Choosing an electric food steamer

Electric food steamers are a handy kitchen countertop appliance that allow you to steam vegetables and other foods. This device consists of a base unit with electronic controls and a chamber for adding water. One to three plastic containers with holes in the bottom stack on top of the base. Water is heated in the lower chamber and steam rises to cook the food in the above containers. Experts caution that using an electric food steamer isn't as fast as microwaving or stovetop methods, and steaming takes some practice to learn how long and what position cooks the food to your liking.

That said, it does free up the stovetop and microwave for other cooking tasks and automatically warms food or shuts off after the pre-set cooking time has ended. Electric food steamers also make it easier to steam larger/longer foods like fish or whole asparagus, which are often a poor fit in a stovetop steamer basket,

Digital food steamers have additional programming functions. Experts at Which? magazine say these units are particularly convenient when food is prepared and placed in the steamer containers in advance – simply place the containers onto the food steamer base and set the timer to begin cooking a meal.

Experts say the following about shopping for a food steamer:

  • Look for a removable base. If the top food container has a removable base, it allows you to connect two containers together to cook large-sized food. A removable base also makes it easier to clean the holes, where food residue can accumulate.
  • Look for visible water-filling features. Water fill marks should be easy to read. An external water gauge lets you monitor the water level during steaming, and an external fill inlet lets you add more water without removing the containers.
  • Size up the storage space. Although large steamer containers hold more food, they also require more storage space. Nesting containers require considerably less storage space. Experts say the size of the packaging is a good indicator of how much storage cabinet space you'll need if you don't want to keep your food steamer sitting on the counter.
  • Digital controls add convenience, but don't cost much more. Digital controls are more accurate than turning a timer dial, and models with pre-programmed cooking times are even easier to use.
  • Save time with dishwasher-safe containers. Food and residue from juices easily gets trapped in the holes in the steaming containers, which can be a chore to clean. Dishwasher-safe containers significantly cut down on cleaning time (but the plastic may need to be dried by hand).
  • Look for BPA-free plastic. Given recent concerns about bisphenol-A leaching into food from certain plastics, look for a BPA-free label on the product's packaging. Both Oster steamers are BPA-free.

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