If I ask you to imagine vegetables for a moment, what’s the first thought that comes to mind?
I remember my paternal grandmother standing at the stove when I was a small child, always cooking or baking something. The cakes and pies she baked and set on the kitchen table were a child’s dream come true.
And then there were the vegetables.
Though what I’m about to describe is a vivid illustration of what not to do to your fresh produce, don’t worry – I’ll follow this up with my top tips for flavor boosting your favorites, whether you’re serving fresh broccoli from the farmers market, or a frozen mixed blend in the dead of winter.
Then Came Grandma’s Veggies
I’m sure many of you can relate, and maybe you can already guess what I’m about to say. If not, this may come as a bit of shock to you.
We would sit together and string the beans, shell the peas, and peel the carrots. They were so fresh, and vibrantly colored!
Then something happened. Grandma would put them in a pot of water, and add a load of onions, some salt, and pepper.
Afterwards, we would go out to play while she would hang damp clothes on the line, watching us with the magical eyes that she had in the back of her head.
Meanwhile, the vegetables just kept on cooking.
And cooking some more.
Yikes! Let it suffice to say that, for the larger part of my childhood, I believed all vegetables resembled onion flavored, dull colored mush.
There had to be a better way!
Steaming Your Veggies is a Beautiful Thing
Today, I love steaming vegetables – it’s a great way to keep their bite, color, taste, and fresh integrity intact.
But, they’re still plain veg at this point, and for some eaters out there, that’s not always enough.
Fortunately, I’ve also found that enhancing what can sometimes be a bland dish is fun, and easy too.
9 Tips and Tricks for Waking Up Your Steamed Veggies
Now, let’s explore how to perk up those flavors, to make each dish new and exciting.
1) Think Pig
It all goes back to the old adage that everything is better with bacon. Crisp up some lardons or pancetta in a pan, and crumble it atop your finished dish.
This may not be the healthiest option, but there is nothing quite like bacon’s savory, smoky, salty crunch. Brussels sprouts and bacon make an excellent pair. For something a little different, you could even try sauteing the vegetables instead.
2) Go Herbal
I love to go into my fridge and hunt down whatever fresh herbs I can grab. Give them a quick chop and toss them into your lovely steaming dish.
It’s such a simple fix, adding a lively essence. And it’s so good. Don’t forget, fresh garlic or ginger adds amazing pop, too.
3) Say Cheese
There’s nothing like a fistful of finely grated cheese melting atop hot vegetables. The enticing aroma wafts up and says, “Eat me.”
Try Parmesan, sharp cheddar, or some sultry smoked Gouda.
4) Make it Zesty
Nothing perks up flavor like citrus. Use a citrus zester to gather shreds of just the colored part of the citrus peel and gently stir it into your dish. Remember that a little zest goes a long way.
Don’t have a zester or microplane on hand? If you’re in the market for one, check out Foodal’s guide to the best items on the market.
Or, try adding a drizzle of freshly squeezed juice to those green beans or asparagus. Give different varieties of lemons, limes, or oranges a try.
5) Go Nuts
I’ve gotta say, I’m nutty about nuts. Try almonds, pecans, walnuts, or any of your favorites.
Toast them in a dry pan for just a couple of minutes, to begin to release the flavorful oils. Chop them up, toss them atop your dish, and you’re ready to go – presentation perfect!
6) Spice Things Up
Chili lime powder, red pepper flakes, or Sriracha sauce sprinkled on or folded into a dish is sure to add a little pep to your step (and tingle to your tongue)!
These are some hot and spicy examples, but why stop there? Scan through your spice collection – you’re sure to discover an array of flavor enhancing possibilities.
7) Try Compound Butter
Adding a touch of fat, along with garlicky, herbaceous, or citrusy flavor, provides a silky mouth feel.
Mix your choice of minced fresh herbs or other flavorful ingredients into softened butter. And store any that’s left over in the refrigerator or freezer, for next time.
While some might say that this is a great way to turn a vitamin-packed dish into something less healthy, the truth is, a touch of fat eaten alongside fresh produce actually helps us to absorb the fat soluble nutrients.
8) Experiment with Oil
Flavored olive oil is definitely a go-to when it comes to a quick way to punch up the flavor right before serving. What an amazing quick fix!
Explore different flavors like herbes de Provence, garlic, and lemon. The list really goes on and on, allowing you to explore and experience a whole new world of wonderful flavors.
Try getting creative with the oil base too, and branch out from olive into new territory –just a drizzle of avocado, hazelnut, pumpkin seed or walnut oil will add a new element of flavor.
Check out this post for more on the many different varieties of fruit- and seed-based oils that are out there to choose from.
9) Create a Custom Combo
Here is where it gets really fun! Nobody said the above items need to stand alone in your quest to add flavor and vibrancy to a dish – so mix it up a little!
Try combining olive oil with fresh herbs, or some gooey cheese with crispy bacon. Lemon zest and garlic make a wonderful pair. Or, how about compound butter made with a dash of the hot stuff?
Let your imagination and your taste buds guide you.
I hope these tips have given you the inspiration to create your own tantalizing twists on many new dishes. It’s always fun to put something on the table that you can be truly proud of, and that you’re excited to eat.
Plus, let’s not forget that enticing, first sight/first bite, ooh-aah moment!
There will never be another pot of mushy, oniony, bland vegetables for me. However, if it were not for Grandma’s loving cooking lessons, I’d never have become the foodie I am today.
Please share the ways that you’ve discovered to boost veggie flavors in your own kitchen. I look forward to your comments.
About Marla Tetsuka
As a professional chef, author of multiple cookbooks, and graduate of the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Marla brings a professional touch to the community that we call Foodal.
55 thoughts on “9 Simple Ways to Make Steamed Veggies More Flavorful”
I can empathize with your situation as a child. I used to help my stepmother shell peas and snap the ends off of green beans. I never understood how peas and beans transformed from a vibrant, crisp green to a nasty grey-green color. Then she wondered why I did not want to eat the veggies that I helped her prepare.
I also have memories of my stepmother and father using this bamboo steamer that they set in a wok to cook brussel sprouts. I could never get the silly thing cleaned properly, and anything cooked in it afterward tasted like old brussel sprouts for a month (ick!).
As an adult, I use a microwave steamer because it is faster and easier to clean. What I do is throw some rice noodles in a skillet (I don’t have a wok yet) and pan fry them. I then add some steamed veggies, a bit of soy sauce, some garlic, a dash of ginger, and toss the whole mess together for a couple of minutes. The result tastes just as good as what you will find in a Chinese food restaurant.
Love your idea for a quick healthy rice noodle dish! It sounds delicious. If you like a bit of spice, you might try adding a dried chili, just don’t eat it or you’ll get one really hot bite.
Wow, I have never thought of STEP 3! Can I actually put any type of cheese on vegetables or only a certain kind works?
My suggestion would be to experiment with some of your favorites. Cheeses that melt well, like mozzarella, cheddar or Gouda are terrific.
As a child my family bought a lot of canned peas, carrots, corn etc. They then always poured out the water it came packed in and put new water in, salt and pepper and cooked it for way too long. I loved it because it’s all I knew. As an adult I prefer fresh produce. I like to gently roast or steam. I love to add grass fed butter. I use to add cheese but now that I can’t have cheese I mix the butter with nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor.
I love the idea of adding bacon. Bacon just adds so much flavor. I often feed a young man that does not eat pork. Do you think turkey bacon would work as well?
I too remember the day my proud mother presented freshly grown green beans. My reply that I liked canned better was not welcomed. Love garden fresh now. And yes, turkey bacon would be a wonderful addition. Enjoy!
Steamed veggies are definitely the way to go to retain nutrients and flavours. I also grew up with canned vegetables and overcooked mush. I have been away from that for so long that it amazes me to see people in the supermarket with carts full of canned foods. In the winter I make a lot of vegetable stews and soups and almost always add in a handful or more of chopped greens to steam at the end of the cooking process. My favourite is chard since I have learned that it doesn’t have the negative effect on the thyroid that kale and spinach do.
Rainbow chard is one of my faves for sure. It is visually beautiful and offers lovely texture and flavor to many dishes.
I have never tried to make compound butter before, but we eat tons of vegetables at home! This seems like a nice, easy way to switch things up without having to buy anything more than we already have, and without having to put in a lot of effort.
You’ll enjoy creating compound butter as much as eating it. Don’t forget that there are savory such as herb and garlic versions as well as sweet, like orange zest and fig. Just form logs and wrap in parchment, zip lock and save in the refrigerator to use as you wish.
I wasn’t very imaginative with vegetables when I was younger: put them all in the pan with oil and fry/saute them a little, that’s all. I recently learned to steam my vegetables properly, but I have trouble with carrots. Wether they’re boiled, sauteed or steamed, I just don’t find carrots very tasty, unless they’re raw and eaten with dressing or some sauce. If anyone has suggestions for making me like carrots more, have at it! Adding spices and nuts sounds like a great idea though, I will try that.
Carrots may not be your favorite and that is perfectly o.k. Some people do enjoy them glazed in orange juice, butter and brown sugar. Hey, there is always carrot cake. No need to push one type, just try jazzing up your favorites.
Steam or boil your carrots then toss them with dark brown sugar and soy sauce. They are delicious!
This is a fantastic post allowing people to explore various veggie options. I find that many of these I have not even thought of to try. I think that adding a little spice to things can instantly make food better; however, this may not go over so much with the little ones. But adding a little cheese would probably convince a little one to change their minds. I hate mushy overcooked vegetables, and I will only ever steam them to retain their crunch. My grandmother use to give us way overcooked veggies. It turned me off as a child to trying new things or anything green. So this article seems very helpful in offering new and exciting ways to prepare them.
Thank you for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear that you are exploring ways to introduce healthy foods to your kids. You are right, cheese works for most. You might consider chilling slightly steamed greens, like snap peas and serving them with a little dip.
This was very timely for me to read today! I’m about to go traveling for a week and a half, and I know that when I get back, I will be more than ready to start eating more veggies and get back to healthier eating. After all that on-the-road food, it will become a necessity. 🙂
I especially like the add-on ideas like bacon… bacon really does make anything better, I know this!! 😀
Some of these things I’ve tried, and some I haven’t, so it will be fun experimenting with the various flavors.
Happy travels to you! I’m sure that you will find many new dishes while away, but applaud your for joyfully experimenting upon your return. Have fun.
I’m so glad you included the combo idea. I enjoy all of the options, but there’s nothing like playing around with flavors.
Yes, I often think of my kitchen as my culinary laboratory. Enjoy your experimentation as I am sure that it will yield delicious results.
I think a lot of people understand that eating more vegetables is good for the health, but the stereotypical view of eating steamed vegetables is just so bland and boring that a lot of people are understandably put off from it. It’s great to think of ways in which it can be made a little bit more exciting – because suddenly, steamed veg becomes something that you can look forward to rather than something that you dread, and only have in your diet because you think it’s “healthy”!
Don’t forget that there are way more delicious options than not when it comes to food, including these treats. Try a quick drizzle and toss of balsamic vinegar (black cherry is my favorite these days) or melt some yummy cheese on top. I think you’ll find yourself craving more.
The only way I can get my better half to eat sprouts is to cook them with copious amounts of maple syrup and bacon!
With asparagus they have to be covered in panko and cheese.
I could eat those baby’s raw all day long.
I am going to give your tips a try to see if I can get her to open her mind up to more veggies!
We all know how good they are for us. it’s just trying to find ways to eat them.
My grandmother is actually the reason I love vegetables, she cooked them French style with lots of flavour and it helped they came fresh straight from the garden!
Lucky you to have a grandmother who understood French technique. It sounds like you may be finding yourself disguising fresh food rather than featuring it. Maybe you could try tossing some noodles or rice in with just a sprinkling of cheese or some toasted nuts for texture. Bon Appetit!
I think I found this post just in time…..I recently bought a new steamer, and whilst we are enjoying experimenting with it, some of the vegetables have been a little on the boring side, so I’m all for jazzing them up a little in terms of flavor. Adding bacon to sprouts sounds delicious, and I wonder why I haven’t entertained the thought of herbs and spices before now. I’ll definitely try a few of your suggestions over the next few days.
Memories of my mother’s sprouts came to mind when you described your grandmother’s vegetables…..I’m sure my mother started boiling her Christmas sprouts in November!!!
It sounds like you are on track to make sure your Christmas sprouts are truly delicious. I enjoy your humor very much. A new steamer, good for you. I love my kitchen “toys” and do give them a run for their money. Have a good time with your experimentation as I am certain you will discover delectable results.
I love these ideas, especially cheese and bacon (where can you go wrong?!), but I would also stress the importance of the way the vegetables are cooked as well the accouterments. Steaming vegetables is great up to a point, but steamed or boiled for too long and they start to lose form, flavour and nutrients. I always make sure to keep an eye on the time, and stab a couple of sprouts/stalks with a fork every now and again, to make sure the veg still have their crunch. Once the vegetables start to go soft or floppy, you know you’ve gone too far and they will start to go bland.
When boiling veg, I always make sure to keep the water the veg are boiled in to use either as the water for a gravy or stock, or the base for a soup. So much of the nutrients in vegetables are lost in the water, so it is always worthwhile keeping it to use for something else.
Thanks for your tips. Yes it is always important to keep a close eye on the color and texture of your dish. It’s also good to remember that the heat retained if left over heat will cause continued cooking.
The veggies really look enticing to the eyes especially for the children who are not fond of eating vegetables. This will greatly help a lot of parents out there to encourage their children to eat healthy food.
Enticing children to try new foods has been a “pet project” of mine, well since I had mine. Although, since I showed no mercy, ha ha with my own culinary experimentation, my kids developed an extremely wide palette. Often, one bite is all it takes.
I never understood why people that are used to boiled mush thought that steamed veggies lacked flavor. That said, these are some very good suggestions, a few of which I use myself.
Your understanding of fresh flavors is appreciated. I’m happy to hear that you find success with these suggestions.
I, too, was an unwilling victim to ‘Grandma’s vegetable mush’ growing up. How I hated having to force down peas that had been boiled for so long the shells had actually come off, and cauliflower that was so water-logged it actually flooded the plate! Even the Brussels sprouts weren’t safe – crosses cut in the bottom of them (no idea why!) only helped them to soak up even more water so by the time they were served they resembled little green water balloons! Pine nuts are also delicious on Brussels sprouts, and a knob of butter.
So funny! Your description of “how not to prepare vegetables” is right on. Just so you know, folks used to believe cutting a cross on the bottom of sprouts helped the dense little balls cook more evenly. Not true. Unless you desire a dish of small green water balloons. Love your pine nut suggestion, thanks.
That is how I remember it too, and it is kind of strange when you think about it. If done right, veggies are often some of the best part of meals to me these days, and it is funny how forcing them down was really the norm when I was a kid. It is not me being picky either, because these were just mushy veggies.
A wonderfully informative post! For the longest time, I was a picky eater who refused to eat vegetables because of my fear of mush. Especially broccoli and peas. Ugh. But then, I discovered the wonders behind steaming and am now vegetarian. Everything I can steam, I do, whether its over a boiling pot of water, in the microwave, or in the rice cooker. It’s such a versatile means for cooking. Have you tried steaming bread? Proteins? Chickpeas and peanuts are pretty awesome prepare this way as well.
Your ideas about how to spice things up are really great. Sometimes I overlook the simplest things–like a dash of lemon zest and olive oil, or how great Parmesan cheese is on broccoli or cauliflower. My favorite way to dress my veggies, however, is splashing some hot sauce and curry powder on them. People look at me like I’m crazy, but it’s truly delicious if you can tolerate the zing.
Your story is truly inspiring and I’m sure will have a positive impact on other veggie challenged Foodal readers. My favorite steamed bread dish is Cha siu bao, a Chinese bun stuffed with barbecued Cha siu flavored pork. Since you enjoy spice, try dipping them in hot Chinese mustard. Yum!
My kids love veggies. They will eat them nearly any way. I’m the problem. I hate veggies! I recently discovered a new love, fresh green beans, garlic, and lemon. I can’t get enough of the fresh and savory combination. I’m getting more daring and trying other combos. This is a great article!
Sounds like you have some pretty food savvy kids! I love your green bean idea and am happy you found a way to enjoy them. So happy I’m able to inspire your new flavor experimentation.
Thank you for this post! My husband is diabetic and is trying to keep his carbs low, so we have been eating more and more veggies lately. I am generally at a loss though on how to make them different. I generally just throw some butter and salt on steamed veggies, but that does get kind of monotonous. I think I will be experimenting in the kitchen very soon to see what we like best! I have also in the past, sprinkled a butter flavored powder on top. We usually have a bottle of butter powder to put on popcorn (the only good brand I’ve found- which of course I can’t think of the name), and it works pretty well on certain vegetables. Have you ever tried anything like that?
I’m all for trying new ideas when it comes to flavor. Good for you! I keep a couple of spice racks. One for spices I use often, and one for those I use more rarely, like saffron. Try different combos, smell them, taste them and experiment. Have not used the one you spoke of, but if you like it, why not?
I love adding fats, herbs and spices to these veggies. It is hard to get the taste just like we like it without adding salt. I also found that adding garlic and onion can help it along as well. Steaming is so healthy which I love.
Seasoning is always important, and yes that generally includes salt. It sounds like you have a great handle on flavor profiles. Thanks for your comment.
Perfect timing, Marla. I’ve been getting rather bored now that I’m eating so many veggies (trying to eat healthier.. also fewer bad carbs). This should really help me liven things up a bit.
I agree that a touch of fat is fine. If it gets people to eat more nutritious foods, than that’s a good thing. The amount of fat in other foods goes way beyond what’s found in a pat of butter.
I’m the kind of person who would rather not eat than having something boring and bland, so this will do wonders for me. Thanks for the inspiration.
Thank you so much for that wonderful post. I have always stuck myself with grilled or tossed vegetables. I used to stir-fry them when I am in a hurry to fix a meal. I know it is not very healthy and now I have switched to boiled options. I did find them bland in the beginning but I really like your ideas. I would try them with cheese next time! I used to add a pinch or two of dried spices to make boiled food more appealing. It now appears that there are a lot more ways to eat food in a healthy way!
I must admit that I’m not much of a fan of vegetables. However, because of health reasons I’m forced to eat them. Eventually, I have develop a taste for some of them. Not all, but at least it’s a start. I definitely going to dig that tip on adding some bits of bacon. Who can go wrong with bacon, right? I also love cheese. So, I think it’s definitely worth a try. Anyway, the vibrant colors of the steamed veggies in the picture just makes me want to forget that I’m on a fast today!
I live with a couple who have issues and are elderly, so healthy meals is a must. Steaming vegetables versus boiling them in butter or oil seemed to be a better option, but it tasted so bland. So I started a new method that added flavor. After the vegetables have steamed for a moment I would remove them and put them in another pot. Add a tiny bit of unsalted butter (about a 1/2 a teaspoon) and seasonings (Ms. Dash is awesome) and I let them saute for only about 5 minutes. It adds great flavor without overcooking them. I tried adding the seasonings and such without sauteing them as suggested by this article but no one seemed to enjoy it that way. They said the seasonings did not mix with the vegetables right when I did that. However, for some…. these are excellent ideas for sprucing up your blander dishes.
This is a great post for people like me, who are trying to limit their fats intake and eat in a healthier way. I love almost all kinds of vegetables and I have to agree with you, boiling them kills all their nutritive properties and in most cases their taste. I really appreciated your tips, I can’t wait to try some of the combinations you suggested. Who said that healthy food should be boring and tasteless? Thank you so much!
My go-to combination is some turmeric and cayenne pepper with a touch of olive oil. I like the nuts option though and will give that a try the next time I use my steamer.
My experience with steamed vegetables is that you can make a combination of your favorite ones, cut them into strips, steam to your desired texture (not too long as they get soggy), that crispiness is needed as you eat, place the food onto a plate and season with sea salt or garlic salt, black pepper, a dab of olive oil and some nuts, for meat lovers, you can add a few strips of chicken. It makes a very nutritious side dish and the vegetables do not have to be plain and boring.
Sometimes all it takes is reading something once or hearing a little tip over your shoulder to really change how you cook and how you eat, which is really surprising given how essential to living it is. That is how I was with adding nuts to dishes. It never really crossed my mind, but after hearing it somewhere and trying it once, I do it with everything now. Sunflower seeds on a salad in the most common for me, but the options are endless, and they do work to give some crunch to your veggies.
Personally I’m a sucker for anything a bit tart or sour, so I’m perfectly happy to dress my veggies in either lemon juice or a good balsamic vinegar, with a little garlic salt and mixed herbs – low fat heaven! But there are some interesting combos here I’m eager to try too… thanks!
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to change their diet to be more healthy, is going to extremes. The idea is to eat more fruits and vegetables, and toward that goal, it is ok to take 2 steps forward, one step back. The article is a perfect example of that with recommending things like bacon, cheese and butter as a way to make vegetables more enjoyable, especially for kids. Yes, those additions are not perfectly healthy, but if they cause you to eat more vegetables, the net result is still a win. Eat raw or plain steamed vegetables is more healthy, but not if you only do it twice before abandoning the new diet.
I’ve always boiled veggies in broth to which I’ve added herbs and spices. I drink the broth (which is delicious) before eating. Am I losing veggie nutrients this way by comparison to steaming?
This is a great idea, Isabel. If you’re drinking the broth, this is the best thing you can do to avoid missing out on any of those healthy nutrients! Sounds wonderful.
Wow. This is a great article. It has many useful ideas. I like this. It will help me.