Steaming mad? A bamboo steamer is just what you need.
How We Tested
Bamboo steamers are great for cooking lots of food efficiently. Our favorite is the Juvale 10 Inch Bamboo Steamer with Steel Rings for Cooking. It does a great job of steaming different foods, and it’s well-made and durable to boot. If you’re cooking for an especially large crowd, we also like the Hcooker 3 Tier Kitchen Bamboo Steamer with Stainless Steel Banding, which comes with three tiers instead of two. And if you want a steamer that will let you cook taller foods, the i-Playloft Premium Handmade Bamboo Steamer is a good option.
What You Need to Know
Originally from China, bamboo steamers are perhaps best known today as the vessels used to cook and serve many popular dim sum dishes. Because they’re made up of bamboo tiers with level interior surfaces, they’re ideal for steaming any food that needs to sit flat during cooking, such as dumplings or bao, or food that might break or become misshapen in a collapsible steamer with a curved base, such as fragile fish fillets. While you can get bamboo steamers in many sizes and configurations, they’re most commonly available as sets of two or three 10-inch round bamboo tiers—a size that is compatible for use with a 14-inch wok or a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan, among other vessels. Each tier provides about 68 square inches of surface area—roughly the same surface area as our favorite metal steamer. But because the tiers are stackable, you can double and triple the capacity as needed. Cooking dumplings for a crowd? Use two or three tiers. A piece of salmon for one? A single tier will do.
The separate tiers have another advantage: You can steam foods with different cooking times simultaneously, removing tiers as each food finishes cooking. Just be aware that foods take longer to cook the farther they are from the heat source. Another advantage is that the bamboo absorbs some of the steam during cooking, preventing condensation from dripping back onto your food and getting it wet. And of course, the steamers are pretty enough that you can serve food right out of them at the table.
A few caveats: Because they’re made of a natural fiber, bamboo steamers are more fragile than metal steamer baskets—they must be washed and dried carefully between uses so that they don’t warp, crack, or develop mold. They can absorb odors from your food or cooking liquid, though at least in our experience, these odors faded after a few washes and didn’t transfer to subsequent foods we cooked. Finally, bamboo steamers take up a bit more room in your cabinet; unlike those metal steamer baskets, they’re not collapsible.
What to Look For
- Solid Construction: A good steamer should have relatively smooth surfaces with few loose fibers and have tiers that fit together easily and securely.
- Tiers with Metal Bands: Models made entirely of bamboo are prone to warping, as their fibers absorb water during steaming or washing. If an all-bamboo steamer is solidly made, you can sometimes avoid this problem—one of the models we tested was fine after 10 washes. But two other all-bamboo models, less well-made, warped slightly over time, making it harder to fit one tier over another snugly so that steam wouldn’t escape. This slight warping didn’t significantly affect their performance—both still trapped plenty of steam and cooked food quickly. Still, they were a little annoying to put together, as we had to fuss a bit more to get the tiers to align. The tiers of a few models were reinforced with metal bands around their tops and/or bottoms. These metal bands helped prevent warping and kept the tiers aligned better over the course of 10 washes.
- Thick, Glued Bamboo Slats: The base of each steamer tier has slats that allow steam to come through. Models with thick, Popsicle-stick-like slats that were glued to each other side by side proved more durable than thinner, reedlike slats that were tied together with bamboo ribbons.
What to Avoid
- Poor Construction: Some of the steamer baskets just weren’t made as well as the others. They arrived with tiers that didn’t stack securely or were made from bamboo that was discolored or brittle or had lots of loose fibers that we had to remove before using them. Because bamboo is a natural material, it’s normal for a steamer to have a few loose fibers, but any more than a few becomes a pain to deal with, as you have to pick them off carefully to avoid getting them in your food.
- Thin, Hand-Tied Bamboo Slats: We didn’t love tiers made with thin, reedlike bamboo slats that were secured to each other using even thinner hand-tied ribbons of bamboo. These slats were flimsy, and some of the ribbons broke or shredded over the course of 10 washes. These models also had more nooks and crannies for water to linger and mold to develop in, too.
- Number of Tiers: We think two 10-inch tiers provide plenty of room to steam enough food for four to six people. But if you think you might want to cook for even more folks, consider investing in the Hcooker 3 Tier Kitchen Bamboo Steamer with Stainless Steel Banding, which has three tiers. While it depends somewhat on what you cook, the food on the bottom tiers will be done faster than the food on the top; you may need to remove or reconfigure the steamer tiers over time to cook everything as efficiently as possible.
- Tier Depth: Most models had tiers that were 1.6 to 2 inches deep. The tiers on most models had a depth between 1.6 and 2 inches. This proved more than adequate for steaming dumplings and small bao. But if you regularly cook taller foods (big mantou, for example), you might like a model with higher walls—those on the i-Playloft Premium Handmade Bamboo Steamer are nearly 3 inches high.
What else do I need to start using my steamer?
- A Cooking Vessel: For the 10-inch bamboo steamers that we tested, it’s easiest to use them with a 14-inch wok or a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan that has a few cups of water simmering in it. If you have a saucepan or Dutch oven that is slightly smaller than the steamer, you can use that, too—just simmer water in it and rest the bamboo steamer on top.For smaller bamboo steamers, you can use any of the vessels listed above, or you can use smaller versions. As a rule of thumb, the wok, skillet, or sauté pan you steam in should have a diameter that is at least 2 to 4 inches bigger than that of the steamer. Saucepans and Dutch ovens should be just slightly smaller than the steamer.
- Steamer Liners: Regardless of the exact size of the steamer, you’ll also want something to line each tier when you cook in it. Cabbage leaves or perforated parchment rounds prevent food from sticking to the bamboo, facilitating cleanup. You can make your own parchment rounds, tracing and cutting out a 9-inch circle on a larger piece of parchment and punching a few holes in it to allow steam to come through. Or you can buy dedicated premade versions—they’re marketed as parchment steamer liners or sometimes as air-fryer liners.
- Heat Protection: You’ll also need some pot holders or oven mitts. The steamer gets very hot as it absorbs heat and water vapor, so it’s important to protect your hands.
- Steam bao in one tier
- Steam dumplings in two tiers (or three tiers if possible)
- Wash and dry 10 times
- Winner only: Cook salmon in one tier and greens in the other. Evaluate for odor retention. Wash once and steam dumplings; evaluate for odor transfer.
Performance: We evaluated how well the bamboo steamers cooked different foods.
Durability: We rated the steamers on how well their tiers aligned and maintained their shape after extended use and multiple washes.