Hello, and welcome to our newest cooking method - Steaming! I really wanted to follow this up with a punny reference to being careful because our conversation about steaming may get a bit...steamy... Also, I considered quoting Nelly lyrics ("it's getting hot in herre...") and trying to make it apply. Neither seemed the best choice, but thought I'd tell you anyway.
What is steaming?
Steaming is a very straightforward moist-heat cooking method that is done by exposing food to steam (made by the evaporation of water) for cooking. Complicated, right? This method can cook things very quickly and is usually preferred over boiling because it does not leach the wonderful nutrients into the water, instead retaining more of them for your body to enjoy.
How do I steam?
Steaming is done multiple ways. For most people at home, steaming is done by either using a fancy electric that does the job for you, or, most likely, by using a pot of water and a steamer tray inserted in it. Another way of steaming is to wrap or cover the item you are making tightly to allow it to steam using its own moisture. A good example of this is "baked" potatoes. Growing up, my mom used to make potatoes by wrapping them in aluminum foil and putting them in the oven; this is actually steaming. If you've ever been to a fancy restaurant and ordered something en papillote (french for: in paper), like fish, this would be steaming as well. My favorite food made by steaming is tamales - but I could eat Mexican food every day for the rest of my life.
Additionally, you can steam using a pressure cooker. Pressure steamers/cookers allow the temperature to go above 212°F (up to about 250°F at 15psi) speeding up the cooking process by up to ten times the speed of normal steaming. Pressure cooking has recently made a huge comeback. I'm not exactly sure why, but with its comeback there have been great advancements in the pressure cookers themselves. In the past you may have heard terrible stories about the lids exploding off of pressure cookers, or stories of terrible burns (see my own story below), but like I said, if you were to buy a new pressure cooker there are a lot more safety precautions built into them than ever before; from new locking systems on the lids, to better and easier to read pressure knobs (giving you a choice of 5-15 psi -pounds per square inch), and new steam release valves (which will protect you from scalding your skin as long as you open it the correct direction). Pressure cookers need not be scary anymore. Now, if you were handed one down from your mother, or grandmother, I'd maybe do a little research and familiarize yourself with it and its parts very well before using - which is a great habit to be in nonetheless.
Now, let me tell you a story...
When I was doing my externship for Culinary School, I had my first real experience with a commercial steamer. Sure, we had one at school, but I was never part of a group that used it. So, I'm steaming a very large tray of carrots, with another one laying in wait, and I'm in a bit of crunch for time. The bell dings, I open the door, steam comes wafting out and my uncovered hands and arms go in. I don't know if I've ever screamed so much like a little girl in my life!!!! Both of my arms, up to my elbows had a second degree burn. If I simply would have given the steam a little time to dissipate everything would have been fine. I couldn't cook over the grill for almost a week because the heat would make it hurt too badly! Ouch!
Tip of the trade: If you burn yourself (and especially if you need to continue to expose your burn to heat to continue cooking) quickly submerge your burn in vinegar (we keep a jar of pickle juice around for just this reason). The acid helps neutralize the burn so you can keep working, drawing away the heat. Also, vinegar will prevent it from getting infected and it contains acetic acid (which is found in aspirin), which will help with pain.