The Many Uses For a Bamboo Steamer



The bamboo steamer has been used for centuries in Asia for steaming foods. This ancient cooking tool has been become a "main stream" cooking tool in U.S. households as well. Aside from it's primary use for cooking, the steamer can be used in many other ways. This article will provide you with basic use and care instructions for your steamer as well as some creative tips to make your steamer a multi-tasking kitchen tool.

How To Use A Bamboo Steamer For Cooking

The bamboo steamer is a multi-layer container that allows you to separate and cook different types of foods at one time. They layers have an open-weave bottom that allows steam to pass through to cook the food.

A Pot To Hold Water

Your steamer needs to be placed over a pot of boiling water.  While it is common to use a wok for this purpose it may not be the best use for your wok.  Boiling water in a wok will remove your careful "seasoning".  Unless you keep a special wok just for steaming then the best choice is to select a metal pot that is slightly wider than your steamer.  Make sure the steamer fits far enough into the pot to balance safely.

Placing Food In The Steamer

You can lay food directly on the steamer layers but this will make for more work at cleanup time.  To save yourself some work you can use a variety of materials to line the steamer.  Some of these products made add flavor to the food so make sure you select one that will work well with the foods you are steaming.  Here are some examples.

  • Lettuce leaves - Lettuce has neutral flavor.  Spread leaves evenly over the steamer layer.
  • Parchment paper - cut parchment paper in a circle and lay across the bottom of the steamer. Parchment won't leave any residual flavor.
  • Corn Husks - corn husks, fresh or dried have a distinctive flavor. Use when heating tamales or mixiotes. 
  • Banana Leaves - fresh or "thawed frozen" banana leaves make an excellent liner for your steamer.  They do impart some flavor to you food and this can be a plus for many dishes.

Steaming Process

Place about 2 inches of water in your selected pan and bring to a boil.  Sit the steamer layers on top of the pan. Fill steamer with foods per your recipe and place the steamer lid atop the steamer.  Steam until your food is cooked.   Be careful when removing the steamer lid as hot steam can burn. Use bamboo tongs to remove foods from the steamer.

Don't Let Your Steamer Pot Dry Out

Place a penny (or any coin) in the bottom of the boiling water.  You'll hear the coin "jangling" in the pot as the water boils.  If the sound stops you know  you are out of water.

How To Care For Your Steamer

After each use rinse the steamer trays with warm soapy water. Do not allow them to soak for an extended period of time in water. Use a nylon scrubber (not metal) to scrub off any stubborn food bits. Do not place in dish washer.

Always allow your steamer to air dry before you put it away. This is especially important in humid climates because the damp wood may begin to mold.

More Uses For Your Steamer

  • A Simple Centerpiece
  • Jeanie Bennedict shows how to make a quick and colorful centerpiece using one layer of the bamboo steamer.
  • Tamales -Bamboo steamers work well for steaming small quantities of tamales.
  • Dim sum - The steamer is commonly used for steaming and serving dim sum.
  • Fish, Meats, Vegetables Steaming vegetables helps to preserve vitamins and minerals. Given you can stack the layers you can steam meats or fish at the same time.small bamboo steamers
  • Pie carrierUse your steamer to transport a pie, cake and even cookies. You can leave the steamer as a housewarming gift for your host.
  • Gift box - The steamer is very attractive and can be used as a presentation box for gift giving.
  • Wedding Favors - uses small bamboo steamers for storing wedding favors.
  • Heating Tortillas - I use my bamboo steamer at home to heat tortillas.  I sit the steamer over a pan of simmering water. I wrap the tortillas in a clean dish towel and steam them until they are warm.
  • Steam-Dye Fabrics - George Weil suggests using the bamboo steamer for steam-dying small amounts of fabric.
  • Pet Treat Basket - Martha Stewart suggests making a pet treat basket using a bamboo steamer as natural gift basket.
  • Fruit For You provides an exotic styled fruit basket using a bamboo steamer as a base.

Make Desk Organizers From Bamboo Steamers

bamboo steamer desk organizers 

I ran across this video recently from Martha Stewart that shows you how to make nice little organizers from small bamboo steamers.  She uses the little steamers to hold stamps, pushpins, paperclips and more.  Watch the video here

The steps are simple:

  1. Find an purchase the correct size steamers.  Asian stores are the best source for a variety of sizes.
  2. Use a label maker such as a PTouch to print a label for the container.
  3. Place the label evenly on the surface of the container.
  4. Then, use a wood burning tool with a fine tip to outline and burn in the label name.
  5. The last step is to cut a small round of fabric, or even heavy paper, or acetate to cover the bottom of the steamer to keep objects from falling through.

Clearly this will work with any size steamer.  We've also used steamers to store decorative plates.  For this purpose you won't need to make the cover for the bottom of the steamer.  This works very well because the steamers stack well.  Labeling will make it easy to locate the plates when its time for use.

More Tips & Care

Onion, Garlic and Shallot Storage
Another tip from Martha Stewart; given the basic construction of a steamer promotes air flow your bamboo steamer can work well as a storage container for dry onions, garlic, or shallots.  You may want to place the steamer on a plate or tray to catch any peelings as they fall through. 

How To Clean Your Bamboo Steamer

tawashi - natural brush scrubberThe steamer should be rinsed under warm running water after each use.  Make sure to scrub off any bits of food that may adhere to the surface of the steamer.  A natural bristle brush (shown) makes a good tool for the job.

Once the steamer is clean, dry it off with a clean towel and allow it to sit in a well-ventilated area until it is completely dry.  If you live in a humid climate make sure the steamer is dry before you store it or mildew may form.

Don't put the steamer in the dish washer and don't soak the steamer in water or the wood will expand and your steamer will break apart.

Bamboo Centerpiece

 bamboo steam with fresh leaves

Bunny Basket

bamboo steamer with greens for bunny

Steamer Fruit Basket

steamer fruit basket arrangement


Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.