Steaming is widely known as a healthy way to cook vegetables, shellfish, rice, eggs and other foods, because it preserves nutrients and doesn't require the addition of cooking oils. While food can be steamed with a pot on the stove, electric food steamers offer the convenience of a pre-set cooking time, automatic shutoff and other functions. Using a food or vegetable steamer also frees up the stovetop for other cooking tasks (assuming you have room for a countertop appliance). On the downside, cooking times can be longer; according to Which? magazine, an electric food steamer needs about 15 minutes to cook thin-sliced carrots, while you could steam the same carrots on the stovetop with a steamer basket in about half that time. Lastly, not everyone likes the taste of steamed food, which some find to be bland.
Food steamers are different than rice cookers, covered in our separate report. A food steamer consists of a base unit with a timer and and a chamber for placing water. Most of these electric vegetable steamers have two or three plastic containers that stack on top of the base. Water is heated in the lower chamber and steam rises through holes in the bottom of the containers to cook the food.
We didn't find any expert reviews of food steamers by U.S.-based publications, so we relied primarily on owner-written user reviews at online retailers. Amazon.com proved to be the most significant source for user reviews of food and veggie steamers. We also consulted numerous other retail sites as well as Viewpoints.com and Epinions.com.
While ConsumerReports.org has not tested food steamers, Which? magazine, the British equivalent of ConsumerReports.org, has reviewed them. Which? editors review a total of 15 food and vegetable steamers. Cooking performance is evaluated two ways -- using a single container and the tiered containers to cook several types of food at once. Separate ratings are given for rice cooking and ease of use. None of the recommended food steamers are available in the U.S., but this article provides useful buying information about food steamer features, advantages and drawbacks.
Australia's Choice magazine also compares 15 food steamers, many of which are the same brands tested by Which? magazine. The magazine's home economist prepares rice, fish and vegetables to evaluate the cooking performance and speed. A separate rating is given for each food steamer's use of use, storage and cleaning. Unfortunately, only one electric steamer included in the review is available in the U.S. However, like the Which? magazine review, the article provides useful buying tips.
One recurring complaint we saw in owner reviews was regarding the use of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make the clear, plastic containers. There has been much media attention about the possible health ramifications of this chemical seeping into food. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children." Consequently, the FDA supports the Department of Health and Human Services recommendation to limit exposure to BPA in infants.
If you plan to use a food steamer to prepare baby food, in particular, you will want to buy one that that has BPA-free containers. Many consumer reviews erroneously assume that #7 plastic contains BPA. In reality, that number doesn't represent a plastic made with specific materials. If the manufacturer doesn't state whether or not the food containers are BPA-free, you should call the company to find out. We called Oster directly and confirmed that the food containers in both our "Best Reviewed" food steamers are BPA-free.