More than a popcorn maker

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I’m talking about the microwave oven. 

For many it’s an expensive coffee heater, popcorn popper and leftover re-heater. When microwaves first came out many people taught (me included) and took microwave cooking classes.  These classes are definitely a thing of the past. Every home has at least one microwave and they are just as common as a coffeemaker and no one ever takes coffeemaker classes.

There is a whole generation of people out there who just pushes buttons and doesn’t really understand how the microwave oven works.  Here are some tips that could make your microwaving more successful.

Give it a rest. Due to conduction, heat continues to travel to the center of the food after the microwave shuts off. Standing time allows the food to continue cooking for more even heating of the food.That’s why instructions for baking potatoes always say to let stand 5-10 minutes after the microwave shuts off—but does anyone really do this?  Even cook-in-the-bag frozen vegetable instructions say to let stand for a minute or so before opening the packet.  If you don’t allow for the standing time the food will not be completely cooked and most people are tempted to put it back in and “nuke” it for another minute or two. This usually results in overcooking the food.  Give it a rest.

Use the power levels to your advantage.  Power levels adjust the amount of cooking power going into the food.  Lowering the power level in the microwave is similar to turning the heat down on the top of your range.  Some foods are best cooked slower conventionally; this goes for the microwave, too.

Be patient. Defrosting  takes time and is usually done at lower power levels.  You must allow for standing time afterwards. Don’t get impatient and put it back in and zap for a couple more minutes—that’s when you get cooked, dried edges surrounding a frozen center.

Water is important.  Microwaves are attracted to water, not ice. This is why many of the frozen vegetable instructions have you add a little water to the veggies. This water quickly turns to steam and cooks the vegetables.  Have you ever noticed that vegetables that are cooked without added water tend to be dry and tough?  They need this little bit of water to attract the microwaves and get the process started.

Put a lid on it. Most foods should be covered in the microwave. Use plastic wrap or a glass lid when you want the food to steam.  Paper towels or clean dish towels are good for foods that you want a slightly less steamed exterior such as baked potatoes and baked goods.  A cover also helps to keep the splatters and clean up to a minimum.

When microwaves were new many people tried to do everything in them and soon found that perhaps it isn’t the best way to cook some foods.  But with a little thought and care you can do more than basic heating and reheating.

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS
Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University

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updated on 07-20-2018