How to Boil and Steam 12 Fresh Vegetables

By Marie Rama, Bryan Miller

All sorts of seasonal vegetables benefit from boiling and steaming. When it comes to choosing between the two techniques, remember that steaming is more gentle and better retains the texture and color of vegetables. Boiling is a more aggressive process and tends to break down the texture of vegetables, which is desirable if you’re making purees or mashed potatoes. Following are specific instructions for boiling and steaming common vegetables:

  • Artichokes: Lay the artichokes on their side on a wooden cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife, trim about 1/2 inch off the top. Use scissors to trim the prickly tips off each leaf.

    Pull off any very thick or tough leaves (but no more than 3 or 4) at the bottom of the artichoke. Place the artichokes in a deep pot with cold water to cover. (They should fit snugly to keep them from bobbing in the water.)

    Add about a teaspoon of salt per quart of water plus some black pepper and the juice of one lemon, and bring to a boil. Boil gently for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on size. When the artichokes are done, you should be able to pierce the bottom with a fork or easily pull off a leaf.

    Use tongs to remove the artichokes and drain upside down on a plate or in a colander. Serve hot with a sauce of lemon juice and melted butter. Or marinate for several hours in a vinaigrette dressing and serve at room temperature.

  • Asparagus: Snap off the thick, woody stems at the natural breaking point. (If very coarse, use a vegetable peeler to remove some of the outer green layer at the thick end of each spear.) Rinse the stalks under cold water or soak them for about 5 minutes if they seem especially sandy. Place the spears in a covered skillet in one layer, if possible (and never more than two).

    Add boiling water to cover and salt to taste. Cover and boil gently until crisp-tender, about 8 minutes for medium spears. Cooking time varies with the thickness of the stalks. Drain and serve immediately with butter, lemon juice, salt and black pepper, and, if desired, grated Parmesan cheese.

  • Brussels sprouts: With a sharp paring knife, trim the tough outer leaves and trim a very thin slice off the stem end. Then cut an X in the stem end to ensure even cooking of the stem and leaves. Cook them in a covered saucepan with about 1 inch of water for 8 to 10 minutes or until crisp-tender.

    Test for doneness by tasting. Drain and serve with about 1/4 cup melted butter mixed with the juice of half of a fresh lemon and a dash of salt.

    To steam Brussels sprouts, place trimmed sprouts in a steaming basket over about 1 inch of boiling water. Cover the pot and steam for about 8 minutes, depending on size.

  • Cabbage: Cut the head into quarters and cut out the hard core. Add the quarters to a large pot of lightly salted boiling water, cover, and boil gently for about 12 minutes. Cabbage should remain somewhat crisp.

    To steam, place the quarters in a large deep skillet or saucepan with about 1/2 inch of water and cook, covered, over low heat until crisp-tender. Cabbage is also quite delicious when braised. Or cook it in your slow cooker with a splash of chicken broth and some diced ham.

  • Carrots or parsnips: Trim off the ends and peel with a vegetable peeler. Place them sliced into a pot with lightly salted water just to cover. Cover the pot and boil gently for about 12 to 15 minutes for sliced carrots or about 20 minutes for whole ones. Or place in a steaming basket and steam in a covered pot over about 1 inch of boiling water.

    Sliced carrots or parsnips steam in 5 minutes; whole and large, 2- to 3-inch pieces need about 12 minutes. Serve with butter sauce flavored with lemon juice and grated lemon or orange zest or a sauce of melted butter and minced fresh dill.

  • Cauliflower: First, cut a whole head into florets, using your chef’s knife: Cut the whole head in half, and then separate the head into individual buds, or small clusters, keeping a little of their stems. Boil gently in enough lightly salted water to cover for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Adding the juice of half a lemon to the cooking water helps to retain cauliflower’s whiteness.

    To steam, place florets in a steaming basket over about 1 inch of boiling water. Cover the pot and steam for about 5 minutes or until desired doneness. Toss in a sauce of melted butter, lemon juice, and chopped fresh parsley.

  • Corn: Heat a large pot filled with enough water just to cover the corn, add the husked corn, cover the pot, and boil for about 5 minutes. Remove with tongs and serve immediately with butter.

    Don’t husk or remove the ears from the refrigerator until you’re ready to boil them. (The sugar in corn rapidly turns to starch at room temperature. To retain sweetness, keep ears cold and cook the same day of purchase.)

  • Green beans: Trim by snapping off the stem ends. Add the beans to lightly salted boiling water to cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp-tender. They should retain their bright green color.

    To steam, place a steaming basket over about 1 inch of boiling water. Add beans, cover the pot tightly, and check for doneness after 5 minutes. Serve hot beans with a simple butter sauce or toss in a vinaigrette dressing and chill before serving.

  • Pearl onions: Peel and boil in a covered pot with lightly salted water to just cover for about 15 minutes or until tender but still firm. Don’t overcook, or they’ll fall apart. Serve smothered in a sauce or gravy or mixed with other vegetables.

  • Snow peas: Rinse the peas, snap off the stem ends, and lift the string across the top to remove it. Place in boiling water to cover and cook for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and retain their green color.

  • Sweet potatoes or yams: Scrub and peel the potatoes using a vegetable peeler, trim the tapered ends, and cut out any bruised spots. (Cut very large sweet potatoes in half crosswise, or quarter them.)

    Place in a large pot, add cold water to cover the potatoes, cover the pot, and simmer for about 35 to 40 minutes for whole potatoes or 20 to 25 minutes for halved or quartered potatoes. Potatoes are done when you can pierce them easily with a fork.

    Don’t overcook, or they’ll fall apart in the water. Drain and cool slightly before peeling. Mash or serve in large chunks with butter, salt, black pepper, and ground ginger or nutmeg to taste, if desired.

  • Yellow squash and zucchini: Scrub clean and trim the ends. Slice into 1/2 -inch-thick rounds. Place in a steaming basket over about 1 inch of boiling water and steam in a covered pot for about 4 minutes or just until crisp-tender. These tender vegetables are also delicious sautéed.

Fresh vegetables have more flavor and retain their nutrients better if you cook them only until crisp-tender, or firm to the bite. The B vitamins and vitamin C are water soluble and leach into the cooking water as the vegetables cook, so save the vitamin-packed cooking liquid to add to other dishes you’re cooking, such as soups and stews.