Microwaving food is one of life’s simple pleasures: chuck in some cold food and in two minutes you have yourself a hot, tasty meal. It’s magic, really. As opposed to cooking with heat on a stovetop, microwaves warm up organic material by passing radiation through it. The result? Shorter cooking times.
Using a microwave oven is about as straightforward, fast and convenient as it gets but there are still some myths and misunderstandings to bust, and hot tips to know on microwaving and microwave safety. There are some basic tenets and rules to follow when you’re cooking with microwave. We would hope that you know most of these, but that’s not a guarantee.
If you want the low-down on all the things you should and shouldn’t do, then read on.
Here is a list of ‘dos’ to keep you informed safety wise and cooking wise.
Read and follow the instructions in the owner’s manual. The manual is a wealth of information you’ll need to know for safe, healthy cooking, including operating procedures and safety warnings.
Use glass, ceramic or microwave safe plastic containers. Suitable plates and containers are usually marked or stamped on the bottom. For safety’s sake, if you’re unsure whether a bowl, dish, or plate is microwave safe, don’t use it. Some people don’t like putting food into plastic containers as chemicals can leach into the food, and food can leach into the plastic, depending on the plastic it is. You’ll notice this when you have a Bolognese which stains the plastic, whereas this won’t happen with glass and ceramic as they are neutral, so there’s no likelihood of them leaching chemicals into the food. Microwavable plastic can work well. Always check the bottom of the container to see if it’s actually microwavable and opt for a BPA-free container.
Read and follow the instructions on prepackaged foods you’re going to cook or reheat. Undercooking food in a microwave can leave you with cold, tasteless items that contain harmful bacteria. On the other hand, overcooking food makes it tough, rubbery, and inedible.
Check on and stir food occasionally. A microwave needs a turning table so that the waves reach all sections of the food. Even so, when microwaving food, often not all parts will be heated thoroughly. Microwaves achieve the best results if you regularly check, stir and keep an eye on the food. Because of those bands and the fact that the product is being turned through those, you’re not going to get consistent heating with microwaves compared to the oven or hot plate. You need to stir the food to spread the heat. Open it up and give it a stir to make sure it’s heated thoroughly throughout.
Allow for different cooking times. Different foods will take different amounts of time and power in the microwave to cook properly. If your pasta dish took 4 minutes to heat up in the microwave, that doesn’t mean your soup will too. This relates back to the earlier point of always checking, stirring and maintaining to make sure your food is perfect every time.
Leave a gap for your food to breathe. Even though you have to cover your food when microwaving, make sure you leave a little gap in your container for your food to ventilate. For example, microwave-ready Tupperware containers can warp and damage if you put them in the microwave with their lid completely fastened. Leave the lid loosely on top with a very minor gap to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Heat food until bubbling and/or steaming. Make sure to always heat up your food to at least 75 degrees Celsius. To do this, you need to make sure that you put it in a shallow dish, in the microwave on ‘high’ and give it 2-3 minutes (depending on what it is). Then you actually check it halfway to give it a good stir because you’ll find you’ve got hot spots, just as we mentioned earlier. If it isn’t bubbling, put it back in. With anything that’s got liquid, you’re looking for a good bubble — that way you’re making sure it’s at least 75 degrees. And when you open the container, you want to see steam coming off it.
Clean it often. Make it a habit of cleaning the inside of the door and the cavity after every use. This will prevent food and spatters from becoming cooked onto the surface, making it easier to clean. Keeping your oven clean will also remove germs and unhealthy bacteria that can pollute foods and liquids you place inside it. The best way to clean a microwave — in fact, all food contact surfaces — is simply good detergent, a clean cloth (don’t reuse a damp, dirty cloth) and hot water.
Use caution when you open a bag, box, or other container that’s been cooked or heated up. Because the container was closed, or even partially closed, scalding steam can build up inside it.
The water test. If you’re not sure what the wattage of your oven is, then do the water test. Pour a cup of water into a microwave-safe glass measuring cup. Heat the cup on high heat until the water boils. If it takes less than three minutes for the water to boil, then your oven is about 600 to 700 watts. If it takes three or four minutes, then your oven is 500 to 600 watts. And if it takes the water in the cup more than four minutes to boil, your oven has a power of less than 500 watts.
Here’s a list of things that are pure no-nos when it comes to microwaving or using the microwave. Don’t:
Use containers that aren’t microwave-ready. Some plastic containers like salad bowls or food packaging aren’t designed to be put in the microwave and can melt. The smell alone should be enough to put you off, but the clean-up is even worse. Make sure any container you put in the microwave is microwave-ready.
Put metal in the microwave. Putting metal in the microwave is a big no-no. This is really critical and one rule you should already be aware of. Metal will spark in a microwave oven and if left unattended, will eventually cause a fire. Make sure you don’t do it. If you have children in the house, make sure that they are aware of this rule too.
Turn your appliance on if it’s empty. Since there is no food or liquid to absorb the energy that’s produced, the magnetron tube can be damaged.
Microwave food uncovered. Don’t be that person at work who doesn’t cover their food when microwaving, resulting in an explosion (and then doesn’t clean it,). When you are microwave cooking food, if it has liquid or fat in it, make sure you cover it up. It’s best practice to cover anything you’re cooking in your microwave oven anyway, as it will cook quicker and more consistently. Little pockets of moisture can form in your food and when heated these can lead to explosions. For example, pork sausages got their British pet name of ‘bangers’ because of their high moisture content during the war. When cooked, these would explode with a big bang. Covering your food will reduce the amount of times you have to clean the inside of your microwave.
Cook all foods for the same time. It’s really hard to put times on foods because different foods are going to heat in different ways. “The denser a food is, the more different it will heat compared to something that has more liquid in it. Microwaving a solid, denser food such as a steak or potato is going to heat very differently to a soup or stew. A soup is going to heat up a lot quicker, but it will also lose its heat more quickly. Something dense like a steak or potato will heat up slower, but will also hold their heat a little bit longer.
Cook or defrost foods such as beef, pork, poultry, hot dogs, and so on while they’re still in their original containers. Remove plastic wrapping, foam trays, and other packaging before you place food items in your oven.
Use your appliance for cooking if:
a) the door won’t close properly.
b) the door is bent or warped.
c) the latch is broken or faulty.
Call for professional service or replace the unit if any of these conditions exist.
Be afraid to let your food bubble up/steam. This is especially true of reheating meals. If your food is steaming or bubbling up, this means it’s piping hot and will have been thoroughly cooked. Embrace it! Let your food get piping hot and then let it cool down a bit before eating it.
Let it get too dirty. Letting your microwave oven build up germs and grime is bad news for your gut. The bacteria that can be found in dirty microwaves can cause infections, and create sickness. Wipe it down with a damp cloth every now and then and make sure it’s gleaming.
Heat a bottle full of baby formula or breast milk up in a microwave. This tip is for new mothers or mothers-to-be. One reason for this is, the bottle may feel like it’s the right temperature, but the milk inside can be boiling hot. Also, heating a baby bottle in a microwave can change the composition of formula and milk. It can actually turn trans-amino acids in formulas into toxic chemicals. Valuable vitamins, nutrients, and antibodies in breast milk can be destroyed.
Take extra caution when thawing meat. Some people will tell you to never defrost meat in the microwave. These people are wrong. Meat is perfectly okay to defrost in the microwave; you just need to be vigilant. Make sure it’s removed from all its original packaging and check on it regularly. Thin cuts of meat especially will begin to cook if left to defrost in there for too long, and this can cause complications.