3 tips for microwave cooking success

I bet you use a microwave oven.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of – 90% of American households have one.  Whether you use it for heating up packaged meals, popping popcorn, defrosting frozen meat, or cooking “real food”, a microwave can save you time and even sometimes do a job better than other cooking methods.  

microwave, cooking with microwave

Before I started blogging I used my microwave for limited, rather uninventive tasks - defrosting, reheating, melting chocolate, and cooking vegetables. But I got more inventive this summer.  I experimented with single serving microwave cheesecakes and my taste testers judged them to be a success.  (Husband and darling daughter happily ate them up and I found my daughter looking forlornly into the fridge for another one a few days later.)  And I discovered that one of my cooking gurus, Harold McGee, found that cooking vegetables in a microwave is actually healthier than boiling or steaming them. 

Here are 3 tips for microwave cooking success.  (For other tips, see Microwave Cooking 101.)

Know – and pay attention to - the power (wattage) of your microwave

The power (wattage) of a microwave oven makes a big difference in how long it will take to cook, reheat, defrost or melt your food.  Microwaving a dish on high power for 1 minute will yield a much different result if the microwave has 700 watts of power than if it has 1450 watts. (That’s the wattage range I found on Amazon and AJMadison sites for new compact microwaves.)  The lower your microwave’s wattage, the longer you have to cook to achieve the same result. 

If you have the specs for your microwave, you can find the wattage in that document.  If you have the model number and make, you can find the specs online.  But if you can’t find the wattage that way, you can do a simple test, courtesy of the USDA to find the wattage of your microwave, using just water, ice cubes and a clear 2-cup microwave-safe measuring cup.  When using this method, be careful in handling the water after it has boiled, as it may erupt if you move the cup too suddenly.  Adding a pinch of instant coffee or a tea bag to the water before heating prevents the water from erupting too.  (The water just need to boil enough so that some bubbles appear on the surface; it doesn’t have to be at a rolling boil.)

Measure one cup of plain tap water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup.  Add lots of ice cubes, and stir until the water is ice cold. Discard ice cubes and pour out excess water leaving only one cup remaining.  Set the microwave on high for four minutes, and watch the water through the window to see when it boils.  

  • If water boils in less than 2 minutes, it is a very high wattage microwave of 1000 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 2½ minutes, it is a high wattage microwave of about 800 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 3 minutes, it is an average wattage microwave of 650 to 700 watts or more.
  • If water boils in more than 3 minutes or not by 4 minutes, it is a slow microwave of 300 to 500 watts.

Make sure the containers and covers you use in microwaving are microwave-safe

cooking vegetables, microwave cooking

With all the food safety and scientific warnings about BPA and other chemicals leaching into our food and water, I’ve become more sensitive to the containers and covers I use for microwave cooking.  If you use wax paper or plastic wrap, make sure it is microwave safe.  Don’t use foam or take-out plastic containers – they aren’t microwave safe. 

Microwaving vegetables is a healthy option

Microwave cooking vegetables retains vitamins that end up in the water if you boil or steam the vegetables if you do it right.  Use only a tiny bit of water (literally a teaspoon or two for a small amount of vegetables) and a closed container with just a tiny opening to let out steam.  Cook the vegetables for as short a time as possible to retain crunch and vitamins too.  Microwaved foods left in a covered container continue to cook, so if you’ve got veggies done to perfection, take them out of the container before they go limp.  Of course, the alternative is to microwave them to just before done, and then let them sit for a minute or two to finish cooking in the covered container. 

If you’re in the mood for a snack, instead of pulling out potato chips or honey roasted nuts, try microwave popcorn made with oil.  It may not be a nutritional gold mine, but microwave popcorn isn’t too bad nutritionally, as long as you don’t load it up with butter.  For me, it hits the spot when I’m settling in for a night of serious TV or movie watching.  

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