STEAMING AHEAD

Vegetables in particular must have a touch of the vapours now. Our panel of cooks tours the range of hardware
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The Independent Culture
STEAMING is the Miss Goody Two-Shoes of cooking. This method uses no fat to pile on the calories or clog up the arteries. It retains the colour, flavour and nutrients of the food being cooked. It's even highly fashionable - only someone who had not read a cookery article or book in 20 years would dream of serving up a boiled vegetable to guests these days.

As for the best method of steaming, there are several types of equipment on the market. Manufacturers, spotting a trend, have introduced electrical gadgets costing up to £90. At the opposite end of the spectrum are metal baskets that perch on your saucepan, costing a few pounds. Then there are Chinese bamboo baskets and those classy sets of stainless steel saucepans with matching inserts. To find out if it is worth paying the extra for the more expensive options, we asked a panel of four cooks, professional and amateur, to try out a selection.

The panel's view was that although the electric steamers gave slightly better results, they were less convenient to use than traditional methods. True, they can be used for a range of tasks, such as making sauces and puddings; but steaming is so simple, the panellists agreed, that a machine is probably more trouble than it is worth. Even an old colander poised over a pan of water will do for steaming a few veg.

THE PANEL

Deh-ta Hsiung, cookery writer and food consultant, author of Chinese Cookery Secrets (Paper Fronts, £2.50); Rosie Borgia, a freelance cook who trained at Leith's School of Food & Wine, London; Harriet O'Brien, journalist; Nick Catliff, television producer.

THE TEST

The panel gave the steamers marks for how convenient they were to use, how easy to clean, cooking results, value for money, and how attractive they looked.

*WILLIAM LEVENE

£3.99

This vegetable steamer is a fold-out metal basket reminiscent of a flower, with overlapping slats for "petals". Despite its bargain-basement price, most of our testers gave it the thumbs down because it was so inconvenient to use. Rosie Borgia commented: "Though it is cheap and small, which is great, I don't like this type, because you can only put a small amount of water in your saucepan. Invariably, the water boils away before the food cooks, unless you keep a very close eye on it."

Nick Catliff described it as "virtually impossible to use without touching hot metal and scalding yourself." This gadget did have one fan, however. Deh-ta Hsiung commented: "Excellent value, easy to use, with perfect results. I can't give it a higher recommendation."

**MAGIMIX VAPEUR ELECTRIC

£89.99

The design of this was considered classy, and it's a bit easier to use than the other two electric steamers. But our panel still found it hard to see why it should cost so much. Deh-ta Hsiung said: "An excellent utensil, but you can't help feeling it's a bit of a rip-off. The William Levene fold-out steamer, for less than £4, does almost the same job. Very poor value, especially as there is no automatic timer, compared to the other two electric ones." Harriet O'Brien added: "For heavy-duty steaming - dim sum and the like - this would be ideal. However, it is hugely expensive and bulky for people who simply want to cook vegetables."

****MEYER STEAMING SUITE

£39.99

A popular choice, this stainless steel set consists of a base to be filled with water, with two tiers of steamer that stack on top of it. It gave good cooking results, was convenient to use, and attractive. "A very jolly steamer," said Harriet O'Brien. "A good size and shape, but the stainless steel is not easy to keep shiny." The panel also identified a design fault. Rosie Borgia said: "It's a shame the top tier doesn't sit higher on the low steamer, so you can fit more into the bottom tier. But this is perfectly adequate for family cooking."

*****HABITAT BAMBOO STEAMER

£6.99 for one basket and lid

This was the panel's favourite, especially given its low price. "I don't wish to be biased," said Deh-ta Hsiung, "but this is the traditional Chinese method." The bamboo, he pointed out, is absorbent. This stops condensation dripping down from the lid (which would make the food soggy), and lets flavours and smells from past cooking seep into the steamer - an advantage as far as he was concerned. Most panellists liked it, though Rosie Borgia pointed out that finely shredded and diced vegetables might fall through the slats. (In China, the basket would not be used for steaming vegetables but for dim sum, or in a larger size for meat or fish.) Nick Catliff saw drawbacks, however: "It is very difficult to keep clean. The bamboo construction means it is a potential health hazard and a fire risk. But if it does get too fetid or singed, it's so cheap you could buy another." Despite its low price, there must be a considerable mark-up on this basic device - similar baskets can be bought in London's Chinatown for only £3.

****PRESTIGE `OCCASIONS'

Saucepan £46.99, plus steamer £31.99

The components of this expensive set can be bought separately, though the saucepan is a perfect fit and - perhaps not surprisingly - the manufacturers recommend buying both. The panel felt this was excellent cookware for the money, though opinions varied on whether it was worth spending quite this much.

"This set is fine if you want a quality saucepan with matching steamer," said Rosie Borgia, "but you can buy steamers that fit saucepans you already own for much less." For steaming, she argued, it isn't really necessary to have a heavy-base, top-quality saucepan, as its purpose is only to boil water.

Nick Catliff disagreed. He said he would definitely buy this one: "It may be expensive, but you get a good saucepan with the steamer, so you don't clutter up your kitchen with unnecessary hardware. It looks great, feels very solid, and is very easy to use. The best all round." A further £31 will buy you a second steamer to stack on top. This equipment was by far the easiest to clean.

***BLACK & DECKER HS90

£24.99

This steamer works by heating up an electric element inside a base which is filled with water. The steam rises through to the transparent food bowl. It gave very good results, but the panel found it inconvenient to use and hard to clean. Nick Catliff was unenthusiastic about electric steamers in general: "If I had one, it would spend most of the time on a shelf gathering dust. It would be too much hassle to get it out, make space for it, arrange the containers and so on. Simply cleaning them is a labour of love." Rosie Borgia had mixed feelings about this one. She thought it was efficient, but didn't like the adjustable insert that can be put into the main bowl to separate different foods. "The handle gets very hot and doesn't seem very strong," she said.

***TEFAL STEAMCUISINE

£29.99

This electric steamer works on the same principle as the Black & Decker, though the compartments are a bit bigger. It got similar results, being judged excellent at steaming but a hassle to use and clean. "You need a science degree to use this," said Harriet O'Brien. "It has confusing instructions, and far too many bits and pieces." Rosie Borgia preferred it to the Black & Decker: "The two large steamers enable you to cook foods separately, a better system for large quantities than Black & Decker's insert. It's worth paying the extra £5 for two bowls." One advantage of this (and the other electric steamers) is that it does not take up any space on the hob - particularly useful if you're cooking a large or complicated meal. Like the Black & Decker, it comes with an extra bowl to cook rice and has a timer with a bell.

STOCKISTS William Levene: 0181-868 4355; Magimix: 01483 427411; Meyer: 0151-604 0036; Habitat: available at all their branches, for local branch ring 0645 334433; Prestige: 01282 831016; Black & Decker: 01753 511234; Tefal: 01604 762726.

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