Learn to Steam Fish, Never Overcook it Again

May 12, 2016

I’m best known for my Italian cooking based on a childhood spent dreamily living in Italy and other exotic Mediterranean locales (Beirut, Cyprus, Spain), but my family also spent two years living in Hong Kong.

While I was too confused by the food to appreciate it then, I like to think I absorbed some of it through osmosis: As an adult I love Chinese food (and Asian food across the board). Cooking and experimenting with Asian food is one of my favorite home-cooking activities. Away from the hustle and bustle of my Italian restaurant kitchens, I can muddle my way through a cuisine I love but do not have the same easy familiarity with.

A childhood friend of mine from Hong Kong who, as an adult, has spent a lot of time teaching architecture in China made this steamed fish for her annual Chinese New Year party. I fell in love with it for its beauty, ease in preparation, and ability to be easily modified.

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It’s the kind of dish that doesn’t need precision: You can have more or less ginger, you could add cilantro or fresh, slivered chile, or not. If you don’t have Shaoxing wine, use sherry or white wine or neither. Adding aromatics such as star anise, Szechuan peppercorn, and scallions to the steaming water is optional but will perfume the fish with delicate but noticeable fragrance, acting as like a flavor builder—on its own, it might not add much, but with everything else going on, it combines to make really delicious dish.

Steaming fish is one of my favorite simple ways to cook fish at home: It’s a beautiful technique for a perfectly-cooked fish and so easy to execute without a lot of equipment. Steam cooks the fish delicately—it's always moist, even if you overcook it a little. It also doesn’t stink up your kitchen the way pan-frying does.

This is also a good general technique to master, as it’s very easy to steam any kind of small size whole fish, fish filet, or even scallops. It would work as well with a salmon or a striped bass filet as it would with whole Boston mackerel, porgies, or trout. I have to say, though, that I really believe that fish, much like meat, tastes better cooked on the bone than off, and the bonus of cooking a whole fish is that you get to eat the cheeks, the most delicate and tender part of the fish.

With a bowl of rice or some sautéed greens this steamed fish is a complete dinner for two or three or, with a larger fish, even four.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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1 Comment

AntoniaJames May 13, 2016
Would love to see this method in a head-to-head (or maybe that should be "side by side") test, comparing it to the cold poaching method recommended in this recent article:

The authors show a dramatic difference between cold poaching (poaching from cold water) vs steaming salmon, with poaching producing a much better result - but they used a metal steamer, not a plate, as is used here. Obviously, using thicker pieces of fish figures into the analysis as well. ;o)