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How To Steam Buns Without A Steamer

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Steaming a firm hamburger bun is a necessary step if you truly want great-tasting bread that just melts in your mouth and is easier to work with. 

But what if you don’t have a steamer? Luckily, there are multiple methods that you can use to steam any hamburger bun.

How do steam buns without a steamer? The easiest way to steam a bun is to use a microwave. Wrap the hamburger bun in a lightly wet paper towel and then heat the bun for 5–10 seconds. Carefully unwrap and voila. There are other convenient ways to steam burger buns too! 

Read below to learn more about why you need to steam buns and how you can use different strategies to steam buns without the use of a traditional steamer!

Why You Should Steam Buns

When you picture fresh bread, you will always associate it with a tender and fluffy texture, much like a new pillow. 

But the thing with most bread products is that they are prone to losing moisture — which is why they can stiffen and become firm.

See, when you make fresh bread, the bun comes out with a balance of moisture and air inside. But as you store it, most of this air escapes which alters the texture of the bread.

Things get especially worse when you store the bun in the fridge! Cooler temperatures tend to dry out food fast — and this isn’t common with just buns. It’s just simple physics!

Notice how some vegetables can prune and wilt when they are kept for a few days in the fridge? Well, one reason why this happens is dehydration, which usually affects the superficial layer of most foods.

But in the case of buns, which are far less dense than vegetables, this effect is much more prominent. 

If you were to put the cross-section of a bun under a microscope, you would see ridges and caverns that fold into themselves with empty holes in between. 

When the bun is fresh, the air and moisture inside the bread push against these micro-structures, giving the bun a bit of resistance and a fluffy texture. 

This is one of the reasons why when you push down on a bun, it springs back up to its original shape, like a sponge!

But as the bun starts to go stale, it loses this air and moisture and becomes rigid, which gives it its infamous firm texture.

This can make them difficult to cut and may even cause them to break apart when you run the knife in a sawing motion — and if you are like everyone else, then you will surely know the importance of a soft and fluffy bun in any hamburger!

Fortunately, there are multiple ways you can fix it.

How To Steam Buns Traditionally

Traditional steaming methods require a dedicated steamer or a steaming pot.

A steaming pot works by adding water to the base of the pot while a strainer is set on top. 

As the water comes to a boil, it starts to evaporate and the hot droplets go through the strainer above — this hydrates and heats the food efficiently and can breathe new life into them.

However, not a lot of people have steamers handy. Luckily, this is where alternative methods come in!

How To Steam Buns Without A Steamer

Here are some of the most popular ways to steam a bun without a steamer:

  1. Microwave Method
  2. Pan-Steam Method
  3. Air Fryer Method
  4. Makeshift Steamer Method

1. Microwave Method

This is by far the easiest and most convenient way to steam buns — all you need is a microwave, a damp paper towel, and a microwave-safe plate!

Microwaves work by applying energy to the water molecules inside food, which causes them to vibrate and therefore create heat! This is why some think that microwaves heat food from the “inside out,” unlike methods using indirect heat.

But here’s what most people get wrong!

If you try to steam the bun as it is, the microwave will heat any leftover moisture inside the bun and will momentarily puff them up giving them a soft texture — job well done, right? Wrong!

Steaming the bun directly will only cause it to temporarily get its fluffy texture because as the bun sits out at room temperature, it will quickly start to firm up again.

So, by the time you are finished assembling the burger, you will likely end up with a worse bun than what you started with.

This is why we highly recommend that you use a paper towel for added hydration. 

The damp towel will create a moist environment and will help trap the steam, which will help hydrate the bun and add moisture to it rather than evaporate whatever moisture is left inside.

Here is a detailed step-by-step guide on how to use this method properly:

  1. Use an appropriately sized paper towel — the paper towel should be big enough to completely cover the bun. 
  2. Dampen the paper towel lightly — do not soak it in water! The idea is to just add enough to get it steaming.
    • You can also use a spray bottle to lightly spray down the towel for the best experience!
  3. Wrap the bun inside the wet paper towel. Make sure that you don’t tear the towel while doing this because you need to create a seal!
  4. Place the wrapped bun on a microwave-safe plate and heat the bun at high power for about 5–10 seconds. 
  5. Check the paper towel and look for steam. If you see steam coming out of the paper towel, then you are ready! Carefully remove the plate and place it on a counter. Let the wrapped bun rest for 2–3 minutes.
  6. Carefully open the towel and check the bun for its texture. Be careful as the bun will likely be very hot!
    • If the bun hasn’t loosened up, then you can rewrap it and let it run for another 5–10 seconds until it is soft.
    • Once satisfied, simply use the bun as intended! 

2. Pan-Steam Method

This method is for people who don’t have a steamer or a microwave. The pan steam method isn’t ideal, but it is still a great way to reinvigorate the bun and give it a soft texture. 

The reason why this method isn’t ideal is that it involves direct contact with the pan, which can create excessive heat. But if you already wanted to toast the bun, then this might be a great way to get two tasks done at the price of one!

For this method, you will require a non-stick pan, a lid, and a bit of water.

The idea here is to heat the pan until it is warm. This is important because if you get it too hot, then the bun will likely cook before it is steamed!

As the pan comes up to the right temperature, you will need to add water to it to create steam. 

Here is how you can steam a bun using a pan:

  1. Heat a pan at medium-low heat, then turn down the heat to low. 
  2. Add a bit of water to the surface and see if it steams. If the water doesn’t steam, then just bring up the temperature very slightly until the water droplets start to evaporate. Let the pan evaporate any remaining water. You are now ready to steam!
    • You can also use a spray bottle for this method.
  3. Gently add the bun at the center of the pan without pressing down on it — it might start to cook with direct contact with the pan!
  4. Add water around the bun (using a spray if available). Don’t create a large pool of water — you only need sparse puddles around the pan. As soon as it starts to steam, cover the pan with a lid and let the bun steam for about 2–3 minutes. 
  5. After 2–3 minutes, turn off the heat and let the bun rest in the pan for an additional 2–3 minutes. 
  6. Remove the lid and check the bun for its texture.
    • If it is adequately soft, then you can remove it.
    • If it hasn’t softened, then you can repeat the process from Step 4 until the bun is steamed. 

3. Air Fryer Method

The air fryer method is yet another convenient and easy way to soften buns without worrying about cooking them!

Air fryers are essentially portable ovens that direct high heat around a small area, thereby effectively heating the food. 

For this method to work, you will need to reuse the same strategy mentioned in the microwave method above.

Wrapping the bun in a wet towel will not only create a heat seal, but will also create an insulating layer that will steam the bun without cooking it!

Here is how you can use this method:

  1. Optional: While not important, you will get better results if you preheat the air fryer to 350°F. This will prime the heating element inside the air fryer and will also help in making more steam. 
  2. Wrap the bun with a lightly damp paper towel. Remember: don’t add a lot of water or the air fryer will first have to evaporate the water from the superficial layer of the towel before the heat can make its way into the bun!
  3. Place the wrapped bun at the center of the air fryer. Do not place any foil or baking paper at the base because the air will need to circulate the basket freely from all sides.
  4. Set the air fryer to 350°F and heat the bun for about 3–5 minutes. Check the bun after 3 minutes to see if it is steaming.
    • If it shows signs of steaming, then simply heat it for another minute and then let it rest in the air fryer for about 3 minutes. 
    • If the bun hasn’t steamed, then you can continue heating it at 2-minute intervals until there is adequate steam.
  5. Carefully remove the steamed bun from the air fryer — we recommend that you use tongs. Remove the paper towel from around the bun and use it as intended!

4. Makeshift Steamer Method

This method may seem a bit complicated, but it is easy once you get the hang of it — not to mention, it may even help you with a range of other steaming recipes in the future!

For this method to work, you will need to create a makeshift structure that will elevate the food without it touching the sides.

Think of this method like the pan-heating method described above — but with an addition of a base!

You will require an adequately-sized deep pot with a lid as well as a heat-safe bowl or aluminum baking cup.

The idea here is to create a small pool of water that is about 0.5–1 inch deep. You will then simply place the heat-safe bowl upside down to create an elevated base.

Then just heat the pot, bring the water up to steam, and place the bun in the center!

Here is how you can use this method:

  1. In a large pot, add an inverted bowl or a baking cup. Then add water around the base — just enough to keep it from splashing around while it boils.
    • Do not overfill the pot or the bowl may start to float around — you don’t want that!
  2. Turn on the heat and put the lid on. Bring the water to a boil and let some steam accumulate inside the pot. 
  3. Remove the lid and place the bun (without any wrapping) at the center of the inverted bowl and put the lid back on. Turn down the heat to low so that the water doesn’t splash around the bun and make it soggy. 
  4. Steam the bun for about 3–4 minutes and then turn off the heat completely. Let the bun rest in the pot for an additional 2 minutes. 
  5. Carefully remove the bun (caution: hot!) and place it on a plate. Voila! You have successfully steamed a bun using a quick and easy makeshift steamer.

Note: If you are trying to steam multiple buns at a time, place a plate over the inverted bowl to create a larger, more stable surface that can host multiple buns at a time. Just make sure that the plate is small enough to fit comfortably over the bowl without blocking the steam. 

Related Questions 

Steaming buns is easy if you know the right strategies! Now that you know how to steam buns without a steamer, here are some related questions we thought you might have.

Do large buns require more steaming time? 

Yes, the steaming time will depend on the type and size of the bun. If the bun is stale and especially firm, then you may have to steam it for longer until it is rehydrated and soft. 

For most hamburger buns, you will only need to steam for about 2–4 minutes. Large buns will likely require additional heating time. You can just add 2–3 extra minutes when heating a particularly large, firm, or old bun. 

Should you wait until the buns are at room temperature before steaming?

No, while room-temperature buns will steam and hydrate quicker than cold buns, you don’t need to store them at room temperature before steaming them, especially when using the microwave method. 

If you do want to bring the buns to room temperature, then make sure that they don’t sit out for more than 2–3 hours. Just wait for about 30 minutes and then steam them as required. 

Can you steam any type of bread using the same method? 

Yes, most soft breads like burger buns, hotdog buns, or dinner rolls can be steamed using any of the above methods! 

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