IT WAS ANOTHER of those happy culinary accidents. Prehistoric man, attempting to drop his broccoli in a boiling cauldron of water, became distracted and dropped it instead on the pot handle, where it stayed suspended over the water. Prehistoric man discovered that while he was distracted, his broccoli cooked but stayed firm and distinctly unmushy, and that all the nutrients stayed in the broccoli instead of washing away with the cooking water.

It's amazing, the number of foods that can be steamed. Stale bread, hot dogs, puddings, lobsters, whole fish, Asian buns and dumplings, rice, leftovers, and of course, vegetables.

A steamed fish will have less chance of being dried out, steamed potatoes are firm and not soggy, and hot dogs steamed in their buns are a pleasure. Steaming vegetables allows them to retain their nutrients and their fresh texture, although it doesn't preserve their color any better than blanching in lots of boiling salted water.

To steam foods all you need is a pot with a cover and something, preferably with holes in it, to hold the food suspended over the water. The standard steamer for years has been an adjustable stainless steel contraption that looks a little like a metal flower with collapsible petals. Most of these adjustable steamers will fit pots from one-quart size to eight- or ten- quart size.

While the collapsible steamers are cheap (usually around $5) and efficient at steaming, they have two disadvantages. One is that the center post, which on many steamers is not removeable, makes steaming fish and other similarly shaped things awkward if not impossible.

The other problem is that in order to retrieve the steamed food, the cook must reach into the pot, grab the center post, and pull the steamer out with the food still in it. Since steam rivals boiling water in burning ability, this process can be uncomfortable. Some steamers come with a little hook for retrieval purposes, but the process is still not ideal.

A more expensive but also more comfortable solution is a multipurpose steamer-kettle. These come in various sizes and configurations. One good multi-purpose steamer is an eight-quart aluminum kettle with two steamer baskets, one deep for corn, lobsters or asparagus, the other a shallow basket that fits on top. Both baskets can be used simultaneously, an energy-saving technique Asian cultures have been using for centuries.

The eight-quart size will hold about eight ears of corn set on end, several dozen clams or mussels, or at least five pounds of potatoes. And while you're steaming the potatoes in the lower basket, you can also steam the green beans or asparagus in the upper basket.

This kettle is also ideal for cooking pasta. You fill the kettle with water, leaving the larger steamer basket in place. When the pasta is done you can simply lift the basket out of the water, bringing the cooked pasta with it--a great relief for those of us who usually find fettucine slithering all over the sink. Rice can also be steamed, but it is simmered in water first, then placed in the steamer basket.

Called by Leyse, its manufacturer, a "cooker-steamer," the eight-quart version with two baskets costs about $30. Leyse also makes a 12-quart cooker-steamer, and a number of other steamers including a tall, thin one made specifically for asparagus.

Steamer inserts are available in some lines of cookware, but they tend to be expensive. A Calphalon insert for its eight-quart stockpot is $33, and an insert for the three-quart saucepan was on sale recently for $19.

If you already have a wok and want a steamer too, try a bamboo steamer. These are flat woven baskets with lids designed to fit inside the wok, and they do everything a metal steamer can do. Their round flat shape (with no center posts to get in the way) is convenient, and bamboo doesn't seem to get as hot as metal. Bamboo steamers can be stacked one on top of the other indefinitely, making an interesting kitchen game for can-you-top-this cooks. One steamer with lid costs $10 to $15.

If you are the type who would rather let a machine figure things out for you, there is an electric steamer made by Rival and sold for about $40. It operates essentially like a non-electric steamer except that it turns off automatically when the water in its bottom reservoir evaporates, and a light goes on to tell you when this has occurred.