Pan Dish: Steam Cooked Green Beans
“use steam to cook the beans instead of frying them straight up. […] the resulting dish is more juicy and the steam retains the texture of the vegetable better, instead of turning it into a semi-burnt mush”
I have been trying to master a green beans stir fry for ages, with limited success. The cook is often uneven (some bits cook well, others burn, others remain undercooked). So, I often end up overcooking the beans — terrible!
Also, the spices would never mix evenly: some pieces of green beans are coated nicely in spices, while not others — ugh!
So, as I was telling mom (Lalita Shankar) about this ages ago, she suggested that I use steam instead of a straight up fry. Her approach was to put a cup of water in the middle of the frying pan as the vegetable cooks.
But the steaming would only fix the uneven cook. I was still stuck with the uneven spicing of the beans. I eventually solved that by spicing the green beans before they even hit the frying pan. This results in is a juicy steam cooked green beans dish that is evenly cooked and spiced. With that, let me walk through the steps.
Step 1: Chop the Green Beans into small fine bits
This is important. Chopping up the green beans exposes more of the green beans to heat and spices.
In earlier iterations I would just toss the green beans whole into the frying pan. That was a bad idea: it would leave the middle of the green beans least exposed to heat, and often those middle bits undercooked. That would then force me to into overcooking the dish overall — in an effort to cook those middle bits of the green beans.
Chopping it up into tiny pieces is is just cleaner. It does take time if you are still making your way with the cutting knife. But this is worth the effort.
Step 2: Spice the chopped green beans
This step ensures that the beans is spiced evenly. Here’s what I do:
- I transfer the chopped beans into a box with a lid.
- I sprinkle in the spices as lightly and generously as I like. I usually add turmeric and red chili powder. Oh! and salt! Remember to add salt.
- I also splash some olive oil. But very little.
- I put on the lid and shake it up — vigorously. This ensures that the spices and oil cover, or coat, the vegetable even before they hit the frying pan.
My guess is that the oil helps with keeping the spices on the green beans — instead of settling to the bottom of the box. Effectively, the vegetable, the oil and the spices cook together. That said, I am not sure if spices need more time to cook? (This is one reason why I keep my spices simple.)
Now, when shaking/mixing the spices and the beans, some of the oil and spices are bound to coat the sides of the box. Don’t worry about it — they won’t go to waste — I typically recover them in the next step.
Step 3: Steam cook the spiced beans in a frying pan
Before transferring the green beans into the frying pan, I like to keep a small (stainless steel) cup of water ready. I will later put this cup in the pan for the cook — after adding the beans to the pan (look at the picture on the left).
Now, I put on a frying pan on the stove at medium heat. I add some olive oil to it. To the oil, I add some mustard seeds and cumin (these are for flavor). The heat will cause the mustard seeds to start crackling. That is my cue to transfer the green beans into the pan. As soon as I do that, I reduce the stove’s heat to low.
Now that the box — in which I did all the spice shaking — is empty, I pour about half a cup of water to rinse off the spices. I then pour that spicy water into the pan with the beans, and mix it all together. This will also ensure that the beans to do not start burning up with the heat. And of course, no salt and spices have been wasted because of all that shaking.
At this stage, the beans have been in the pan for about 2–3 minutes. Now, I put in the cup of water right in the middle of the frying pan, just like in the picture above, and close the lid on the pan. And I let it cook on low heat for about 15–20 mins.
Sometimes it can take a little longer for the beans to cook completely. Every 10 mins, I will taste the beans to see how well they are cooking. Another indicator that the cook is likely complete is that the beans will start to loose their shiny green color. That is when you want to most certainly want to taste the beans and possibly turn off the stove.
As the water in the cup start heating it will generate steam, and that steam will cook the beans. Check out the video above to see how it looks. This is probably my favorite part of the whole cook.
And because I already spiced and oiled the beans, I do not have to keep stirring the vegetable at regular intervals. That said, I like to keep checking the moisture/water sitting directly on the pan itself — I do not want the pan’s heat to dry up all that water. This will cause the beans to burn and even stick to the pan — terrible! I check the moisture levels by moving the beans around the water cup at certain spots. If the pan’s heat is indeed evaporating all the water on the pan itself, then i just add about half a cup of water to the pan directly.
Step 4: Check the cook, and turn off the heat
Once I see the beans losing their shiny green color or, when I find that the beans is cooked when tasting, I turn off the heat, and remove the pan’s lid.
Typically, some water is still left in the water cup in the middle. I remove the cup of water from the pan (while wearing mittens 🧤, carefully as the cup is very hot) and just pour that steamy hot water back into the pan and mix it in with the beans — the hot water will continue cooking the beans a tad more.
I let the pan sit for a while with its residual heat, with the lid off. That residual heat of the frying pan will evaporate the remaining water/moisture from the dish. After a couple of minutes, I transfer the beans into a serving dish/bowl — food is served!
The overall idea here is to use steam to cook the beans instead of frying them straight up. I have been told multiple times that steam cooking retains nutrients better — so that is one upside. I also find that the resulting dish is more juicy and the steam retains the texture of the vegetable better, instead of turning it into a semi-burnt mush (at least that is all I could always manage).
I also employ approaches that expose as much of the vegetable to heat and spice: e.g., fine chops, pre-spicing and pre-oiling. Those steps ensure that the oil, spices and cook are even.
Steamed green beans goes really well with rice or chapatis (Indian breads made up of wheat and resemble tortillas). And they are an excellent option for either lunch or dinner. Sometimes, I just like to add some yoghurt to a bowl of cooked/steamed green beans and eat it as is — trust me it is quite filling. Green beans with yoghurt is typically my go-to option if I do not have the time to make rice or chapatis.
I am going to apply steaming to other vegetables as well. But that is for another time. ♨️