For many folks, the microwave is a large appliance that's used for reheating coffee and making popcorn. And given the essential nature of those two items, this is more than enough for the microwave to justify its existence.
Still, you might wonder if there are other uses for your microwave oven. Happily, the answer is yes!
How Does a Microwave Work?
A microwave oven generates electromagnetic radiation in the form of microwaves, which have an extremely short wavelength and are at the opposite end of the spectrum from X-rays and gamma rays. Microwaves cook by causing water molecules to vibrate, so that they collide with other nearby molecules in the food, generating heat. The neat trick is that it does this without heating the air in the oven, or the dish or container the food is in. (It's the hot food itself that heats up the container.)
You may have heard that microwaves heat food from the inside out, but this is a misconception. Microwaves only penetrate about a centimeter into food. It's this heated outer layer that in turn heats up the adjacent areas of the food, and so on, until the center is heated through.
The reason microwaves are said to cook unevenly is that the rays don't bombard the food uniformly, but rather, they form cooking area you could imagine as a large invisible donut inside the oven. The parts of the food within this donut are heated, but the parts outside it, and within the donut hole, are not. That's why stirring once or twice during microwaving is helpful.
The various power settings on a microwave can also be helpful. Usually, those settings work by simply shutting off the microwave for a certain percentage of the cooking time. So at 50 percent power, the oven is producing energy only half the time. This time allows the heated parts of the food to transmit their heat to the adjacent parts, while not overcooking the outer parts.
What Can You Cook In the Microwave?
Because a microwave cooks by heating water, food inside a microwave can be heated to a maximum of 212 F. That means any food that is considered "cooked" at 212 F or less, including vegetables, meats, seafood and eggs can be cooked in a microwave.
Foods that require higher temperatures, like pies, breads, pizza, cookies and many other baked goods, can't be cooked in the microwave, nor can fried foods, as the microwave won't generate the browning and crispiness these foods need. Similarly, while you can cook meat in the microwave, you can't brown it, because the browning of meats takes place at 310 F or thereabouts.
What Does "Microwave Safe" Mean?
You've likely heard the term "microwave safe" applied to cookware or dishes. In general this means that the material, whether it's glass, ceramic, plastic or even paper, won't melt, deform, ignite, leach toxic ingredients into the food, or otherwise become too hot to handle. For instance, while plastic isn't heated by microwaves (the waves just pass right through it), the heated food can heat up the plastic and cause it to melt.
Some types of paper, like brown paper bags and even paper towels made from recycled materials, can potentially ignite or emit toxic fumes, and shouldn't be used in the microwave.
And the reason you should never microwave metal is that instead of exciting water molecules, which metal doesn't have, the microwaves excite the electrons in the metal, causing sparking, which can start a fire.
How to Microwave Vegetables
Microwaving is an excellent way to steam fresh vegetables. To do so, cut your veggies into bite-sized pieces, add them to a microwave-safe bowl with a tablespoon of water, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Heat on high for 30 seconds, check for doneness and repeat, in 30 second increments, until done.
Some Microwave "Tips" Are Suspect
The internet is rife with suggestions for things you can do with your microwave, and some of them are even true. But that doesn't mean you'd necessarily want to do them. For instance, while you can technically dry fresh herbs in the microwave, doing so will quickly destroy the volatile essential oils in the herbs. So they'll be dry, but have no flavor or aroma. (You're better off air-drying them in a dark cupboard.)
Likewise microwaved potato chips. You can technically microwave thin slices of potato until most of their moisture has evaporated, making them crispy. The problem is that you need to cook them in a single layer, which means it might take you six minutes to cook 12 chips.
Even defrosting, a function that manufacturers would have you believe their devices will do, is not something microwaves are good for. Because of their uneven heating, the microwave's defrost function can produce defrosted foods still frozen in some parts, but cooked in others. The refrigerator is a much better, and safer, place to thaw frozen items.
Microwave Cooking Recipes
In most cases, microwaving will never be the best, or even a good method for cooking something. There are exceptions, like bacon, steamed vegetables, and corn on the cob. You can also cook certain thin cuts of fish in the microwave. And although microwave-baked potatoes don't get crispy on the outside, you can microwave potatoes for a few minutes before finishing them in the conventional oven.
But for the most part, the microwave will always be your second or third best choice. Still, it's quick, it doesn't heat up the kitchen, and in some cases, like in a college dorm, it might be all you've got. So here are a few recipes that you can prepare in the microwave.
- Microwave Bacon
- Microwave Mashed Potatoes
- Microwave Breakfast Casserole
- Microwave Meatloaf
- Microwaves Clams or Mussels
- Microwave Caramel Corn
- Microwave Spaghetti
- Microwave Shrimp
- Microwave Poached Eggs
- Microwave Mug Cake