For many people, a microwave oven is the most expensive coffee reheater/popcorn popper they will ever own. Whether it's out of fear (do you really need to run to the other side of the room when you press start?) or just not knowing what to use it for, this near ubiquitous appliance may well be the most underutilized in the kitchen.
But this need not be the case. Once you learn the basics and get over any lingering trepidation, you'll find that microwaves are safe, fast, and incredibly versatile.
First though, a look at exactly what microwaves are and how they work.
Microwaves are radio waves with a frequency of about 2,500 megahertz. They are absorbed by the fats, water, and sugars in foods. When the waves reach the ingredients, they excite the atoms, causing them to heat up and cook. This happens all at once, meaning that rather than cooking from the outside in, as in a conventional oven, microwaves cook the entire ingredient at once - but not from the inside out as many people think. And yes, microwave ovens are perfectly safe, and don't leak radiation like everyone feared when they were first popularized in the 1970s.
These days, most microwaves are between 650 and 800 watts, though older models may have fewer watts and require slightly longer cooking times to get the same results. To find out how many watts your microwave has, check the owner's manual, or look on the back plate where the model and serial numbers are printed.
If you are buying a new oven, buy the biggest and most powerful one you can fit on your countertop. You never know when you will need to defrost a turkey or beef roast at the last minute, and the smaller models will barely contain one large plate of leftovers.
You should also purchase an oven with a carousel. Most microwaves have hot spots. A rotating carousel helps food cook evenly by moving it around the oven. (Stirring liquids also helps distribute the heat.)
Another feature to look for is automatic defrost/heat up buttons. They can take the guesswork out of how many minutes you need to bake a potato or defrost a chicken.
To keep clean up to a minimum, avoid ovens with crevices and nooks that can catch food particles. A smooth, flat surface requires nothing more than a quick wipe down. And if you have a choice of color, bear in mind that black or dark hued ovens are easier to keep looking pristine than a bright white one.
Just because you've purchased a microwave doesn't mean you have to run out and buy all new microwave-safe dishes. Any pyrex, glass, or ceramic (without metallic glazes) dish will work fine. Thick plastic is also okay, but avoid thin containers that may melt, like those from last night's take-out. And never put metal pans or tin foil in the microwave. Metal reflects the microwaves and can cause sparks.
10 Surprise Uses for the Microwave
Cooking a Whole Meal in Under 10 Minutes
We don't mean reheating frozen dinners. Use the microwave for any recipe that calls for braising, poaching, or steaming, just subtract about three-quarters of the cooking time. Remember to stir liquids often to redistribute the heat, and always take the food out a minute or two before it's completely done, since it will continue to cook.
While the microwave won't give you a baked potato with a crisp skin, it will cook the average Russet in about 4 minutes. Prick the potatoes all over and cook for 2 minutes. Turn over and cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer. If you are planning to make mashed potatoes, heat the milk up in the microwave before adding it. (Cold milk makes for gummy mashed potatoes.)
Vegetables can be steamed without any additional water in the microwave. Place them in one layer (if possible) on a dish, cover tightly with plastic, and cook on high power. The timing will vary, but check after 30 seconds for tender items like spinach, mushrooms, and snow peas, and up to 4 minutes for crunchy ones like carrots. Corn also cooks well in the microwave, and you don't have to wait for a large pot of water to come to a boil!
Rising Yeast Dough
Yeast dough that normally takes an hour or more to rise at room temperature can be risen in the microwave in about 15 minutes. Place the dough in a very large bowl and cover with plastic. Place an 8-ounce cup of water in the back of the microwave, add the bowl of dough, and set the power as low as possible (10% power). Heat for 3 minutes, then let the dough rest in the microwave for 3 minutes. Heat for 3 minutes longer, then let rest for 6 minutes. The dough will have doubled in bulk.
Partially Cooking Foods for the Grill
To cut the grilling time on certain ingredients, cook them part way through in the microwave before putting them over the coals. Heat chicken legs for 3 minutes, new potatoes for 2 minutes (prick them first), bell peppers for 1 minute, and thick pork chops for 2 to 3 minutes.
Heat up Citrus Fruits Before Squeezing
A lemon or lime taken straight from the refrigerator is harder to juice than one left at room temperature or warmed slightly. To get the most juice from citrus fruits, microwave them for 20 seconds before squeezing.
Honey that has solidified can be brought back to its liquid state by uncovering the jar and heating it on medium power for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Toasting Nuts, Breadcrumbs, and Coconut
The microwave toasts nuts, breadcrumbs, and coconut in a quarter of the time it takes in a conventional oven. Spread them out on a plate and heat at high power for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring every minute. Remove the ingredients a few minutes before they are completely toasted since they will continue to brown.
Soaking Dried Fruits and Vegetables
Dried fruit such as currants, apricots, raisins and prunes, dehydrated mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes often need refreshing before they can be used in recipes. Cover them with water and heat for 1 to 2 minutes in the microwave. They will plump up beautifully. Drain before using.
Softening Brown Sugar
Brown sugar turns rock-hard when left uncovered, making it impossible to add to batters or sprinkle on oatmeal. To soften it, add a few drops of water to the sugar, cover, and heat for 10 to 20 seconds.
Roasted garlic takes 45 minutes in the oven, and under 8 in the microwave. To microwave garlic, slice the top of the head off to reveal all the cloves. Place the head in a small, deep dish, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with 2 tablespoons good olive oil. Spoon 2 tablespoons of water into the bottom of the dish, cover it with plastic wrap, and cook at medium power for 7 to 7 1/2 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before unwrapping.
Disinfecting and Deodorizing
Don't throw out the kitchen sponge that smells like last night's pan-fried salmon (or the skillet that you washed with it). Soak it in water spiked with white vinegar or lemon juice and heat it on high power for 1 minute. This will also disinfect any sponges you used to wipe up the juices from raw chicken. The same process is applicable for a plastic cutting board. Wash it well, then rub it all over with the cut side of a lemon. Heat for 1 minute and voila - a cleaner, fresher-smelling board.
Heating Up Health Aids
We all know the microwave is genius for reheating soup, but don't stop there. It's also perfect for heating and then reheating gel-packs for head- aches (don't do this with a metal-wrapped pack). For sore muscles, try filling a sock with uncooked rice and heating it on medium power for 1 minute (no longer). This is an excellent pain-reliever for menstrual cramps, too.
Warming Body Products
Ever wax your legs at home and have the wax grow cold and stiff when you're halfway up your calf? Reheat it in the microwave. It's much less messy than using a double boiler. Warming up a hot oil conditioning pack for your hair takes about 10 to 20 seconds and feels marvelous on a cold night, as does briefly warming up a facial mask, especially a creamy, moisturizing one.
Sidebar: Foods you should never put in the microwave:
A chicken for roasting: Not only is a whole chicken too large to cook evenly, it will be unappealing without the crisp skin that oven-roasting imparts.
Roast beef: Ditto. Anything that relies on a crisp, caramelized exterior will be tough and lacking in textural contrast in the microwave.
Breads, rolls or pastry: The crunch of a nice crust, or the flakiness of a buttery croissant will be turned to rubbery chew by the moist heating action of the microwave.
Eggs in their shells: The heat of cooking causes the contents of the eggshell to expand, building up pressure with no outlet, until it explodes. Unless you plan to sacrifice your microwave to science, don't try this one.
Sidebar: General Tips
Cleaning Your Microwave: Use a damp sponge to wipe away spatters. For tougher, cooked-on foods, microwave a bowl of water for 5 to 10 minutes (stir it carefully if it does not begin to boil on its own). Let the hot water steam the inside of the closed microwave for several minutes, then wipe down the walls. Use a small pastry or paint brush to brush crumbs from the corners.
Deodorizing the Microwave: If you pop the door of your microwave to discover a waft of last night's Pad Thai, squeeze a lemon wedge into a cup of water and microwave for 2 minutes to steam your microwave back to freshness.
Avoid Exploding Food: Any "enclosed food" (like a hotdog, chestnut or potato) should be pricked in several places with a fork so that internal steam can escape. Otherwise, steam pressure will eventually burst the food, spraying it in all directions.
Remove Plastic Wrap Carefully: Since steam contained by plastic wrap is hot enough to cause serious burns, be sure to prick the plastic wrap with a knife, releasing the steam away from yourself before you carefully uncover the dish.
Even Cooking: For the most even cooking, cut food, like chicken breast for example, into 3-inch chunks if possible. For ingredients with different thicknesses, place the thinnest parts towards the center of the oven since it's usually the coolest spot.
Find Hot Spots: You can find the hottest parts of your microwave oven by placing custard cups or small bowls filled with water all around the oven. Heat for 1 to 2 minutes, checking every 30 seconds. The ones that boil first are in the hot spots.