Food steamers are pretty basic appliances; the main visible difference is that some use manual dials to control timing and temperature, while fancier versions use digital controls, which allow for more sophisticated features. The maximum timer setting varies by model, but all good steamers automatically shut off at the end of the cooking time or, in the case of some digital steamers, intermittently release steam to keep food warm. Digital vegetable steamers have the added convenience of programming a delayed start, and some models alert you when the water level gets too low.
Another key difference among food steamers is the overall capacity. Food steamers with three stacking containers usually hold the most food, while the most compact electric steamers have only one container (or level). These containers may vary in capacity and nest inside each other to minimize storage space. Newer electric vegetable steamers have an oval shape to better accommodate asparagus spears, corn on the cob, fish filets and other oblong foods. All the food steamers in this report include a rice bowl that sets inside the steam container.
Experts say to pay attention to the ease of filling the base with water and adding water during cooking. That means you want water-level lines that are easy to read, and a water-level gauge and external water inlet that allows you to monitor the water level and add more if needed. Note that most manufacturers caution against putting broth, wine or any liquids other than water in the reservoir, as it can damage the food steamer.
We couldn't find any U.S.-based magazines or websites that have published professional testing of food steamers. However, owners are vocal in their likes and dislikes, so we based our research on the hundreds of owner-written food-steamer ratings at Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Viewpoints.com and other sites.
In user reviews, the Oster 5712 Digital Food Steamer (*Est. $40) is the standout digital veggie steamer. It has a clear window for monitoring the water level, and an external inlet for adding more water during cooking. In the event that the water level gets too low, an alarm sounds and the display will read "Err." Other features include an automatic keep-warm mode for an hour after the cooking cycle has finished. The red cooking light indicator is replaced by a green light during this time. (As the unit still emits steam, owners should open the lid cautiously.)
We found more than 300 combined owner reviews for the Oster 5712 food steamer at Amazon.com, Cooking.com and Viewpoints.com -- far more reviews than any other food steamer. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive about the ease of use, and we read very few durability complaints – just a few instances where the digital display went blank after a few months or didn't heat properly right out of the box. Several owners say it's difficult to completely drain the water from the inlet on the Oster food steamer, and mold can develop in there.
If you want a more basic food and vegetable steamer, the Oster 5711 Mechanical Food Steamer (*Est. $30) has a dial timer, rather than digital controls, though there isn't much difference in price compared to the digital Oster food steamer. The main downside of the dial is that cooking time cannot be shortened once it's set. Owners praise the quick preheat time, and are happy with its cooking performance. It automatically shuts off after the cooking time ends, but this mechanical-dial Oster food steamer doesn't have a keep-warm function. It has a water level window and external fill inlet, but no alerts if the water level gets too low.
Both Oster food steamers are only available in white and include 3.8-quart and 2.3-quart steaming bowls as well as a 10-cup rice bowl that sets inside the steaming bowl. One of the steaming bowls has an integrated egg holder (for steaming eggs). The bases of the food containers are removable for easier cleaning, and all parts are dishwasher-safe (top rack only). Owners say the oval-shaped cooking containers on both food steamers have a good capacity. Both Oster steamers also have an audible alert when the cooking time ends. Oster covers the digital food steamer with a two-year warranty, while the mechanical food steamer is covered for only a year.
If you only plan on cooking one type of food at a time in your steamer, the Black & Decker Handy Steamer (*Est. $25) is a more compact veggie steamer that comes with just a single 4-quart steamer container. The container sets inside a Flavor Scenter Screen, where you can place herbs to infuse their flavor during steaming (note that many owners say they don't use this, and it's just an extra piece to clean). The food container on the Black & Decker electric steamer has integrated egg holders, and comes with a 5-cup rice bowl. The cooking time is set with a dial, and a bell rings and the food steamer automatically shuts off when finished.
Owners at Amazon.com are happy with the cooking performance of the Black & Decker Handy Steamer. The main complaint is that the container is more flimsy than previous Black & Decker steamers they owned, and some say the lid doesn't fit right. It has a water level window, but some owners say it‘s hard to add water through the external fill inlet without spilling.
The Hamilton Beach Digital Two-Tier Food Steamer (*Est. $35) has black and stainless exterior, which is a bit more aesthetically appealing compared to all-white-plastic steamers from Oster and other brands. Like the Oster Digital Food Steamer 5712, the Hamilton Beach veggie steamer has a delayed start, a one-hour keep-warm cycle and automatic shutoff if the water level becomes too low. However, it doesn't have an external water inlet, so it's harder to add water to the reservoir mid-cycle. The top container has a removable base for cooking larger items, and it nests inside the lower container for more compact storage. It also has a separate rice bowl.
We found about 30 owner-written reviews at Walmart.com, where the Hamilton Beach food steamer receives mostly 4- and 5-star ratings. Reviewers are satisfied with the cooking performance, and say it is holding up well with daily use. This food and vegetable steamer has a handle on the top of the lid, which makes it safer to remove than lids with handles on the sides; however, one owner says it can't double as a serving tray. The lid and rice bowl aren't dishwasher-safe, however.
Another nice-looking steamer is the Deni Stainless Steel Food Steamer 7600 (*Est. $40), a digital food steamer that offers three cooking tiers plus a rice bowl. The food containers nest inside each other for more compact storage and have six egg slots each. However, this electric food steamer is lacking some of the features in the digital Oster steamer. It has a water level window, but no external fill inlet, so it's harder to add water mid-cycle. None of the parts are dishwasher-safe. Another difference is that the automatic warm cycle at the end of cooking continues until you manually shut off the unit, rather than automatically shutting off after an hour.
Owner-written reviews of the Deni food steamer are largely positive at Walmart.com. Owners say it's fast, and they like the convenience of cooking a complete meal at once. A few owners say it's hard to program or was defective upon arrival. The two dozen reviews at Amazon.com are evenly split between the highest and lowest rating. Those who give it a low score say that the steam leaks into the electronic controls, fogging up the display and causing it to malfunction.