How to pan-steam like a pro

You probably already know that steaming is a great way to cook vegetables because it helps them retain nutrients and adds no fat. It’s also fast and super easy.

If steaming has one transgression, though, it’s that it doesn’t add flavor.  When you’re depending on steam from boiling water to cook food held aloft in a basket, the flavor is ultimately dependent on the item being cooked. Begin with a rather plain veggie like cauliflower, for example, and you’ll end with up with a vegetable that is indeed softer and easier to chew, but whose flavor isn’t greatly enhanced.

Luckily, there’s a special method of steaming that is just as easy as the traditional one, yet offers much more flexibility when it comes to resulting flavor and what ends up on the plate. It’s even got a cool name that will make you sound like a kitchen rock star: pan steaming.

Pan steaming is simply cooking an item in a covered pot with just a small amount of liquid. As in regular steaming, hot, vaporized air does a majority of the cooking, but the added benefits of pan steaming are that it allows you to infuse more flavor in the items being cooked, and then use the liquid again as a delicious sauce.

Pan steaming also has the upper hand on regular steaming when it comes to required equipment. Since we don’t use a steam basket or tray insert, all you need is a 2-quart or larger sauce pan with a tight-fitting lid. A glass lid will help if you have one, since it will allow you to see what’s going on. Total time commitment: Just 10 to 15 minutes.

In the recipe below, we’ll make a simple but super-tasty side dish from fresh broccoli and cauliflower that has been pan steamed in broth. The broth – which can be vegetable, chicken, beef or any other of your choosing – will infuse flavor during the steaming process, and will itself be heightened with the addition of fresh tarragon. Tarragon is an herb that looks like grass and tastes like licorice. It can be found in the produce section of just about any market. You can substitute dry tarragon, halving the amount, or use other additions of your choice, like herbes de Provence. (If broccoli and cauliflower aren’t your thing, try carrots, green beans or whatever you like. Even a bagged medley of raw veggies will work for this.)

Last but not least, we’ll throw a dollop of butter into the broth, reduce the liquid so it thickens a bit and voila! We’ll end with an unctuous sauce in which we’ll bathe the veggies. Trust me, it won’t take much persuading to get your family and friends to eat these veggies.


(Makes 2 servings)

  • 1 cup broth of your choice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 3 cups fresh broccoli, rinsed and chopped
  • 1 cup cauliflower, rinsed and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Optional garnish: Chopped tarragon, shaved Parmesan cheese

Step 1: In a 2-quart or larger sauce pan, heat the broth, tarragon, salt and pepper over medium-high heat until it boils.

Step 2: Add the vegetables, cover the pan and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until the veggies soften to your liking. Test their doneness with a fork (and your mouth!)

Step 3: Uncover the pot, drop in the butter and stir. Cook uncovered over high heat for 2-3 minutes or until the sauce reduces by about half.

Congratulations: You’ve just made pan-steamed vegetables and a butter tarragon sauce. Serve these in a small side dish, garnished with additional tarragon and, if you really want something super, shaved Parmesan cheese.

Now that you’ve had this introduction to pan steaming, experiment! Sauces can be enlivened with any number of herbs, or even sweetened with brown sugar to make a glaze like this this glazed carrot recipe.

Comment below: Have you pan steamed before? If so, share your own tips (or catastrophes!)

1 Comment »

  1. Pam Westcott said,

    June 8, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    Thank you so much for this! This is opening up a delicious new world of veggies. Seriously.

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