Microwave cooking 101

 In this weather, I’d like to live in, or at least from, the refrigerator.  (For those of you not in the Northeast US – think oven without an “off” setting.)  But there are times when you need to cook, or at least warm, your food.  And for that, you need a cook/stovetop, oven or microwave.  Especially in this weather, microwaves are useful, if you know how to use them and are aware of their limitations.     

microwave cooking, microwave cheesecake

I’m no microwave maven, but I do know of one – Barbara Kafka, whose 1987 cookbook, Microwave Gourmet, is a classic as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not as comfortable now, as she was then, in using plastic wrap and plastic containers in microwave cooking, and some of her recipes are a bit dated.  But on most other scores, she is still my “go to” source on microwave cooking. 

Is there anyone with a microwave who hasn’t exploded something in it?  If so, please take a bow and offer to write a guest post on how you are so smart – or so lucky. For the rest of us there are stories aplenty of ruined meals, gargantuan messes, and an occasional scary episode of sparks, or even fires.  A few safety rules and microwave cooking tips can change your microwave use from Indiana Jones-style adventures into easy cooking. 

First the safety rules

  • NO metal - Never, ever put anything metal in a microwave.  Although there are rare instances when it is not dangerous, in many cases metal will spark and you’ll have a fire that will at least ruin your microwave, and possibly cause other damage and physical harm.  Some types of aluminum foil (if unwrinkled) are supposedly microwave-safe, but if you look at all the restriction on the safe use of that type of foil, I think you’ll agree it’s not worth the effort – or the risk. 
  • Heating liquids – Water can “erupt” if microwaved over its boiling point (212 degrees).  Avoid being splattered with boiling water by using a measuring cup or other container with sloped sides and stopping the microwave periodically to gently stir the water.  Also, if you are going to add a teabag or other ingredient to the water, do it before the water has boiled.  For heating other liquids besides water, keep in mind that a microwave heats all food (liquids, solids and mixtures such as stews) from the inside out.  Microwaved food tends to be much hotter in the center than toward the sides of the container.  You can even out the temperature by stirring the food being heated periodically while it is heating. 
  • Covering food – Microwaving creates steam that needs to escape. Do not use a tightly closed cover – leave a corner or slit open in the cover, or between the dish and the cover, to allow steam to escape. 
microwaving - lid loosely on bowl.jpg
  • Defrosting meat – If meat is frozen, it should be slowly defrosted on a low setting, turned periodically and immediately refrigerated or cooked after being defrosted in a microwave.
  • For more information on microwaving cooking safety, check out this handy USDA fact sheet.


  • With all the scientific information on plastics leaching into food, I think it’s best to microwave in microwave-safe glassware.  
  • The power (wattage) of the microwave determines how quickly it will cook and cooking times will vary.   If you are using a recipe that suggests a particular microwave setting or the amount of time a microwaved food should cook, be prepared to make adjustments if your microwave is particularly weak or powerful.   
  • Melting chocolate or butter – start with a short amount of time on a low-medium setting. You can always add time or raise the power setting, but it’s easy to burn chocolate or butter when melting them in a microwave.  Here are 3 photos that show how chocolate melts in the microwave quickly, and at a relatively low setting.  On the left in each picture are chocolate chips from the bag.  On the right are the chips I melted in my microwave, at medium (50%) power. 
microwaving - chocolate 1.jpg

Bowl on the right was heated for 30 second at 50% power.

microwaving - chocolate 2.jpg

Same bowls - and 1 more minute at 50% power. Chips were solid-looking until I started stirring them.   

microwaving - chocolate 3.jpg

With 30 more seconds at 50% (2 1/2 minutes total time), the chips melted completely.

  • Microwaving cut vegetables such as carrots or broccoli requires a small amount of liquid, whether it is water, melted butter, broth or something else.   One exception is corn, which can be microwaved in the husk for about 90 seconds per ear on high (100 percent power), turning the ear(s) over halfway through. Then leave the corn, still husked, to continue cooking while it sits on a plate for 4-5 minutes.  The result is delicious.
microwaving - corn.jpg

Top corn is straight from the market. I just cut off tips on bottom ear, put it in microwave for 45 seconds, turn over for another 45 seconds, then let it sit 4-5 minutes - and presto, delicious corn on the cob.

Don’t bother to try it

Microwave cooking is not well suited to baking with flour or cooking pasta.  Even Barbara Kafka admits that.  I’ll go so far as to say that even defrosting pizza or heating something with a bread or cake component (such as quiche) is better done in an oven or toaster oven. 

I am however, always on the lookout for new adventures. And in that spirit, I just tried to create single serving microwave cheesecakes. The results (pictured at the top of the post) are still cooling. I’ll let you know next week if my experiment worked.   Enjoy the weekend and let me know what you cook – and eat.

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