A steamed pudding is a mixture that is put into a heat-proof bowl, and cooked by steaming. It can be “savoury” (with meat in them) or sweet, for dessert.
The steam regulates the heat at which the pudding cooks.
The English food writer, Delia Smith, is a big fan of steamed puddings.
“A steamed pudding is far easier to make and serve than most people seem to think. The mixing makes little demand on our time, needs no particular skill, and once the pudding is on the stove it requires very little attention. Extra steaming does no harm at all; so if you want to serve it an hour later than planned, say, it will be just as good.” Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. London: BBC Books. 2000. Page 535.
The heat-proof bowls they are cooked in are known as pudding basins (aka “pudding bowls.”) See separate entry for detailed discussion of those.
- 1 Two categories of steamed puddings
- 2 Steamers for steamed puddings
- 3 Steamed pudding crust
- 4 Covering and wrapping the pudding
- 5 Cooking the pudding
- 6 Turning the pudding out onto a plate
- 7 Safety
- 8 Oven Steaming
- 9 Pressure cooking a steamed pudding
- 10 History Notes
- 11 Language Notes
- 12 Sources
Two categories of steamed puddings
There are two main categories of steamed puddings.
Steam puddings with crusts
One type has you line a heat-proof bowl with a crust, pour a filling in, top with a crust, then cover and steam. Ones that call for a crust are usually savoury puddings, such as Steak and Kidney Pudding.
Battered steam puddings
Others are like cake. You pour batter into a heat-proof bowl, cover, and steam it till the “cake” has “baked.” These types are generally sweet. Examples include Plum Pudding, Christmas Pudding, and Sponge Puddings.
Steamers for steamed puddings
An ideal steamer is a two-layer one, with the bottom pot holding lots of water, and sitting on top of it is a pot with a perforated bottom into which the steam rises.
To improvise, find a saucepan, Dutch oven or stock pot large enough that the pot cover will still fit on when you place your pudding bowl inside it — and one that you can easily visualize yourself safely removing the bowl from when the pot is full of steaming water. But there’s more to the height calculation.
The steamer requires something to keep the bottom of the pudding bowl off the bottom of the pudding, so that the pudding doesn’t cook unevenly. Dedicated steamers may come with a trivet. When you are improvising at home, you could try things such as tuna fish tin with top and bottom cut out to act as a stand, a good wedge of crumpled up tin foil, Mason jar canning rings fastened together with twist ties, etc. Take your proposed stand into account when figuring out how tall a pot you have to use.
Set the water in the pot on to boil before you begin assembling the pudding, to save yourself time by having it ready to go when you are. You have to allow a good 20 minutes to build up a head of steam. Fill the chosen pot with water such that the water would go half-way up the side of your pudding bowl. Put the cover on the pan of water (but don’t put the empty pudding bowl in), put it on the stove, and start it boiling.
If you feel that you will need some kind of reminder that the water in the pot will need checking on, you can put a clean metal jar lid, or a marble, into the bottom of the pot. When the water gets quite low, the object will start to rattle about and alert you.
Steamed pudding crust
Older steamed pudding recipes that have a crust generally call for suet crust pastry.
A “modern” steamed pudding crust will use shortening or butter as the fat. By itself, though, shortening might not give the crust the browned colour that people expect. But using half shortening and half butter should just about get it right. Your recipe will direct you as to exact proportion of ingredients.
Whether the fat is suet, shortening or butter, both crust versions — unlike other types of crust such as that for pies — will call for some added leavener, provided either by baking powder, or by using self-rising flour. In most other pastries, the rising agent is steam within the pastry, but in a steamed pudding, the external steam would stop the pastry from rising.
In a medium-sized bowl, you mix together the dry ingredients for the crust (generally flour, baking powder and salt — or just flour and salt, if you have self-rising flour). Use your hands to blend the fat (butter and shortening, or suet) into the flour. Add a little cold water at a time until the dough hangs together — it should have the same feel as pie crust dough.
Set about 1/4 of the dough aside to be used for the top of the pudding. Roll out the remaining dough on a floured surface into about a 25 cm (10 inch) circle, to about the same thickness as you would for pie crust. (Don’t worry how perfect a circle it is.)
Use your hands to line the greased pudding bowl with the dough circle you have just made. You may have to nip and tuck it here and there; you may even have to piece bits in. No one will notice much in the end product. Don’t worry at this stage if pastry goes over the edge of the bowl.
Next you pour in some kind of filling that has been already prepared.
When your filling is in, you put on the top layer of crust. Depending on what kind of pudding you’re making, sometimes there’s enough filling so that the top crust is level with the top of the bowl: other times it’s a couple cm (a half inch or an inch) below. It doesn’t really matter. Don’t let any dough edges, though, hang over the outside rim of the bowl — they would be exposed directly to the steam and just get sodden. Whether the top crust stretches across the top of your pudding bowl or not, use your fingers to lightly seal the join of the lining and the crust so that juices don’t burble out.
Covering and wrapping the pudding
Cover the pudding with a layer of waxed or grease-proof paper that is wider than the top of the bowl by a few cm (an inch or two) on each side, and then by a piece of tin foil about the same size, making a pleat in the centre of the foil to allow for pudding expansion during cooking. You can use just tin foil by itself, if that’s all you have; waxed paper by itself would likely get too soggy (unless you are doing a microwave version, in which case you would use plastic cling film instead of tin foil).
To secure the covering, the traditional way is to tie the covering securely with string just below the rim of the basin, and make a string handle on either side of the bowl to help you lift the pudding out later. Or, you can crimp the edges of the tin foil to snug everything into place, and lift it out with oven mitts later.
Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course gives more details:
“Old-fashioned boiled puddings were sometimes made directly inside pudding-cloths. Nowadays china pudding basins are much more convenient, and whereas once even these could be covered with greaseproof paper and linen cloth, today modern foil does the job on its own. The basin should be covered with double foil for extra strength, and this should be pleated in the centre (to allow room for expansion when the pudding is cooking.) Before placing the foil over the basin, butter the side that will come into contact with the pudding to prevent it sticking — then tie the foil all around the edge of the basin as tightly as you can with string. And if you can make a little handle with the string at the same time, it will make it easier to lift the basin out of the saucepan at the end.” Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. Page 535 – 536.
Cooking the pudding
Place the completed and wrapped pudding into the pot you are going to steam it in.
Adjust the stove top heat so that the water is simmering just enough to be raising a constant steam; you don’t want the water to boil away entirely. For the next few hours, all you need to do from time to time is make sure the water hasn’t boiled dry. Add boiling hot water from a kettle if and when needed.
Delia Smith says, “Don’t let the water under the steamer ever come off the boil — this can make a pudding heavy. You must make sure the water is topped up out of a boiling kettle. The advantage of the old-fashioned, double-pan, deep, lidded steamer is that the saucepan can be filled up almost to the brim, and may not need to be topped up as frequently.” Smith, Delia. Delia’s How to Cook: Book Three. London: BBC Worldwide. 2001. Page 172.
Turning the pudding out onto a plate
When done, remove pudding from the pot, and remove the waxed paper and foil from the pudding. Take a knife and loosen the pudding around the edges (without gouging into the crust or pudding). Put a plate on top of the bowl. Put your oven mitts back on, if you took them off, and invert the plate and the bowl together so that the pudding now rests on the plate.
The first time you do this inverting procedure it may seem a little awkward, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Stick-to-the-dish disasters, such as happen with cakes, etc, are very rare with steamed puddings.
Always have a healthy respect for steam. Be very careful around it as scald injuries happen in an instant.
When you take the lids off pots of boiling water, always tilt the lid away from you so that the steam will blast out in a harmless direction. And use hot mitts when placing the pudding in, and when removing it from, the boiling water.
When removing the pudding at the end, turn the burner off, remove the pot cover (again, tilting away from you), and let it stand for 2 to 3 minutes for all the steam to go away. Then with oven mitts on, remove the pudding and place it on a hot mat.
You can steam your pudding in the oven — this technique can be useful if you are making more than one at a time. You need a deep roasting pan. Heat the oven to 140 C (280 F). Put the puddings into the roasting pan, fill carefully with boiling water to come halfway up the sides of your pudding basins, and cover everything with a big tent made of tin foil. Put carefully in oven (remember, there’s boiling water inside), and allow to “cook” for the same amount of time as originally specified in your recipe. As with steaming on top the stove, you’ll still need to check on the water and top it up occasionally.
Caution: Never do this without the water. Steamed pudding basins were not designed to operate in dry heat.
Pressure cooking a steamed pudding
Pressure cooking a steamed pudding can be done successfully, and result in considerable time and cooking fuel savings.
Note, though, that all directions given will have you first “pressure cook” for a period of time without the pressure engaged, before you close the vent to allow pressure to start to build.
Here are Delia Smith’s directions:
“A pressure-cooker is ideal for steaming puddings, as it cuts the steaming time considerably. If you own one, the manufacturer’s instruction booklet will explain the general principles. But first a couple of important points.
The preparation of the pudding is the same as for ordinary steaming, and the basins are covered and tied down in a similar way. Place the trivet inside the pressure-cooker, add 1 1/2 UK pints (30 oz / 850 ml) of water and bring this up to simmering point. Then lower the pudding in, to stand on the trivet, and put the lid on but leave the vent open – so that the pudding gets 15 minutes gentle steaming before the pressure is brought up (keep the heat very low for this, to prevent too much steam escaping, thus reducing the correct water level inside). Then after 15 minutes, start the pressure at low and give the pudding [an additional] 35 minutes if the ordinary steaming time was 1 1/2 hours, or [an additional] 60 minutes if the ordinary steaming time was 2 – 3 hours.” Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. Page 536.
Laura Pazzaglia, author of Hip Pressure Cooking, was struck by how everyone gave the same 15 minutes pre-steaming directive, but no one explained why. She discovered by A/B testing that the procedure makes for a better quality pudding:
“I was really confused about why [the] recipes directed the cook to steam the pudding without pressure before pressure cooking. On the surface it seemed like some medieval hold-over from before the dawn of baking powder – so I wasn’t convinced this was a necessary step. I put this curious bit of ‘cooking lore’ to the test by cooking the same pudding in two batches. The first pudding was cooked with “no-pressure pre-steaming and pressure cooking” and the second was only pressure cooked. Everything looked the same – each pudding had grown to similar size – but the difference was on the inside. The pudding that was no-pressure pre-steamed had a more cake-like crumb. Where the inside of the just pressure cooked pudding was a little uneven and even a bit rubbery. [So] yes: Pre-steam the pudding without pressure. Don’t worry, it won’t add disproportionate amounts of time to the recipe because once the steaming is up the cooker will come to pressure almost instantly.” Pazzaglia, Laura. Steamy! The New Christmas Pudding. 12 Dec 2014. Accessed January 2020.
She also says that you “can use any tried and true steamed pudding recipe in your pressure cooker.” She does advise, though, to reduce the pre-steaming down to 10 minutes if you make the pudding in individual small ramekins, instead of one big pudding.
Early steamed puddings used to be cooked in animal intestines — as haggis still is. This wasn’t overly convenient. The intestines were only available when an animal was slaughtered, and required a good deal of work to clean them before they could be used. To note also is that these puddings were not steamed: they were cooked by simmering right in the water.
Cloths for boiling puddings weren’t thought up until the early 1600s. But with the advent of the cloth technique, steamed pudding making in England started to take off.
“…The second path involved finding a different container to replace the gut used for sausages, which was in many ways inconvenient. The breakthrough came when the pudding-cloth was invented, around the beginning of the 17th century. C. Anne Wilson… remarks, ‘The invention of the pudding-cloth or bag finally severed the link between puddings and animal guts. Puddings could now be made at any time, and they became a regular part of the daily fare of almost all classes. Recipes for them proliferated.'” Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 765.
Pudding cloths were lined with suet and flour to make them non-porous. The mixture was poured into this, the cloth was tied up and then the bundle lowered into boiling water and simmered under water for hours. When it was cooked this way, it came out sphere shaped.
In 1843, Charles Dickens noted that the smell of the boiled cloth was part of the aroma of a steamed pudding in the kitchen:
“Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone–too nervous to bear witnesses–to take the pudding up, and bring [the pudding] in….Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!” — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. [bedight = decked]
The use of pudding basins instead of cloths didn’t come about until the start of the 1900s. It not only entailed a change in wrapping, but also raised the pudding away from direct contact with the water, and changed the cooking technique from boiling to steaming.
“The disappearance of domestic servants in the 20th century brought further changes. The pudding-cloth was found to be difficult for housewives to use themselves. So, boiled puddings were now almost always made in basins covered with greased paper and foil and steamed partly immersed in water. Thus did the British steamed pudding fully come into its own.”  Davidson, Alan. Page 766.
Steamed dessert puddings such as sponge puddings would not have been possible before the invention of baking powder in America in the mid-nineteenth century.
The word pudding originated with the Latin word, “botellus”, which meant sausage. Sausages were encased with the lining of animal intestines or stomachs. This technique became associated with early boiled puddings. The word “botellus” became “boudin” in French, which then became “pudding” in English.
Parker-Bowles, Tom. The great puddings that makes you proud to be British. London: Daily Mail. 3 October 2009.
|↑1||Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. London: BBC Books. 2000. Page 535.|
|↑2||Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. Page 535 – 536.|
|↑3||Smith, Delia. Delia’s How to Cook: Book Three. London: BBC Worldwide. 2001. Page 172.|
|↑4||Smith, Delia. Complete Illustrated Cookery Course. Page 536.|
|↑5||Pazzaglia, Laura. Steamy! The New Christmas Pudding. 12 Dec 2014. Accessed January 2020.|
|↑6||Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 765.|
|↑7||Davidson, Alan. Page 766.|