Cooking Tips · Techniques

Microwaves — Friend or Foe?

If I did a poll of all of you and asked if you had a microwave, I would suspect over 90% of you would respond in the affirmative. reports that almost 13.5 million microwaves were shipped in the US in 2019. If you are a part of the group that does not have one, let me know and why you made that choice. In this Cooking Tip, I want to discuss this very useful but often maligned kitchen appliance.

Since most of us have a microwave, what should we be using them for and what should we keep out of them?

I mainly use my microwave for just a few tasks. I occasionally defrost food in them. I really do not like defrosting meat in them, though, as they often defrost unevenly and you can even get some cooked parts. I realize that it may be your only choice if you need to get that Chicken Marsala on the table quickly and your chicken is still frozen. If you can plan ahead and put your frozen item in the refrigerator the night before, that is the ideal situation. Another item I have mentioned in another Cooking Tip is a defrosting tray. This option is not as fast as a microwave but it is fairly quick and does a great job.

I will also use my microwave to melt butter and occasionally melt chocolate. The only real “cooking” I do is to heat frozen vegetables or to make my morning oatmeal.

Here are some other “non-cooking” ideas that others recommend.

  • Softening hard brown sugar — measure the amount of brown sugar you need into a microwave-safe bowl. You only want to warm the amount you need as the excess will just harden again. Place a dampened paper towel over the sugar and cover with plastic wrap. Warm in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, checking often to avoid melting the sugar. I have done this and it does work well.
  • Toast nuts or spices – place in shallow bowl or pie plate in a thin, even layer. Start the microwave but stop, stir and check every 30 seconds until there is browning and you can smell the aroma. I must say that for a small amount of nuts/spices that this can be just as easily done stove-top in not much more time.
  • Softening the rawness of garlic – put unpeeled cloves in bowl and microwave for 15 seconds until cloves are warm. Not only does it soften the flavor but it also makes the cloves easy to peel.
  • Liquifying crystallized honey – Uncover honey jar and microwave 30 seconds or so. I prefer putting my jar of honey in a pot of hot water but the microwave method does work.
  • Soften stale bread — wrap bread in a damp paper towel, microwave for about 10 seconds. Check and repeat as needed.

What about the power levels? Microwaves work differently than your regular oven. In the latter, you turn down the temperature and the cooking temperature lowers. In a microwave, when you change the power level, the “magnetron” just cycles on and off. Because of this, Cook’s Illustrated recommends the following.

  • OK to use high power to:
    • Heat water, watery soups or beverages (But, see below for a warning about heating plain water.)
    • Make popcorn (or other foods less than ½ inch thick)
  • Use 50 percent power when:
    • Heating/reheating foods that can’t be stirred, such as lasagna, frozen chicken, potatoes
    • Bringing food to specific temperatures: softening butter, tempering chocolate
  • Lower power level OR stir frequently when:
    • Heating dairy-based foods such as chowder that can curdle
    • Heating splatter-prone foods such as tomato sauce
    • Melting splatter-prone butter

Here is some other general advice on using a microwave.

  • Always cover food. This not only protects the interior of the oven but it traps steam resulting in better cooking.
  • Stir or flip your food. This allows the microwaves to hit new parts of the food and promotes heat transfer.
  • Allow the food to rest when you take it out of the microwave. This allows the temperature of the food to even out.
  • Realize that not every container in your kitchen is microwave safe. If the item does not tell you that, GE Appliances recommends the following test.
    • Fill a microwave-safe cup with water.
    • Place the cup in the oven on or beside the utensil in question.
    • Microwave for only one minute on high.
    • If the water becomes hot and the dish remains cool, the dish is microwave safe. If the dish heats up, it should not be used for microwaving.

What about items you should not put in a microwave? We all know that foil or any type of metal is a no-no and I just mentioned not using dishes that are not meant for the microwaves but there are other items.

  • Nothing – do not run your microwave empty. Since there is nothing to absorb the microwaves, it can catch fire or otherwise damage the appliance.
  • Grapes – they can explode but I’m not sure why you would want to put your grapes in the microwave. For a scientific explanation, see this link. For a quirky video demonstrating this, see this link.
  • Eggs – whole eggs can explode and egg dishes such as scrambled eggs and frittatas will become rubbery.
  • Paper bags – these can release toxins and even catch fire.
  • Chili peppers – the capsaicin in these peppers can vaporize and irritate you when you open the door.
  • Plain water – water can actually become super-heated and bubble up vigorously and burn you. Putting something in the cup such as a wooden skewer helps to prevent this. It is still preferable, though, to heat your water either in an electric kettle or on the stovetop.

There are plenty of books and websites out there that talk about actually cooking meals with your microwave. I do not really see the point as you can put great food on your table using traditional cooking appliances in not that much time. Others feel differently. How about you? What do you use your microwave for? Let me know.