The Insider: Healthy eating is a snap with an electric steamer

Steaming is widely acknowledged as one of the healthiest ways to cook your vegetables. It keeps in many more nutrients than boiling, and is just as simple to do – especially if you invest in a purpose-made electric steamer.

And these days, buying a steamer doesn't have to break the bank either. Prices start from as little as £11 – although it's worth paying a little more if you want one that's easy to use and able to cook rice as well as vegetables.

"If you're still trying to stick to a resolution to eat more healthily this year, then a steamer could be a useful purchase as it allows you to create a healthy meal using just one device. You can buy own-brand steamers for as little as £12, but if you pay more you'll get better features such as a digital timer, separate compartments and delayed start options.

"Bear in mind, though, that steaming in a microwave retains more of the food's nutrients, is quicker and uses less water. Not everyone likes the flavour of steamed food, so think carefully about whether you'll use it before you buy, or it may end up relegated to the back of the kitchen cupboard."

By and large, you tend to get what you pay for in the steamer market. When consumer group Which? recently reviewed 12 different models, it was the most expensive – the Morphy Richards Intellisteam 48780 – which came out on top. The Intellisteam will set you back a cool £100 – but for that price you'll get a machine that lets you cook several items at once without mingling flavours, and which gives you the power to preset cooking times, as well as cook rice to perfection. At 4.8kg, it's a big old beast – but if you're looking for the "Rolls Royce" of kitchen steaming appliances, this is it.

It's worth noting, however, that the Tefal Vitacuisine VS400116 was given the same overall score by the Which? researchers – and costs just £60. Although the testers thought it didn't cook rice as well as the Intellisteam, it came out better on tests for steaming chicken and vegetables.

If you're looking for a budget option, you can't do much better than the Argos Value Range steamer, which costs just £10.69. It's not as easy to use, or built as well as the premium brands – but its overall score of 62 per cent by the Which? team shows that it's certainly competent at the main task of steaming.

Don't bother with Tefal's Steam Cuisine VC102315, however. It costs £14 more than the Argos Value steamer, and received an overall score of just 52 per cent. Although it ranked slightly better in terms of its cooking abilities, it was found to be flimsy and too easy to break.

Where to buy

If you know what you're looking for, the best place to get a good deal is always the internet. Websites such as whichcompare.co.uk, froogle.co.uk and pricerunner.co.uk help guide you to the retailers who are selling your desired steamer at the cheapest price – and there are good deals to be had at the moment, as the sales come to an end. For example, froogle.co.uk shows that you can currently pick up the Morphy Richards Intellisteam for just £73.98 at electricshopping.com – a saving of £26 on its regular retail price.

Obviously, for the Argos steamers, you'll need to visit Argos.co.uk, or pop into one of their stores. And if you prefer to shop in person, it's also worth checking out stores such as Comet, Currys and Robert Dyas.

Five questions to ask...

Are the baskets dishwasher proof?

You can clean most steamer baskets in the dishwasher, but a few models advise against it.

Is the timer mechanical or digital?

Mechanical wind-up timers tend to not be very accurate. If you want to be sure that your vegetables are cooked to perfection, a digital timer is much better.

Does it have an external water level gauge?

Most steamers have a gauge that allows you to see how much water is left in the machine. If your steamer doesn't have this, there's a greater danger of you damaging the appliance by letting it dry out during cooking.

Can it cook rice?

Most, but not all, steamers come with a bowl for cooking rice – although some machines are much less effective at cooking good rice than their rivals.

Does it have separate compartments?

Most steamers have multiple tiers, which mean that the juices from the food being cooked on the top tier can drip down on to lower tiers during cooking. Some steamers, however, have separate compartments, which ensures each item retains its individual taste.

The Insider is written in conjunction with the consumer group Which?. For more information on steamers visit www.which.co.uk/steamers. To get three issues of Which? magazine for £3, call 01992 822800 and quote INADVICE.

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