10 Things You Didn’t Know About…Using Your Microwave
I remember sometime in the mid-1980s when suddenly microwaves were everywhere, and my parents got on the bandwagon soon enough. Ours came (I vaguely recall) with a cookbook that seemed to suggest you could have an entire dinner ready in mere minutes with a touch of a few buttons, as if by magic — pot roast, potatoes, etc.
Maybe it was this unfulfilled promise, a life of Jetsons-like ease, that led to the microwave’s strange (what to call it…?) marginalization in our kitchens. Soon after the microwave revolution hit, it seems, we figured out that it really wasn’t as easy as “a touch of a button” after all. Meats could become rubbery and tough in some places, then go uncooked in others. Eggs exploded. Crusts became soggy and limp.
To be sure, the vast majority of American kitchens are equipped with a microwave, but according to one study, only a third of microwave owners use their ovens for much of anything beyond reheating and defrosting. So maybe it’s time to get acquainted with your microwave again. And if you’re looking to go beyond these tips, I highly recommend Mark Bittman’s 2008 article from The New York Times, and Beth Hensperger’s next-generation tome, Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook.
Common slang aside, we don’t actually “nuke” food in the microwave. Microwaves are on the complete opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum from nuclear radiation. They’re closer to TV and radio waves. (Though who’d want to say, “I radio-waved my pizza”?)
These very short waves (“microwaves”) cook by penetrating only about an inch or so beyond the surface of the food, where they cause molecules of water or fat to vibrate like crazy. It’s this intense vibration that generates the heat, which is distributed throughout whatever you’re cooking.
The fact that microwaves work so fast in getting water molecules jumping is why they tend to create a lot of steam. That’s also the reason they work particularly well at steam-cooking veggies, as Mark Bittman recounted in his excellent article about rediscovering his own microwave. (Check out his cooking times for everything from asparagus to spinach.)
With all that water turning to steam, though, your food can dry out. Just about everything you cook in the microwave should be covered to retain moisture, unless your recipe or package instructions state otherwise.
A word about coverings … plastic wrap should be vented to let some steam escape, and you should never let it actually touch the food (see #7 below). Paper towels absorb moisture, so work well when you’re reheating something you don’t want to get soggy; use plain white paper towels, though. Pretty patterns can be printed with oil-based dyes, which can actually catch fire.
At 1,100 watts or more, today’s average microwave is 50 percent more powerful than those made two decades ago, which means it cooks even faster. If you’ve inherited microwave recipes but have a newer microwave, it’s a good idea to cut the cooking times in half, then increase the time in increments until you know what works for your oven.
Heatproof glass labeled “microwave safe” (such as Pyrex) is probably your best bet when it comes to cooking in the microwave. If you’re going with plastic, only use containers labeled “microwave safe” as well (which means no cold-storage plastic like margarine tubs, yogurt container, etc., and no plastic shopping bags — heating these plastics can cause chemicals to leach into your food).
No matter what container you’re using in the microwave, the center of it will receive less energy than the outside, which is why you can get those unnerving cold spots in the middle of your leftover casserole. If you’re cooking something that can be stirred, then make sure to stir it once or twice during cooking, bringing what’s at the center and on the bottom to the top and outside.
Likewise, if you’re cooking food that has an uneven shape (such asparagus spears), arrange pieces in a circular pattern with the thinner ends toward the center of the oven.
Among the loads of handy tips Beth Hensperger gives in Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook is this one for getting rid of stinky odors: fill a 2-cup microwave-safe glass measuring cup with 1 cup of water, add a lemon wedge, then cook on high for 2 minutes. Do not open the door. Let water and lemon stand in the microwave for 20 minutes. Voila — lemon-fresh scent!
Are you in the know? From boiling an egg to cooking rice, check out all our “things you didn’t know” articles!