Before you use your bamboo steamer for the first time, wash it with soapy water. Inspect the tiers and lid for any loose fibers and carefully pull them off so that they don’t get in your food.
2. Prepare Your Cooking Vessel
Fill your wok, skillet, or sauté pan with just enough water so that it comes up slightly below the slats in the bottom tier of the bamboo steamer. The water should not touch the slats—you don’t want to boil the food. For a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan, you’ll need between 3.5 and 5 cups of water. For a 14-inch wok, you’ll need between 4 and 6 cups of water. You can use less water, but you may have to add water from time to time to make sure that the cooking vessel doesn’t run dry.
3. Heat the Water
Bring the water in the cooking vessel to a rolling boil over high heat.
4. Meanwhile, Prepare the Steamer
Line each tier with cabbage leaves or perforated parchment rounds. Place food on top of the cabbage or parchment in a single layer, allowing a little space between each item so that steam can circulate and foods like bao have room to expand. If you’re cooking different types of food, place denser foods (proteins, dumplings, etc.) in the lower tier(s), where they’ll receive more heat and steam, and less dense foods (such as greens) in the upper tier(s). Cover the tier(s) with the steamer lid.
5. Place the Steamer in the Wok/Skillet/Sauté Pan
Adjust the heat level so that the water goes from a boil to a simmer. You should see some wisps of steam coming out of the top of the steamer and from the water itself.
6. Cook for the Allotted Time
Don’t be alarmed if the water turns slightly brown and you notice a sweet, woodsy smell coming from the steamer. That’s normal—bamboo steamers are made from a natural fiber, after all.
7. Keep an Eye on the Water Level
If all the water evaporates from the cooking vessel, both it and your bamboo steamer can burn. If you’re steaming for an extended period of time or steaming multiple foods in succession, it’s a good idea to keep a kettle of water boiling so that you can replenish the water in your cooking vessel as needed without stopping the cooking process.
7. Clean Up
After you’re done cooking and serving your food, clean all the components of your steamer thoroughly with warm, soapy water. It’s easiest to do this while the steamer is still warm so that you don’t have to scrub too hard to remove any dried-on bits of food. No, you can’t put steamers in the dishwasher—they will absorb too much water and warp.
8. Keep It Dry
Use a dish towel to blot excess moisture from the steamer, and then set each of the tiers and lid on a flat surface to air-dry individually—this keeps them from warping. Don’t try to stack and store the tiers until they are completely dry, or they will develop mold.