Most of us cook on autopilot — sizzle a chicken breast in a skillet or bake a hunk of salmon in the oven and call it a day. These tried-and-true cooking methods get the job done for sure, but there are actually faster, tastier and more nutritious ways to prepare your meals. Don’t worry — you won’t have to master the flambé or buy a complicated sous-vide contraption. In fact, these three cooking methods are dead-simple shortcuts to a healthy, satisfying meal every time.
There’s no better way to eat lighter and smarter than steam cooking, which uses just water and heat. Using the simplest of physics, water vaporizes into steam that carries heat to your food, cooking it quickly but delicately. Unlike harsher cooking methods like boiling, steaming preserves the nutrients and antioxidants in veggies and meats such as chicken breasts and fish that are prone to drying out. “And steaming doesn’t require any cooking fat like oil, so will result in fewer calories per serving,” adds Cordon Bleu–certified chef Michelle Dudash.
Nearly any vegetable can be steamed, but so can quicker-cooking meats such as scallops, shrimp, fish fillets and boneless poultry. (Avoid beef, pork and bone-in proteins.) To prevent fish from sticking, line the tray with parchment paper, or place your catch of the day on a layer of sliced citrus or large green leaves like napa cabbage. And use an instant-read food thermometer to determine when meats are ready.
Tools of the Trade
Sure, you can buy a fancy-pants electric product, but a cheaper and equally effective option is an old-school bamboo steamer that you can pick up for about 20 bucks. Use the multilevel tiers to cook multiple parts of a meal simultaneously, thereby streamlining meal prep and cleanup.
Another option is a perforated metal or plastic collapsing steamer, which is placed inside a pan or pot. It stores nicely in a cupboard but is better suited for steaming vegetables than meats.
Full Steam Ahead
To use a bamboo steamer, place meats and hearty vegetables like carrots, which take the longest to cook, on the bottom trays and more tender items such as greens on the top trays. Stack the trays, then place them in a wide skillet filled with at least 1 inch of water. Aromatics such as herbs, garlic or ginger can be placed in the water to add flavor. “You can also steam with broth instead of water for a more flavorful result,” Dudash says.
Make sure the sides of the steamer don’t touch the edges of the pan to prevent burning, then secure the steamer lid. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a strong simmer until your food is cooked through. Keep an eye on the water to ensure it does not boil off, which could ruin your pan.
If using a folding steamer, place it inside a pot so that the base lies about an inch above the simmering water; the goal is to steam — not boil — your veggies. And for an electric steamer, follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Cooked eggs offer a quick hit of muscle-building protein, but boiling them can often result in rubbery whites, chalky yolks and clingy shells. Instead, give the orbs a steam bath: The yolks will remain creamy and sunny, and the shells will slide off effortlessly.
To do: Place a steamer basket or bamboo tray in a pan filled with 1 inch of water. Place the eggs in a single layer, then bring to a boil. Steam 15 minutes, then immediately transfer the eggs to a bowl filled with ice water. Let rest 20 minutes, then enjoy!
Lemony Steamed Salmon
Makes 2 Servings
Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
- ½ bunch asparagus, woody ends trimmed
- 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- ¾ lb skinless salmon or rainbow trout fillet
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp grainy Dijon-style mustard
- 2 tsp fresh thyme
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
1. Fill a medium-size pot with at least 1 inch of water and place a bamboo steamer tray inside. Line tray with lemon slices and top with asparagus, red peppers and salmon.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, mustard, thyme, lemon zest, salt and black pepper. Spread mustard mixture on fish and cover steamer basket with the lid.
3. Bring water to a boil and steam until salmon is just barely cooked through in the center, about 10 minutes.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): 437 calories, fat 29 g, carbs 6 g, fiber
2 g, sugar 3 g, protein 36 g, sodium 393 mg
Want to replicate that savory, just-grilled flavor without using a grill? Then crank up that dormant oven broiler and get ready for your aha moment. Broiling is essentially upside-down grilling, in which a blast of intense heat penetrates food from above (rather than below), cooking food quickly — often in 15 minutes or less.
Because broiling is fast and furious, some foods are more cooperative than others. Your best options are thinner cuts of steak, boneless pork chops and poultry, burgers and firm-fleshed fish (salmon, halibut, swordfish). Sturdy vegetables and fruits like peppers, eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, cauliflower, mango, pineapple and citrus halves also can benefit from a blistering trip under the broiler. “Broiling enables you to get a nice, caramelized top without overcooking the inside,” Dudash says. Broiling amplifies the flavor of vegetables and fruits by drawing water away from the surface, promoting flecks of char and caramelizing the natural sugars to heighten sweetness.
For broiling, you’ll need tools that can handle the heat. Go with all-metal pans like a cast-iron skillet or a heavy-duty aluminum baking sheet. Place food on a wire rack inside the pan to keep meats, veggies and fruits above their liquids for better broiling.
Up in Smoke
Trim excess fat from meats, clean foods thoroughly and then pat dry with paper towel. Lightly oil them to help transfer heat into the food via conduction, encouraging faster cooking and better browning. And add about a ¼ inch of water to the underlying pan to prevent drippings from drying up and setting off your smoke alarm.
Bring the Heat
For great browning (read: better flavor), broiling should take food to its cooking temperature quickly, not gradually. Put your pan in the oven, then preheat your broiler to its highest temperature for at least 10 minutes. Carefully place your food on the hot pan and cook away! Dudash also recommends setting the oven rack about 6 inches below the broiler element and using high heat for thinner foods like fish fillets and lower heat for thicker items like steak that need to stay under the broiler longer in order to cook through without the outsides burning.
To sidestep uneven cooking, position your food on the pan so everything is evenly placed underneath the heating rods and/or rotate the pan once during cooking to allow foods even exposure to the hottest spots. And since there’s a small window of time between perfectly broiled food and an inedible, ashy dinner, use your oven timer and keep an eagle eye on your meal. For meats, eliminate guesswork and use a digital instant-read thermometer to test for doneness.
Chicken With Pineapple Salsa
Makes 2 Servings
Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 2 (6 oz) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 2 tsp canola or grapeseed oil, divided
- 2 (½-inch thick) pineapple rounds
- 1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into quarters
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1 scallion (green onion), thinly sliced
- ½ jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- juice of ½ lime
- 2 tbsp unsalted pumpkin seeds
- salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place broiler rack 6 inches below the overhead heating element, then preheat oven to broil. Brush chicken with 1 teaspoon oil and season with salt and black pepper. Broil chicken until meat is cooked through and internal temperature reaches 165 F, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cover to keep warm.
2. Brush pineapple, peppers and tomatoes with 1 teaspoon oil. Place on a baking sheet and broil until pineapple and peppers are charred in a few spots and tomatoes have shriveled, about 5 minutes.
3. Chop pineapple and bell peppers into small chunks and toss with tomatoes, scallions, jalapeños, cilantro, lime juice and a couple of pinches of salt. Serve chicken topped with salsa and pumpkin seeds.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): 365 calories, fat 13 g, carbs 18 g, fiber 3 g, sugar 8 g, protein 45 g, sodium 409 mg
It sounds all chefy, but poaching is really nothing more than gently cooking food in liquid with the sole purpose of keeping things juicy and plump: As they cook, meats release their flavor into the surrounding liquid, then absorb that liquid back inside in an ongoing back-and-forth process. What you lose in browning flavor is made up for in deliciously moist meat. “Another benefit of poaching is that it does not cause the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which studies show may raise cancer risk,” Dudash says. HCAs can form when meats are cooked in direct contact with high heats, such as with searing or grilling.
And poaching is not just for eggs, you know; meats like poultry, pork tenderloin and skinless fish are great options, as well. You can even poach a whole chicken if you have a large enough pan: A 4-pound, whole chicken takes about 45 minutes to poach, and it can provide you with a week’s worth of meat and plenty of free chicken broth.
Enameled cast-iron or stainless-steel pots are perfect for poaching. The amount of meat you’re poaching determines how big of a pot is needed to get the job done.
Add enough liquid so the meat is submerged by about 1 inch. Your poaching liquid can be as basic as water, or Dudash suggests using broth or white wine for a flavor boost. Other items like beer, cider, coconut milk and tomato sauce also can be added to the pot. Or go one better by including aromatics such as onions, shallots, celery, lemon slices, ginger, spices and herbs for extra punch.
Easy Does It
Bring your liquid to a temperature where it is steaming with just the rare bubble breaking the surface. (Remember: You’re not trying to boil your meat, so try to keep the water temperature at 160 F.) Reduce the heat, partially cover the pan and poach until the meat is cooked through. Chicken breasts take about 15 minutes, whereas a cut of skinless salmon only needs about eight minutes. Skim off any foam that forms during cooking.
Cider-Poached Pork With Apple Slaw
Makes 2 Servings
Hands-On Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- ¾ lb pork tenderloin
- 2 cups hard cider
- 1 shallot, quartered
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 medium carrot, shredded
- 1 medium apple, sliced into thin matchsticks
- 1/3 cup sauerkraut
- 1 scallion, sliced
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- 2 tsp grainy Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp minced ginger
- ¼ tsp red chili flakes (optional)
- 2 tbsp chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup chopped parsley or mint
1. Place pork, cider, shallots, garlic and salt in a large pot. Add enough water to completely cover pork with liquid. Bring water to a temperature at which it is steaming with just the rare bubble breaking the surface, about 160 F. Reduce heat, partially cover pan and poach 15 minutes, or until meat is cooked through to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F. Remove pork from pan and, when cool, thinly slice.
2. In a bowl, combine carrots, apples, sauerkraut and scallions. In another small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, ginger, chili flakes (if using) and couple of pinches of salt to make a dressing. Add dressing to slaw and toss to combine.
3. Divide slaw among serving plates and top with pork slices, walnuts and parsley or mint.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): 420 calories, fat 22 g, carbs 19 g, fiber 5 g, sugar 12 g, protein 37 g, sodium 480 mg