Fast Cooking: Steam Vs. Microwave

By , August 7, 2016

Life moves at a slower pace on the homestead. That’s part of its charm, particularly when it comes to food. We’re definitely part of the slow food movement, making our meals largely from scratch. The time and effort to prepare a meal contributes to its value.

However, now and then we want a hot meal in a short amount of time. This particularly comes at lunch, when we often eat leftovers.

If it’s a sunny day, we prepare the meal a little ahead of time using the sun oven (see Cooking with Solar). If it isn’t, we need a fast way to heat meals, often in individual portions, so we can eat and get back to work.

At such times, most Americans turn to a nearly ubiquitous appliance: the microwave. Here on the homestead, with no microwave, we need some other process. We steam these meals, and have discovered, much to our surprise, that it’s more effective, and almost as quick, as a microwave!

All we need is a pot that’s large enough to hold the food in whatever container proves most useful: its storage container, a heat tolerant vessel, or the dish it’ll be eaten in. We insert something to keep the container off the bottom of the pot: a steaming basket, a screen, skewers, even canning jar rings—anything large or numerous enough to keep the container off the bottom, even if it jostles around a little.

We put about an inch of water in the bottom of the pot, up to, but ideally a bit below the bottom of the food container. We put on a lid, and turn up the heat. The steam rises up around and through the food, heating it rapidly and thoroughly. Other than adding a little moisture, the heated food isn’t cooked as it would be if we heated it in a pan on the stove directly. Instead, much like a microwave, it heats through without changing the character of the food in the process.

If it’s winter, and we’re not in too much of a hurry, we put it on the wood stove. If time is short, we may put preheated water in the pot to speed the heating process.

With proper attention, we can steam a meal in about the same time it takes an average microwave to heat it.

Of course, your mileage may vary. It probably helps that I have never really made my peace with microwave oven technology.

My family got its first microwave oven back in the fairly early days of the technology. No doubt, ours was secondhand; we kids got a long, serious orientation lecture on the uses and dangers of the appliance. After that, we approached it with the same caution as if we cooked over an open fire.

Of course, the technology improved, got safer and more reliable. Innovations like turntables did much to spread the heat more evenly. Still, I used it as an oven of last resort. I never liked the resulting meal as much as “real” cooked food—I found the pockets of cold off-putting. Even the hot portions seemed somehow unwholesome. The size of the oven limited the containers that could be used, and restricted composition of those containers.

I also found the concept frustrating. Microwaving supposedly saved time, but all the trial and error of setting the timer and heat level, then checking the food, rarely seemed to save much time. Also, any real recipe seemed to call for cooking for almost as long as using a conventional oven. True, it eliminated preheating the oven, but it didn’t seem to save as much time as advertised.

Michelle had a different outlook, and we eventually acquired our own microwave. Often, one came installed in the apartments we rented as we moved around the U.S.

We didn’t really have to give up on microwaves when we moved to the homestead. While off-the-grid planning eschews most heating element appliances as too energy expensive, microwaves may be excepted because they don’t require energy for a long period of time. Even so, we sold ours when we moved here.

Now, we steam our “fast” food. It may not be precisely as fast as a microwave, but it’s fast enough for our lifestyle.

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