One of the best-loved dishes at my family’s Chinese restaurant was a fragrant crispy duck that also required one of the biggest pieces of stovetop hardware I’ve ever seen—because you can’t steam a whole duck unless you have a really large-capacity steamer. In our kitchen, that meant a double-tiered aluminum container 20 inches or more in diameter nesting inside an even bigger wok. The one we used allowed my mother, the chef, to steam six ducks at a time.
The ducks were first marinated and seasoned with a Sichuan pepper rub, steamed whole, and then dredged with flour or starch and deep-fried. Growing up in the restaurant, I helped prepare this dish countless times. We ate it only occasionally ourselves, preferring instead to save it as a big-ticket item for our customers. But because it was such a treat, fragrant crispy duck became a dish I wanted to master after I graduated college and left home to start a career.
I was thinking about that restaurant duck and that poultry-size pot right around the time I moved to Seattle to become a food writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I was in a new city with new friends I hoped to impress, and I decided the way to really dazzle them was to serve a homemade crispy duck. The issue was scaling down the restaurant version I remembered to an apartment kitchen. Of course, I wouldn’t need an industrial steamer, especially since I’d only be cooking an occasional single duck.
I headed to Seattle’s Chinatown-International District to a produce market (which shut down long ago) that displayed a small selection of cookware in the front window. I found a 14-inch aluminum steamer set with two steamer baskets and a base pot for water. This was 20 years ago and I don’t remember the amount I paid for it—though I wasn’t making much money at the time, so I know I wouldn’t have paid more than $40.
Aluminum steamers are, as a rule, lightweight, durable, and affordable. If you have the storage space and the need, you can buy a 14- or 16-inch set online for $70 to $90 from Wokshop.com or Amazon. The brand doesn’t matter as much as the dimensions of the steamer and whether they have big holes (more steam). Look for that detail in the product description. If you live near a Chinatown, you may be able to buy such a steamer for even less.
I still have the set I bought all those years ago for the dinner party—which was a success and earned me some credibility as a cook. It has been my trusted companion for steaming whole duck, whole fish, so many dumplings and buns, sticky rice in lotus leaf, and recipe testing for my two cookbooks. It shows wear from having been subjected to electric-coil stoves, portable butane burners, and, these days, my high-powered gas stove. But it’s as sturdy as ever and can deliver plenty of showstopping deliciousness for years to come.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious