Steamed fish with broccolini

Steaming is one of the healthiest ways to prepare certain foods. Vegetables retain their nutrients and stay crisp-tender, and chicken and fish cook without the addition of oil, which saves calories.

But a dinner of steamed fish or chicken with veggies is boring and flavorless, you say? On the contrary. The experts in CR's test kitchens have easy tips for cooking steamed dishes that you’ll actually look forward to eating. Try one of them tonight.

1. Skip the Water

Steaming foods over flavored liquids such as wine, beer, and broth will infuse extra flavor without added calories. Or try a fruity-flavored vinegar, such as fig or raspberry. Skip cloudy liquids such as dairy milk or coconut milk, which might curdle, or thick liquids like tomato sauce, which can burn.

2. Add Flavorings to the Steaming Liquid

Lemon peel and dill sprigs are natural partners for fish. Rosemary sprigs and sliced garlic go well with chicken or potatoes.

More on Healthy Cooking

Steam fish, clams, mussels, or lobster with white wine, onion slices, thyme, parsley, and lemon juice. Infuse fish, chicken, or vegetables with sesame flavor by adding a splash of sesame oil to the cooking liquid.

And whether you use this tip or the one above, you can turn the steaming liquid into a sauce. Boil it down in the pan to reduce it to a thicker consistency, which concentrates its flavor.

3. Give It a Spice Rub

When cooking fish or chicken fillets, let a rub of ground spices sink in for an hour or so before steaming.

To make the rub stick, brush lemon juice or flavored vinegar onto the food, then pat the spices in place to lightly coat all sides. Try an Asian-style rub of equal parts ground Szechuan pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, and cumin. Or go for a Southwestern rub of equal parts ground chili, garlic powder, dry mustard, and oregano.

4. Soak It in a Marinade

Marinades add flavor to foods, and tenderize meat and fish. After marinating, steam to cook. Some ideas: For fish fillets, marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and lemon juice. Coat carrots and onions in olive oil, ground cumin, coriander, a dash of salt, and pepper before steaming. 

5. Cook It in Parchment

Steaming food doesn't always mean cooking over liquid. You can wrap food in parchment paper—a technique called en papillote (French for "in paper"). It works best with shellfish or thin fillets of chicken or fish and greens or other veggies. The food in the packet builds up steam when heated, which gently cooks the contents. This method also seals in flavors. If you don't have parchment paper, you can use foil.

Here’s a quick dinner idea: Place a little olive oil at the center of a large piece of parchment or foil and top with a fillet of tilapia or sole, a few thin slices of lemon and zucchini, Kalamata olives, a sprig of thyme, salt, pepper, and another drop of oil. Pull two sides of the paper or foil together over the mixture and fold them together several times, tucking the sides underneath so that no steam can escape. Bake the packets in the oven at 350° F for about 25 minutes or until the paper is puffed and the veggies and fish are cooked. Be careful not to burn yourself with the steam that's released when you slice the packet open.

Fish steamed in parchment paper
Photo: kat teutsch