Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

Growing up, steamer baskets were something my mom brought out only when she made steamed bao or bakcang (a Taiwanese version of zongzi). She owned large, restaurant-sized ones that were always stored in our basement. When she brought them out, it was a production that lasted multiple days, allowing her to make huge batches of food so she could fill our deep freezer.

My mom was adamant that the steamers were made of bamboo and not metal. She said bamboo added a special scent and flavor and that the porous nature of the bamboo allowed steam to be absorbed, which led to better results. To this day, when I smell the particular scent of a bamboo steamer in use, I get sent back to being 12 again, anxiously awaiting my first taste of my mom’s homemade steamed pork buns. 

Now, the first Chinese steamers can be traced back 5000 years and were actually pottery with holes that allowed steam through. Today, bamboo steamers are a versatile kitchen tool that allows you to steam (or smoke) all sorts of food, like delicate fish, vegetables, and dumplings. To find the best ones, we decided to test 10 models.

Editor’s Note: The Hcooker set we tested had three tiers when we tested it, but now only seems to be available with two. However, we still think it’s a great set that deserves the top spot for its metal bands, which prevented warping.

The Winners, at a Glance

The Hcooker set we tested came with three tiers of steamers, instead of the typical two, making it more versatile and allowing you to cook more food at once. While there only seems to be a two-tier option available now, we still think it’s a great choice. The steamers have a metal band around the bottom and top of the steamer walls, which reinforces the edges, preventing warping and scorching.

The Helen’s Asian Kitchen steamers are made completely of bamboo, which could wear out faster than steamers banded with metal. However, in our testing, the fit of the lid and tiers stayed true with minimal warping of the sides and floor of the steamer. The standard size made using 10-inch paper inserts easy, and the entire set was budget-friendly.

The Prime Home Direct Bamboo Steamer set came with two basket tiers and a lid, as well as paper liners, chopsticks, and a ceramic sauce dish. It performed well in all the tests and was reasonably priced.

The Tests

Serious Eats/Irvin LinSteam Broccoli Test: We set each steamer into a wok, filling a basket with six ounces of broccoli set on a perforated parchment paper round. We steamed the hardy vegetable for seven minutes to see how easy the bamboo steamer was to use. We cleaned the bamboo steamer afterward and inspected it to see if there was any warping or damage.Steam Frozen Soup Dumplings Test: We set each steamer in a wok and steamed two basket tiers filled with eight frozen soup dumplings each to see how well the steamer did cooking them. We picked soup dumplings to make sure each tier of the steamer properly cooked the frozen dumpling and turned the gelatin into liquid without overcooking the dumpling wrapper. We then cleaned and inspected the bamboo steamer to see if there was any warping or damage after use.Steam Salmon Fillet Test (Winners-Only): We steamed 10-ounce salmon fillets on a single tier lined with perforated parchment paper to see how fish cooked in our five favorite bamboo steamers. We then cleaned the bamboo steamers and inspected them to see if there was any warping or damage after use, as well as if there was any lingering fish scent.

What We Learned

How a Bamboo Steamer Works

Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

Bamboo steamers are nesting and stacking baskets made of bamboo, with slats that allow steam to rise through, cooking the food. The bamboo steamer is stacked on top of a wok or pot with simmering water, which produces the steam. Woks are traditionally used because the sloped sides allow you to easily stack any size steamer in them with minimal amounts of water needed. You can also use a large pot or purchase a bamboo steamer ring that helps fit the bamboo steamer over different-sized cookware.

All of the Bamboo Steamers Steamed Well

In all of our tests, every bamboo steamer cooked nearly the same: Broccoli came out tender but not mushy, soup dumplings were steamed nicely with a perfectly cooked wrapper and hot soup liquid center, and the salmon fillets were flaky without being overcooked or undercooked. No matter what bamboo steamer you buy, it most likely will cook your food well as long as you use it correctly. 

Bamboo Is Porous and Prone to Warping

Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

So what makes a bamboo steamer better or worse if the food always comes out the same? Turns out the reason why bamboo steamers are great—their porousness—is also their downfall. Food writer and blogger Lisa Lin agrees with my mom when it comes to bamboo steamers. “The biggest advantage of using bamboo baskets is the porous nature of the basket and the lid. With bamboo steamers, steam can escape from the sides or the top through the bamboo lid. As a result, condensation usually doesn’t usually build up as much under the lids of bamboo steamers.” 

But the porous nature of the bamboo also means it will absorb water, bending and warping. “The disadvantage of bamboo steamer baskets is that they can come apart if they are poorly constructed. My mom helped me repair one by wrapping metal wire around the sides,” Lin says. In our testing, a number of the bamboo steamers started out with flat bottoms and round insets, making stacking them together easy. But after testing, a number of them had warped, buckled, or distorted. This led to the floor of the bamboo steamer becoming uneven and the fit of the lids or the tiers being too difficult to stack or come apart. The Hcooker bamboo steamer set has an enforced metal ring on the bottom and top of the steamer, keeping the steamer from warping and allowing it to stack with ease. Both Helen’s Asian Kitchen and Prime Direct Home also did not warp much, stacking and nesting easily after our tests.

Bamboo Can Scorch or Burn

Despite common misconceptions, bamboo is a grass, not a wood. And though there are more than 1000 species of bamboo, in general, bamboo’s flash point (i.e., the temperature at which bamboo burns) is around 465°F to 509°F. This is lower than wood’s flash point, which is generally between 485°F and 570°F. In essence, when placed directly on a stove or heat source, bamboo can burn easily. 

To mitigate that, a lot of instructions for using a bamboo steamer tell you to submerge the steamer partially in water to prevent it from scorching. I used this technique for the broccoli and the salmon fillet, but I decided to follow the frozen soup dumping package instructions that said to not submerge the steamer in water, but instead have the water level under the steamer’s bottom, not touching it. Though some folks recommend soaking the steamer in water for 30 minutes to prevent scorching or burning, I also skipped this step so I could see how durable and burn-resistant the bamboo steamers were. I did, however, lower the temperature to medium-low heat, so the water was rapidly simmering but not at a full rolling boil. 

In the end, all of the steamer baskets passed this test without any evidence of scorching. That said, long-term use of directly placing the bamboo on a hot metal wok or over boiling water can eventually lead to scorching or burning. Both the Zest of Moringa set and HCooker set have a metal ring around the top and bottom of the steamer which helps prevent scorching, making them potentially better options in the long run.

The Criteria: What to Look for in a Bamboo Steamer

Serious Eats / Irvin Lin / Grace Kelly

The best bamboo steamers are made of durable bamboo with a thick weave on the top basket; even better if they are lined with metal, which can help prevent warping. Look for a two- or three-tier steamer with a lid, so you can steam more food at once. Make sure the bottom of the basket is flat so the food lies evenly inside. Finally, look for a steamer that stacks and nests easily; some steamers had very tight-fitting lids and baskets, which made them difficult to pull apart and put back together.

The Best Bamboo Steamers

What we liked: Cathy Erway, James Beard Award-winning food writer and author of The Food of Taiwan recommends getting a bamboo steamer that has many tiers. “They’re so useful and versatile—for steaming anything that can fit inside. Best to get ones that have vertical layers so you can steam a lot at once.” The HCooker steamer that we tested comes with three tiers, making it an exceptionally useful set. Broccoli steamed beautifully, with fork-tender (but not mushy) results, the soup dumplings cooked properly on both tiers and the salmon fillet was perfectly cooked. We also liked that this steamer was solidly built, with hardy 1/4-inch thick bamboo and metal rings that enforce the steamer and prevent warping. After repeated use, the rings helped the tiers to nest properly without sticking or needing to wiggle the tiers and lid apart.

What we didn’t like: The Hcooker set we tested was 9.4 inches in diameter, which was an odd size. (though it’s also available in 8.4- and 10.6-inch sizes). This doesn’t affect its use at all, but it does make it a bit more challenging to find proper fitting, pre-cut parchment paper, which typically comes in 8-, 9-, or 10-inch diameter sizes. But, in the end, trimming parchment paper to fit the steamer or buying a 9-inch round paper that doesn’t quite reach the edges is really only a tiny annoyance for a bamboo steamer of this quality. After testing, we saw that the three-tier option is no longer available—however, we still think this is a great pick. 

Price at time of publish: $26.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 9 3/8 x 9 1/2 inches (stacked) Interior Depth of Basket: 1 7/8 inchesMaterial: Bamboo with stainless steel bandsWeight: 3 lbs, 7/8 ouncesNumber of Baskets: 2 baskets, 1 lidCleaning and care: Hand-wash only with mild, fragrance-free detergent. Let dry thoroughly before storing.
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

What we liked: Food steamed nicely in this set and, after use, the tiers and lid nested properly without sticking or needing to wiggle them. And though there was slight warpage on the floor of the steamers, it was minimal and did not affect its use. It only comes with two tiers, but if you don’t use the bamboo steamer often or have a small family, two tiers are plenty. At such a low price point, it’s an exceptional deal and a great addition to your kitchen.

What we didn’t like: The bottom floor of Helen’s Asian Kitchen Bamboo Steamer buckled slightly, creating an uneven surface. But the warping was minor compared to some of the other bamboo steamers we tested.

Price at time of publish: $23.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 6 1/2 x 10 inches (stacked)Interior Depth of Basket: 1 3/4 inchesMaterial: BambooWeight: 2 lbs, 5 1/2 ouncesNumber of Baskets: 2 baskets, 1 lidCleaning and care: Handwash only with mild, fragrance-free detergent. Let dry thoroughly before storing.
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

What we liked: The Prime Home Direct Bamboo Steamer Set performed well in all our tests, with minimal warping. It’s a solidly built set with two tiers that fit easily together, even after multiple uses. It came with two basket tiers and a lid, as well as 50 paper liners, two sets of chopsticks, and a ceramic sauce dish for soy sauce or other dipping sauces. The set is competitively priced with other sets that don’t come with all the extras. If you are new to bamboo steamer cooking, it’s a great introduction set.

 What we didn’t like: The lid did arrive slightly dented, however, this was easily fixed by gently pushing it back into place. The steamer baskets are also shallower than other baskets we tested. However, this didn’t affect any of our tests and most likely wouldn’t make a difference with most food. But any food that is tall or bulky, like large vegetables or oversized bao, might not comfortably fit into the basket.

 Price at time of publish: $28.

 Key Specs

Dimensions: 5 5/8 x 10 inches (stacked)Depth of Basket: 1 1/2 inchesMaterial: BambooWeight: 1 lbs, 13 5/8 ouncesNumber of Baskets: 2 baskets, 1 lidCleaning and care: Handwash only with mild, fragrance-free detergent. Let dry thoroughly before storing.Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

The Competition

Zest of Moringa Bamboo Steamer Basket: This set had great promise, with metal rings around the edges to prevent scorching and warping. It also came with a stainless steel ring and reusable silicone liners for the interior of the steamer. Unfortunately, the interior bamboo buckled and warped on one tier after our testing, making it difficult to nest and stack the steamer.Joyce Chen 2-Tier Bamboo Steamer Baskets: This steamer basket had off-center holes in the floors, and the two tiers and the lid were initially difficult to nest together and pull apart. After testing, the floor of the steamer warped and became uneven and the tiers were even more difficult to separate and put together.Norpro Bamboo Steamer: This bamboo steamer performed fine, but the weave on top of the lid seemed to be made of poor quality, and the uneven bamboo started to fray and split.Town 34210 Bamboo Steamer: This steamer arrived damaged, with the lid completely unusable, so we could not test it. IKEA KLOCKREN steamer: The IKEA steamer was a different style of bamboo steamer with a floor tied together with bamboo string and the inset on the bottom of the steamer instead of the top. Though it performed fine, the uneven floor had a large empty spot on the edge that made it feel like it might not be suitable for delicate cooking, like flaky fish. The steamers also warped after use, making it difficult to stack and nest.Sur La Table Bamboo Steamers: The Sur La Table’s bamboo steamer was solidly constructed but the bamboo used for the handle at the top of the lid started to fray on the interior after testing, and the interior bamboo ring of one of the tiers started to buckle and warp slightly.Williams Sonoma Bamboo Steamer: This was the only set that we tested that had one tier instead of two or three. It performed fine, but the lid was warped.

FAQs

What are the advantages of a bamboo steamer?

Bamboo steamers are made of porous bamboo, which allows steam to absorb and escape instead of condensing and dripping back down on your food. This porous nature means delicate dumplings and steamed pork buns are cooked properly, aren’t soggy, and don’t develop tough skin. Bamboo steamers can also be stacked and nested, which allows you to cook more food or multiple types of food at once.

What should you do to a bamboo steamer before using it?

Some websites recommend soaking brand-new bamboo steamers in water for 30 minutes before using them to prevent scorching or burning. But as long as you place the steamer with its bottom edge in the water, this shouldn’t be necessary—just make sure the bottom tier floor isn’t touching the water though. You want to steam the food, not boil it. If you steam without the water touching the bottom edge of the steamer, either soak the steamer initially, or make sure to reduce the heat so the water is at a simmer instead of a hard rolling boil, so the heat of the pan doesn’t burn or scorch the bamboo.

How long does a bamboo steamer last?

Bamboo steamers do not last forever. However, the lifespan of a bamboo steamer depends on how frequently you use them and how you take care of them. Make sure to handwash your bamboo steamer, and let it dry completely before storing it. A typical bamboo steamer should last anywhere from six months to a year if frequently used, but significantly longer if it is not used often and is stored properly. If there is any sign of mold or mildew, it’s time to replace the steamer.

How do you cook in a bamboo steamer?

Bamboo steamers are used with somewhat deep pots or woks, which allow you to rest the steamer in water. A wok is traditional and allows for various sizes of bamboo steamers. If you have a pot, you need to make sure you have one that is the right size for your bamboo steamer to fit on top. Or you can purchase a bamboo steamer ring that will allow you to place the steamer on any large pot. Food is typically placed on parchment paper rounds, cabbage leaves, dried and soaked bamboo or banana leaves, or in a plate or bowl set inside the steamer to prevent sticking For more information about cooking with a bamboo steamer check out our article: Wok Skills 101: Steaming.

How do you wash a bamboo steamer?

You should never run your bamboo steamer through a dishwasher. Instead, always handwash your bamboo steamer with a mild scent-free detergent, as the bamboo can absorb smells, including the scent of a dish detergent. Once clean, make sure to thoroughly air dry the steamer. Though the steamer may look dry after a day, it can still retain moisture and will mold or mildew if stored damp. It’s best to let the steamer dry for at least two or three days before storing. As an added precaution, I always store my bamboo steamer with desiccant packs, just in case.

Do I need a wok to use a bamboo steamer?

Though it is traditional to use a wok for a bamboo steamer, you can use any pot that the bamboo steamer will fit on (or into). If you do not have an appropriately sized pot for your steamer, you can also buy a bamboo steamer ring, that allows you to place it on various pots and then place the bamboo steamer on the ring.  

Why We’re the Experts

Irvin Lin is a food blogger and freelance writer who has written many reviews for Serious Eats, including stand mixers, half-sheet pans, and bowl scrapers. He is the author of the cookbook Marbled, Swirled, and Layered, which was chosen as one of the best baking cookbooks of 2016 by The New York Times. He is an IACP-award-winning photographer, an IACP-nominated blogger, and a blue-ribbon baker. For this review, we tested 10 bamboo steamer baskets by using them to cook broccoli, soup dumplings, and salmon. We also interviewed Cathy Erway, the James Beard Award-winning food writer and author of The Food of Taiwan, and food writer and blogger Lisa Lin.

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