Friday, June 27, 2008

Full Steam Ahead

My reference books tell me that although steam is at the same temperature as boiling water, it contains extra heat that it absorbs when it vapourises (then losing it again when it condenses back to water), and that I can never quite understand, but it is true and that is why we should keep away from steam or we could be scalded badly. However, steaming is a very good way to cook vegetables as they can cook in this 'extra' heat before it reaches the top of the pan, hits the lid and then condenses back again. To save fuel, the best way is to use tiered pans, so that several foods can be cooked over just one burner.

My books tell me here are two basic methods of steaming – wet and dry. We are more familiar with the wet method where the steam surrounds the food and also touches it (as happens when dumplings are popped on the top of a stew to cook in the steam that rises - lid on of course). Some of you may already be using one of those a collapsible ‘petal shaped’ steamers, that can be placed over boiling water in a saucepan. These are very handy little pieces of kitchen equipment, and opened out can double as a cake stand as it stands on its own little feet. Any port in a storm. When I cook potatoes and cabbage, the potatoes are boiled in water in the normal way, the little steamer pushed into the pan to sit on top of the spuds, and the finely shredded cabbage put in the steamer. Pan lid on and the cabbage steams perfectly.

Then there is the pressure cooker where temperatures up to 205C (400F) can be reached and the cooking is done quite rapidly. At one time I used a pressure cooker regularly, but have to say that I prefer to cook meat by a slower method (casseroled in a slow oven) as this way it seems to have much more flavour. Makes the kitchen smell good too. My pressure pan is now old, but I can still use the heavy base for making jam or stock, a plate over the top will act as a lid when needed. Never really enjoyed using a pressure cooker, maybe it was because it was too heavy, needing both hands to lift it up and over to the sink to get the cold water running over the lid to reduce the pressure, on the way the pressure weight would lean over to one side and the steam hiss out over me if I was not careful. Then having to release the pressure, remove the lid, get covered in steam, and oh, well - you can guess it was not my favourite pan. Maybe modern ones are kinder.

Slight pressure can be given to water boiling in a normal saucepan, just putting on a lid proves this will raise the heat enough for water to boil more rapidly, so once the water boils, we could place a few plates on top of the pan (an easy way to heat them up), put the lid on top of the plates (to keep them warm) and this also adds more pressure. I have put my pan lid on upside down, and put a weight on this and the water stays at a rolling boil even when the heat has been turned down to its lowest. Even stood there with the pan lid on the right way round and pressed down on it, using my own pressure. This may save a few minutes cooking time, but 'elf and safety would frown on this practice and perhaps I am lucky not to have had a nasty accident. Am just telling the experiments I made, not suggesting you try.

Without a tiered system we can still ‘wet steam’ food by placing a rack (trivet) over the boiling water and the food placed in a bowl or dish standing above the water so the steam can come into contact with it. Always keep the lid on to prevent the steam escaping. The old method of steaming was best, this uses one or more stacking pans each of which have holes in the base and fitted over a saucepan containing boiling water. Once the tight lid had been placed on the top pan, everything inside will cook in the steam as it rose up. The advantage of using these tiered steamers is that different foods can be cooked on each layer. If planning a meal so that everything is cooked at the same time, follow the timings given below – chopping potatoes and other vegetables smaller if you wish them to take less time..

Foods being cooked by the ‘wet’ method, are sometimes wrapped in dough, leaves or in foil. The steam hits the wrapping but doesn’t come into contact with the contents (so it could be termed indirect steaming). Wrapped foods should be placed on the bottom tier where the steam is at it hottest, and different foods can be cooked on the one layer providing room is left between them for the steam to circulate. Unwrapped meat, chicken, fish and vegetables should placed in open shallow dishes to prevent their juices dripping into the water below, although this can sometimes be an advantage when you wish to use the water to make the base for a soup. There are times - even when using steamers - when advance planning can be a great help.
‘Sticky’ foods, such as fish cakes, patties, puddings and cakes may be placed on muslin or waxed paper in the steamer, but if using paper, make sure there are holes on the steamer base that are not covered up, it helps to stick a fork through the paper so more steam can reach the food.

We sometimes see oriental steamers made from bamboo, and these are good in that they absorb some of the steam so that foods such as dim sum (stuffed dough packages) remain fluffy and do not go soggy. Although these steamers look attractive, with regular use they tend to fall apart, get mildewed, and can retain odours, so am recommending the metal-tiered steamers as they last just about for ever and conduct more heat (am still using the ones my mother used).

It is not necessary to go to the expense of buying a new set of steaming tiers, for sometimes these can be found in charity shops or jumbles sales. In any case, a simple steamer can easily be made from bits and bobs around the kitchen. Use something like a shallow can (both ends removed ) to place on the bottom of a large saucepan to use as a trivet, and on this stand the chosen container, add boiling water to about an inch below the container. Covering the top of the pan with a thin tea towel before placing on the lid, will prevent condensation dripping onto the food below, a particularly good idea when steaming rice, couscous, or anything you wish to end up 'fluffy'.

The dry (or indirect) method of steaming is where the food is placed in a container (such as a double boiler – or bowl placed over simmering water) the contents sealed off from the steam in the pan so that all they receive is the gentle heat from below. This is how custards and lemon curd are made, we also use this method to melt chocolate, the bain marie is the same thing but used in an oven, when making crème caramels etc. As eggs (like any other protein) prefer to be cooked at slightly less than boiling point, this is also a good way to make creamy scrambled eggs.

Tips on steaming:
Foods placed on lower trays will receive greater steam pressure and cook faster. If food is placed in a higher tier allow a further 5 minutes cooking time per tier depending upon how many are stacked (suggest cooking some vegetables in the water in the saucepan itself, and having two tiers above to cook the rest of the meal)..

When checking to see if food is cooked, every time the lid is raised, the heat will drop, so allow a further minute for each ‘lid-lifting’.

Water should be at a full rolling boil when the steamers are put in place and the food put inside. Time the cooking from when the lid is in place and only then reduce the heat to slightly above simmering. The water needs to be bubbling. If needing to add more water, always use boiling.

Steam is mega-hot, so be careful when handling the steamer, wear oven gloves. When lifting the lid, keep you face away from the steam, and always remove the pan from the heat before removing the tiers and food. This prevents scalding. If you keep the lid in place the food will remain hot for several minutes.

Steaming times using a trivet or tiered containers.
Chicken: whole bird (up to 3lb) or duckling 50 mins to 1 hour.
Chicken portions: 30 minutes
Corn on the Cob: 30 minutes
Potatoes, sweet potatoes etc: 40 minutes
White fish (pieces): 20 minutes
Mushrooms: 20 minutes
Prawns (large): 10 minutes
Broccoli: 10 minutes
Carrots: 10 minutes
Cauliflower florets: 5 minutes
Courgettes: 5 minutes
Small prawns or shrimps: 5 minutes
Left-over rice and general re-heating: 5 minutes

Basic Plain Steamed Pudding:
6 oz (175g) plain flour
pinch salt
good half tsp baking powder
4 oz (100g) butter or margarine
4 oz (100g) sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 – 2 tblsp milk
additional ingredients (see below)
Cream fat and sugar together until light and fluffy, beat in the flour alternately with the eggs, then add additional ingredients with the milk. Put the mixture into a 1½ pt greased pudding basin. Cover with greaseproof paper (put a pleat in the top to allow for rising), tie paper down well with string, and steam for 1½ hours.
additional ingredients:
chocolate sponge pudding
: add 3 tblsp cocoa
fruit sponge pudding: add 3 oz (75g) sultanas
ginger sponge pudding: add1 – 2 tsp ground ginger
syrup sponge pudding: put 2 tblsp golden syrup at bottom of basin
jam sponge pudding: put 2-3 tblsp jam at bottom of basin
treacle sponge pudding: as for ginger sponge adding 2 tbslp treacle to the mixture, and use bicarbonate of soda (mix this into the milk) instead of using baking powder.

For those who wish to try something a little bit different, the last recipe for today is for a Chinese loaf', similar to the way we make bread, using baking powder (and quite a lot of it) instead of yeast. Rolling the dough and brushing it with fat, and repeating this has a touch of the croissants about it, but after that things change - the Chinese bread is steamed. Have never made this or eaten it, but it sounds very interesting, and could be worth making, but served with what? Someone may be able to enlighten us.
Chinese Silver Loaves: makes 3 loaves
7 fl.oz hot water
1 rounded tablsp gran. sugar
1 tblsp lard or oil
1lb 2 oz (500g) plain flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
pinch salt
one and a half ounces margarine
Put the sugar and lard (or oil) into the hot water and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Allow to cool down until just tepid. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, then gradually stir in the liquid. Mix well, then using your hands, gradually draw the mixture together to make a soft dough. It should not be sticky, add more flour if necessary.
Place the dough on a floured board and knead it as you would bread, pressing it down and away from you using the heels of your hands, and then folding it back and repeating the process. Knead for at least 5 minutes, preferably 8 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and elastic. Put it into a bowl, cover with a cloth and leave to rise for 1 hour.
When risen, place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead again for a few minutes, then divide into 3 portions. Cover two with a damp cloth and begin working with the third.
Roll out the portion then divide in half. Roll each into a 6" square, trimming edges to neaten. Roll one square into 8" long (the side swill shrink in to 4"). Brush the surface with melted margarine, then fold in half. Brush the top surface with more margarine, then fold in half again. The dough is now in four layers measuring about 2" x 4". Cut this into very thin (julienne) strips 2" long.
Pick up the bundle of strips, pulling them slightly to add another inch onto their length, then take a square of waxed paper, put it in front of you, place on the first (unrolled) square of dough and arrange the strips at one end so the ends of the strips stick out each side of the square. Using the paper, lift this and roll up the dough around the strips. Place this package seam side down, then repeat the whole thing twice more with the remaining saved portions
When all completed, have a steamer ready with boiling water, cut 6 rolls of waxed paper the size of each 'loaf' and sit these in the steamer with a loaf on top of each, leaving a 2" gap between to allow room for expansion. Steam for 15 minutes, then remove and leave to get cool. Serve sliced.
advance preparation:
these loaves can be prepared ahead of time and left covered with a damp cloth, at room temperature, until ready for steaming. Or they may be steamed, cooled, then reheated in the steamer for 2 minutes.

Chinese Golden Loaves: made and cooked as above, but then deep fried for 2 minutes or until golden. Drain on kitchen paper and slice to serve.