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Don’t You Forget About … Your Microwave

Published November 30, 2023

A tribute to a great appliance: Peeling squash, not making popcorn, delicious vegetables — and cooking proteins!

Photo: Peter Finch/Getty Images

One minute it was humming along fine. Light on, turntable spinning, and a faint vibration that always makes you wonder if the door seal is leaking. The next minute, poof, my microwave oven went off forever.

No need to panic. A microwave is for reheating leftovers, boiling water, warming coffee, and melting butter — all tasks easily handled with the stove and regular oven. With, as it turns out, a lot more pots and pans. I figured I’d get over it in a few days.

By week two, I was the jilted lover, pining for the good old days of riding the wave by looking for fault and limitations. Now, on the eve of the official National Microwave Oven Day (whatever that means!) and after hooking up with a brand new machine, I’m ready to declare my love — and reservations — to the world and help others bask in the glow of their microwave ovens. 

My 11 notes of appreciation follow. (I tried to make it an even 10!) Comment below with your love — and hate — letters to microwave cooking.

Photo: Kerri Conan

1. Choose Glass or Ceramic over Plastic

If you’re trying to use less plastic — even multi-use utensils — microwave-equipment is the best place to start. Heating plastic can increase the rate its toxic chemicals release, even if the containers say they’re microwave-safe. Covered glass and ceramic dishes naturally vent just the right amount of steam and silicone lids (these are great) turn most tableware into cooking vessels, too. (Here’s more about steaming vegetables in the microwave.)

Photo: Kerri Conan

2. Know Your Boil Times

Steam is the engine that drives how microwave ovens cook. Sure, you can go back to your manual and memorize the wattage at different power settings. (Sure, that’s definitely going to happen.) Or you can see how long it takes to boil 1/2 cup tap water in your machine. That visual tool will be in the back of your mind any time you put something on the turntable and start pressing buttons. Mine boiled in 1 minute on 10 (full power) and took 1 minute, 40 seconds on 5. On 1 at 5 minutes the water was only 100°F so I gave up. Good to know.

3. Use all the Power Settings

Funny thing about this knowledge: Your confidence as a microwave cook will rise as the power level lowers. Prepare to be amazed at what happens to the texture of microwaved food when you modulate the heat. Makes perfect sense: We don’t always set the oven to 500°F or cook on the stove at a rolling boil. But manufacturers make it too easy to choose time over setting. (Don’t get me started on those “convenient” buttons for hot dogs and whatnot.) Once you run the full spectrum of power levels, you’ll even be happy thawing stuff in “the machine.”

Photo: Kerri Conan

4. Braise Quickly or Stew Longly

I love simmering vegetables in tomatoes, salsa, soy sauce and water, or broth. So much that I often can’t wait for them to cook on the stove. Turns out the microwave oven has got this. Once you jump the psychological hurdle of setting the timer for 10 minutes or more and lowering the power a couple notches as described above, anything from crisp-tender to super-soft vegetables to fish, meat, or poultry is possible. With minimal fuss. Finish the dish with a pat of butter or drizzle of oil and that’s it. I know others have success with grains, rice, and beans too, but the techniques seem to involve more stopping and stirring, which is a bit of a turn-off. (Open to hearing the pro side, though.)

Photo: Kerri Conan

5. Think in Circles

Uneven cooking is the biggest challenge in a microwave. And we know steam cooks best when it circulates. What if big pieces of food were arranged upright on their sides in a circle, with a little room in between? You know, instead of putting things like tofu, fish fillets, or boneless chicken in a single or multiple layers on a plate. Bingo! Spiraling circles also solves the problem of varied thicknesses and sizes. (Cooking fish this way isn’t any more smelly than on the stove or in the oven but if you’re worried about stinking up the inside of the microwave, be sure to wipe up any splatters right away — with diluted lemon juice is a nice touch — then leave the door open and fan out any lingering odors with a towel.)

Photo: Kerri Conan

6. Soufflé an Egg—or Two

Scrambling eggs and other stuff in a mug in the microwave oven has become “a thing.” My mom used to do this all the time. The key (as you might expect by now) is to have enough moisture to steam the egg. Starting with a milk custard and adding cheese helps. But eggs cooked like this can be tough unless you stop and stir frequently. Instead I tried scrambled eggs — one or two at a time — cooked with just a few drops of water, a couple clicks lower than the highest setting. The eggs puffed up like a soufflé, with lovely folds and some puff even after it came out of the microwave. Perfect for a quick snack or an easy Scrambled Egg Salad.

Photo: Kerri Conan

7. Peel with Ease

I’m late to this party: Mark and one of our readers both mentioned using the microwave to take the bummer out of peeling winter squash. Four minutes on high for a 2-pound squash seems to do the trick. Just on a plate — no cover necessary. Now that I’ve tried it, I’m going to move on to steaming whole squash to fork tender in a covered deep dish. Should be faster and less soggy than steaming on the stove.

Photo: Kerri Conan

8. Modified Sauté is Okay…

Instead of heating oil then adding vegetables, you can adjust the stovetop-skillet sauté or stir-fry technique for the microwave: Toss the vegetables with some oil or dots of cold butter; microwave in a loosely covered container on the highest setting until the vegetables start to soften; then stop and stir and continue at slightly lower power until the vegetables are as soft as you like them.

Photo: Kerri Conan

9. … But Frying Means Crying

Call me crazy — or old enough to remember the brouhaha over boiling oil when Microwave Gourmet came out in 1987 — but I don’t crisp anything in shallow oil in the microwave. Not even bacon. Why would anyone agitate fat molecules without being able to control the heat? It’s too easy to burn or (heaven forbid) combust. Besides, you can’t beat the smell of something sizzling in a skillet on the stove.

Photos: Kerri Conan

10. Get Fancy and Warm Something in Leaves

Hey, what about this for a change? Instead of just heating grains like these steel cut oats — or anything really — you can line the dish in leaves. These are hoja santa but you can use chard, cabbage, escarole, or big spinach leaves, too.

11. Pop Popcorn Elsewhere

I’m not ashamed to burst this bubble: Unless you buy bags specifically designed for popping corn in the microwave — no judgment, we’re all riding the wave here — make popcorn some other way. Which to me means in a pot on the stove, like Mark’s Parmesan Popcorn. Or if you make it a lot, use some kind of electric popper. Over the years I’ve tried all different power settings, rigs — glass, ceramic, and brown paper bags — and even thought a few drops of water might help. But the results are inconsistent, usually a tad scorched, and with an unacceptable amount of unpopped kernels.

Alas, the microwave is an imperfect love. But the more you get to know its charms and foibles, this underappreciated tool starts to become a true cooking partner.