Don't Play Yourself, Get a Bamboo Steamer

This affordable piece of kitchen gear can change your home-cooking game.

In November, I threw a dinner party in which I broke the cardinal rule of throwing dinner parties without having a five-alarm stress meltdown: I decided to serve something I had never made before. The dish in question was fragrant and crispy duck, or xiang su quan ya, from Fuchsia Dunlop's The Food of Sichuan. I love cooking duck, and I love hosting, so I decided that this would be the perfect choice. But Dunlop has you steam the duck in a bamboo steamer for two hours before deep-frying it in a wok, and this is where I made a disastrous error in judgment.

I thought about buying a bamboo steamer — after all they aren't expensive — but because my tiny kitchen can barely hold the equipment I already have, and because I'm just stubborn sometimes, I decided I could jury-rig a steamer using a cooling rack over a roasting pan. That was going fine until I heard an ominous cracking sound about an hour in to the duck steaming, and duck juices started pooling on the stove and all over the floor. The duck was salvaged — the pan was a goner — and the party went on, patched up by a very kind friend who played sous chef, but you know what could have stopped that entirely? Just buying a dang $20 bamboo steamer.

How To Use A Steamer Basket
Lauri Patterson / Getty Images

Pick the size you need

These kind of steamers come in a variety of sizes, from a 12-inch diameter big enough to fit a duck to a wee little 6-inch one fit for a few dumplings. For most applications I'm using it for, a 10-inch tiered steamer does the trick nicely, and you can pick one up easily at a restaurant supply store, Chinese grocery store, or at Sur La Table for about $22.

Use this basic method

Fill a large lidded pot or a well-stabilized wok with about an inch of water and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, add the steamer(s), and cover to trap that steam. Cook, keeping an eye on the level of water in the pot, according to your recipe's instructions.

Steam anything you want

Once you have a steamer in your life, you don't cook a duck to find it useful. There are dozens of ways to use it, from gently cooking vegetables to making your own steamed dumplings. You can make these tangy, umami-laden shiitake steamed buns, which use pre-made pizza dough as shortcut. It's also perfect for these picadillo-stuffed leaves. Or you can use the steamer to cook meat. Yes, a whole duck is an option, but if that's too much, fish is particularly lovely in the steamer basket cooked along with some aromatics like ginger and garlic.

Double up your steamers

You can also stack one steamer on top of another to cook two kinds of foods separately but simultaneously. Case in point: the Thai-inspired coconut chicken and sweet potatoes in this riff on the Thai soup tom kha gai. The next time you want to cook something gently, try it in the bamboo steamer, and you may just find that you'll want it around more than you expected. Learn from my duck disaster and don't discount the steamer.

bamboo steamer

To buy: Bamboo Steamer, $20 at or

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