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Microwave tricks: Pasta You Don’t Have to Babysit

Mark Bittman’s post-Thanksgiving look into the brave new world of absorption pasta and Pete Wells’s “Cooking with Dexter” piece in the New York Times yesterday on the virtues of a pot of boiling water have me thinking hard about why neither of them has even tried the microwaves that must be sitting on their counters. Especially Wells, who has not one but two very young and active children to watch out for.

You can cook standard dried or frozen pasta very well in a microwave, with only a few minutes of actual cooking time and almost no need to stay close by. You can cook rice too–and we’re not talking Minute Rice, either. Basmati rice, the queen of difficult rices, cooks perfectly in a microwave.

The setup for microwaving tortelloni

The setup for microwaving tortelloni and other filled pasta

I started cooking pasta in a microwave when my daughter was a toddler. She was pretty active and I couldn’t leave a pot boiling away on the stove to go and chase her–either the pasta or I would have boiled over. By the same token, I had nightmares of her getting over the baby gate and into the kitchen as she got bigger and more impatient. My mother-in-law still has extensive scars from having a boiling pot tip over on her when she was a child, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to try microwaving pasta instead. Even though my daughter is now kitchen-savvy, it worked so well I’ve never been tempted to go back.

The basic process for microwaving pasta is to microwave just long enough to heat the water to the boiling point, then leave it with the lid on and the door shut but the power off for a couple of minutes and let the pasta absorb the hot water. Once it’s absorbed, check for doneness and microwave 1-2 minutes more if necessary (and if it seems dry, as for rice, drizzle a bit more water into the container before the final nuke).

The main concern with any pasta is boilover, which makes a scalding mess especially in a microwave. So at least the first time or so, it’s worth keeping an eye on the oven and being ready to hit the stop button. Timing for a microwave will always depend on your cooking container and the amount of pasta you’re cooking, but once you have the timing down for how long your preferred amount takes to come to a simmer, you can reproduce the process pretty consistently.

Spaghetti, Fettucine, Rotini, Egg Noodles, Bowties, etc. (dry, anything between a quarter and half a pound)

Break long spaghetti or fettucine strands in half to fit in pyrex bowl with a lid or a lidded microwaveable container big enough for the pasta, water, and some airspace. Pour water over the pasta to cover by 1-2 inches. Put a microwaveable lid on the bowl or container, microwave 3-4 minutes on HIGH (more for the pyrex bowl, less for the thinner-walled container). If you aren’t seeing the water start to seethe or bubble at that point, add a minute or so of time and be ready to hit the stop button if you see it start to boil over. If you do see the water getting ready to boil, shut off the oven and leave the pasta inside with the lid on and the door shut. Go away for a few minutes. Check for doneness and if it’s ready, drain and serve. If it’s partway there, give it another minute on HIGH and another couple of minutes absorption time if you need it sooner, otherwise give it another five or so minutes absorption time with the oven off. If you’re making a whole pound of dried pasta, adjust the cooking and absorption times upward by a couple of minutes and keep your eye on the boil the first time or two that you try this.

Fresh or frozen ravioli, tortelloni/ini, etc. (1/2-1 lb. package)

Put filled pasta in a big (2.5 qt/l) pyrex bowl. Cover with water by an inch. Put a microwaveable lid or dinner plate on top. Microwave on HIGH 7-9 minutes (more for frozen). Pasta should start floating to the top. Carefully remove lid (potholder or towel is a very good idea) and stir gently to submerge any pasta that seems to have gotten stuck at the top of the heap. Put the lid back on and let it sit another 5 minutes to make sure everything’s fully cooked. Drain and serve. You can let this sit for about 10-15 minutes in the hot water to keep it hot, but I would drain it if you have to wait longer than that so the pasta doesn’t get soggy.

White Rice (1 cup raw rice, makes about 2+ cups)–note: brown rice takes longer and could probably use a presoak

Pour the rice into a small pyrex bowl or medium-sized microwave container (~18 oz/0.5 l) with a lid. If it’s basmati rice, rinse it a good couple of times and drain it in the container. Pour water over it to cover by about 3/4 inch (2 cm). Put on the lid and microwave 2.5 min on HIGH. If the water isn’t starting to seethe yet, give it another 30 seconds. Once you see it start to bubble up, stop the oven and leave the rice to absorb for about 4-5 minutes. When you come back, the rice should be nearly to the top of the microwave container and most of the way done. If it looks too dry on top, drizzle a bit more water over it. Either way, cover and microwave another minute and recheck for doneness. Extra rice can be stored in the same container in the fridge and reheated the next day by drizzling a little water on top, shaking it, and microwaving 1-2 minutes.

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