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Cookery and Culinary Arts/Steaming at low temperature


Dear Mr. Price,

In many sources it is recommended to steam food at 70 degrees Celsius or lower in order to preserve the food's nutritional benefits as much as possible. As I understand, when the water for steaming is boiled, the water is 100 degrees, and the resulting steam is also 100 degrees.
How is it possible to steam food at a temperature of 70 degrees or lower?

With many thanks in advance for your help and many greetings from France,

Aaron, bonjour from the States - that's a great question!

Your assumption about the temperature of steam is mostly correct.  Water turns into steam at 100 C (212 F) and steam condenses back to water at 100 C at standard pressure.  Steam can exist at temperatures greater than 100 C, but for all practical purposes, outside of a pressure cooker, any steam you deal with in the kitchen will be just about 100 C.

It is possible to steam something at 70 degrees C(158 F for us yankees), but I can almost guarantee you that nobody does it.  At standard atmospheric pressure, water boils, and therefore produces steam, at 100 C (212 F).  If you increase the pressure, say in a pressure cooker, you increase the temperature that the water needs to boil.  Add an extra 70 KPA (10 PSI) and your water won't boil until 115 C (240 F).  That and some great heat transfer properties of steam are the reason pressure cookers work so fast compared to traditional methods.

The inverse is also true, reduce atmospheric pressure and the boiling point of a liquid drops.  In a vacuum, water boils quite readily at room temperature.  If you were able to lower the pressure say, 100 - 120 KPA or so, your water would boil, and therefore create vapor, at 70 F.  I can't imagine doing anything like this outside of the laboratory, but if you did manage it, the water would cook slowly and never cook anything above 70C (158F).  

That's not to say you can't have a 70C moist environment in which to cook food.  If you put a pot of water on the stove at a low enough temperature that the water is hot but not boiling, then close the lid, you could potentially cook something in the enclosed air.  It wouldn't really be steaming though - a small portion of the heat transfer would come from steam but most would come from conduction through contact through the air with the sides of the pan and the water.

I think I should also point out that cooking at a lower temperature isn't really that big of a factor in nutrient retention.  The fact that the food is steamed instead of submerged in water is the biggest concern by a huge factor.  The length of cooking time is also far more important in nutrient retention than is cooking temperature, at least when we're talking temperatures below the maillard point (154 C or 309 F).  Low temperatures often have huge positive impacts on the texture and flavor of food though, so there's definitely a place for it.  Really it's another tool in your culinary arsenal, and a versatile one if employed properly.

Good luck!

Cookery and Culinary Arts

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Adam W Price


I can answer general and specific questions related to all manner of food preparation, food cookery, and peripheral disciplines such as applied food science, nutrition, or sanitation. I am knowledgeable in meat, poultry and seafood fabrication, recipe development, world cuisines including 'fusion' styles, and all of the primary cooking methods (grilling, steaming, etc.). I can assist you with developing or redesigning recipes, planning for events (from a caterers point of view), troubleshooting recipes, identifying and working with unfamiliar ingredients or cooking methods, or (most importantly in my opinion) figuring out exactly why things happen the way they do. If we understand the science and reasoning behind our craft, then we can start learning how to cook instead of learning to recreate recipes. Other sides of the craft that I am experienced in include: sugar work (though limited experience with chocolate, sad to say), ice creams/sorbets, baking and pastry, wines (specifically when paired with foods), and others. If for some reason I cannot answer a question, I will do my best to point you toward a source that can.


I have nearly two decades of experience as a professional in the field, and I enjoy experimenting with new ideas on my own time. I have worked in restaurants ranging from quick service to fine dining, bakeries, butcher shops and institutions. I have done event planning and execution for large and small scale catered events. I have managed several kitchens and developed menus ranging from simple buffets to elaborate multi-course meals. I have an extensive library of recipe books as well as books on cooking techniques, food science, food safety, and nutrition.

I graduated with high honors from the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park). I am ServSafe certified for food safety and sanitation, and I take this very seriously.

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