself.” Instructions also included guidance on steaming vegetables, meat, and seafood.
But some heated plastics have long been known to leach chemicals into food, so that’s a dealbreaker for some, including one of our evaluators. Otherwise, considering its versatility and simplicity, we found it well worth the cost. Overall, dumplings were cooked evenly, but some condensation gathered on the lid above the dumplings and dripped onto them when the lid was removed.
Old School Option: Trademark Innovations Bamboo Steamer
Where to buy: Amazon, Walmart
“Steam cooking techniques using bamboo are widely used as bamboo is able to absorb moisture and humidity, therefore having a uniform steaming process and not causing overboiling,” says Ashita Kapoor, Consumer Reports’ associate director of product safety.
Bamboo steamer baskets, which are placed above pots or woks of boiling water, may be a mainstay at Chinese restaurants, but they’re far from perfect. Our evaluators found this particular model a bit precarious: “There were lots of splinters sticking out, threatening to stab me, so it required a bit of plucking up front before first use,” Santanachote said.
Like many bamboo steamers, this one is listed as 100 percent natural, a plus for those who are trying to avoid plastic. However, this type can take longer to dry than those made of other materials. This wet wood could be a breeding ground for mold as well.
Overall, dumplings came out evenly cooked, but some batches were wetter than expected.
Perfect for Small Portions: World Market Red Chinese Style Silicone Steamer
Where to buy: World Market
This is the only nonstick model we evaluated. In addition to not requiring parchment paper, the whole steamer basket is dishwasher- and microwave-safe.
The listing on the World Market website says the basket is heat-resistant up to 200° F. But since water boils at 212° F, I had to check, and sure enough the side of the box the steamer basket came in indicated that the temperature was in Celsius, and actually 220° (428° F).
When using this steamer over a saucepan on the stove, results were inconsistent. While one of our evaluators reported that water pooled around the sides of the tray, but not enough to ruin the dumplings, another said the dumplings were cooked slightly unevenly, coming out less cooked around the edges. This steamer basket wasn’t perfectly nonstick, but dumplings pulled off of the steamer basket without breaking.
Considering the material alone, you’ll likely save money by not needing parchment paper or cabbage leaves to keep food from sticking, and you’ll probably create less waste. The biggest downside we found was that this model is tiny, fitting just a snack’s worth of dumplings.
“It only fits four dumps, which is enough for a baby, I guess?” Lashbrook says.
A Hot Mess: Concord Stainless Steel 3 Tier Steamer Pot
Where to buy: Amazon, Walmart
This steamer comes with a clear lid and a versatile pot, useful for many other tasks besides steaming. But when it came to steaming dumplings, our results were mixed.
Steam escapes through a small hole in the lid, and based on the amount of condensation that dripped onto our dumplings, that wasn’t enough space. The excess moisture made some of our dumplings so soggy that their juices leaked out. At the same time, dumplings were not cooked evenly in this steamer pot. Some parts of the thin dumpling skins were cooked through while others still had raw spots.
However, if you’re more likely to use a steamer for vegetables or other foods that are less delicate, extra moisture might not do any harm.
How We Chose These Steamers
Instead of singling out specific brands of steamers, of which there are many, we evaluated steamers based on what they’re made of and chose one of each material based on their availability or their popularity based on their Amazon’s Choice designation. We chose to evaluate materials because, for example, most, if not all, traditional bamboo steamers function the same way: Steam from boiling water below rises from the water’s surface through bamboo slats, on which dumplings, in this case, sat. Steam gathers around the dumplings and cooks them, and excess steam and heat escape through gaps in the steamer lid, which is woven like a basket.
How We Evaluated Steamers
Because dumplings come in all shapes and sizes, with various fillings and varying skin thickness and consistency, we chose to steam Trader Joe’s Pork Gyoza Potstickers. These can be more accessible to those who don’t have a local Chinatown. They also have thin skins that turn from opaque to translucent when cooked and added a challenge in our evaluation of how they held up—or fell apart—after steaming. These thin skins also helped us examine how evenly these dumplings were steamed in each steamer.
To even out the playing field among models without nonstick claims, we used parchment paper (from $6.58: Amazon, Juvale, Target) instead of cabbage leaves to keep food from sticking to the steamer. Both are commonly used for this purpose, but parchment paper has a more consistent thickness.
This product evaluation is part of Consumer Reports’ Outside the Labs review program, which is separate from our laboratory testing and ratings. Our Outside the Labs reviews are performed at home and in other native settings by individuals, including our journalists, with specialized subject matter experience or familiarity. The reviews are designed to offer another important perspective for consumers as they shop. While the products or services mentioned in this article might not currently be in CR’s ratings, they could eventually be tested in our laboratories and rated according to an objective, scientific protocol.
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