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All Those Magazine Microwave Tips

I’m STILL working on a review of Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. Reason–so far the stories are more engaging and attention-getting than the food itself. So deciding what I think about the food takes a reread and some comparative checking.

For now, I’ll note very briefly that Nathan actually recommends microwaving in several recipes. This is a big step forward in the top-tier cookbook world, even though Nathan’s few mentions are still pretty brief and simple uses for the microwave. They’re still commonsense, so I give her credit for not eschewing them.

But it brings up a sore point for me. A lot of food writers are starting to incorporate microwave tips in their publishing repertoires, but some of them don’t really know how to use a microwave for much or else they don’t do the important legwork and test out their suggestions under varying conditions so that readers won’t get burned.

Case in point: Melissa Clark in a recent article for Real Simple, 14 Who-Knew? Uses for Your Microwave. Clark’s article is an unfortunate object lesson on the need for caution, maybe even a bit of actual research and critical thinking on the bounty of quickie microwave tips the food and homemaker magazines love to dish up.

The “uses” in Clark’s list include sterilizing sponges and plastic cutting boards, juicing lemons, toasting nuts and coconut, heating up beauty products like gel masks and leg wax…

Not only are most of these nonfood uses unoriginal–did she just scour the ‘Net or did she try them out?–but some of them are actively dangerous, to say nothing of unappetizing. Some gel mask manufacturers even put a warning in their instructions not to microwave the mask by itself but rather in a bowl of water–you could end up overheating it and scalding your face. One reader commented that she’d tried the sponge-sterilizing trick and ended up with a houseful of black smoke and a ruined microwave. Very expensive and maybe even harmful, even without the risk of a house fire. Sponges and plastics give off volatiles when heated–do you want to breathe them? do you want to have them coating the inside of your microwave and then washing off into your food the next time you heat up a cup of coffee?

And do you really want to eat ANYTHING from your microwave after something like dirty sponges or a plastic cutting board has been heated up in it? To me it would be like eating off a table where someone’s just left their dirty socks.

SOOOO–Here are a few general (hard-earned, experience-based) notes on not abusing your microwave by following such tips unthinkingly. Because there will always be more articles like Clark’s than the kind I’d hoped for.

1. Don’t microwave nonfood items to clean them (or really, for any other nonfood reason…) At all. Your microwave is not a dishwasher, washing machine, or autoclave (and I have very unpleasant memories of the bio department autoclave and its smell when I was still a lab tech–wouldn’t exactly call it clean even if it did lyse the bacterial cell cultures…) The chemistry of microwaving is different from straight-up heating in an oven and may do something unpredictable or harmful if there’s no water present to absorb the energy, or occasionally even if there is. Think BPAs in plastic–there are loads of other dubious-to-harmful chemicals in foam sponges, plastic cutting boards, and other such items, and some of them are volatile or flammable.

Rule of thumb #1: if you wouldn’t put it on the stove or in your mouth, don’t put it in your microwave.

2. Don’t microwave very dry items–like popcorn or tortillas to make taco chips–more than once a month or so (and ask yourself, how badly do you really need to do these sorts of things by hand?).

Yes, you can make popcorn from scratch. Yes, it works beautifully–for the moment, with very few unpopped kernels and no scorching. If you do it right. But it’s very easy to do it wrong–in a wide, flat-bottomed container, you’ll get almost nothing popped in 4 minutes. To do it right you need a big pyrex mixing bowl and a microwaveable lid. You need to wet the inside of the bowl with water, sprinkle in just a little salt if you’re using it, and pour in just enough raw kernels to make a single layer at the bottom of the bowl (about 4 inches across, so maybe 1/4-1/3 cup). Place the microwaveable dinner plate (plastic lids are too light) on top and hit stun for 4 minutes in an 1100W or so microwave, be prepared to stop it early if you hear no more popping,  and you’ve got it. A full bowl of popcorn, beautifully ungreasy and perfectly popped. Maybe 10-20 kernels won’t pop. Even with the generic store brand.

And you STILL shouldn’t do it very often. Why not? You could end up burning out your microwave magnetron a LOT faster than you expected (see my sad experience, below). Expensive? Definitely.

Same advice for nuking tortillas to make taco shells or chips, and for toasting nuts and coconut flakes–You can toast them in the microwave, but I have found the hard way that because they contain so little water and so much fat, if you do it with a higher-powered microwave sometimes nuts scorch from the inside out. If you have a toaster oven, you can toast a handful of nuts or a half-cup or so of coconut flakes pretty well in a timed fashion on a sheet of tinfoil at relatively low baking temperature (250F) for about 5 minutes and reduce the risk of scorching. It’s not really slower than the microwave at that point.

Even if you do things right, the strain of microwaving anything really dry very often will wear out the magnetron pretty quickly.  I caught on the second time I had to replace my microwave within 3 years of purchase. And granted, I’m an aggressive and fairly ambitious microwaver, but this seemed pretty short. Especially since my in-laws have had the same 600W microwave in their house for at least 20 and maybe 25 years without incident (of course, like most good little Americans, they never use it for more than 30 seconds at a time, and only to heat water or melt butter or chocolate chips). So I finally gave up. I don’t need popcorn that badly, and my hips don’t need the taco chips nearly as much as they think they do.

3. Don’t nuke something just for the novelty value. I know, this is me talking, but I really think you need to be sure your method is working and giving you a real advantage over conventional cooking.

Some of Clark’s food-based suggestions are trickier and less worthwhile than you’d think for the breezy tone (and lack of specifics):

Preparing lemons for juicing–Unless you’re taking a frozen lime or lemon out of the freezer to defrost (freezing is a great way to stock up on lemons and limes while they’re in season and cheap), you don’t really need to heat up your lemons to get the juice out. Also, lemon juice’s tartness is very heat-labile–you lose the flavor if you let it heat too long or too much. All you have to do to get the maximum juice out of a lemon is roll it hard on the counter a few seconds, cut it in half crosswise, and juice it by sticking a spoon or fork straight into the middle of the pulp as you squeeze and rotate the lemon half around it. Works really well, really completely in just a few seconds, and requires no special equipment. Microwaving DOES work for frozen lemons and limes–but do it in a half-bowl of water, just to heat, and give it a minute or so to thaw. That will be gentler and likelier to preserve the flavor.

Bread dough–Proceed with extreme caution unless you have a very old, low-power microwave and don’t take it for the miracle it’s touted to be. I have seen instructions for raising bread dough quickly in a microwave. I suspect Clark’s were lifted wholesale, or nearly, from a book that came out twenty years ago, Bread in Half the Time, by Linda Eckhardt  and Diana Butts (Reed Publishing, 1991). I don’t know if Clark tested this herself–she includes unusually exacting times and powers here compared with the rest of the tips in her article, but it’s possible she did try it at home. Microwave ovens have increased greatly in average power from the time this book came out, and my own tests of Eckhardt and Butts’  “microrise” method, even adjusting downward for power and time for my 1100W oven, not only don’t result in doubled volume at the incredible 10-15 minutes stated, but create dried-out patches of cooked and rubberized bread in the midst of the mostly-raw dough. This isn’t what you want to discover in a risen dough–you have to cut them out and then feel your way through the dough so you don’t miss any. Sort of defeats the purpose of the supposed quick rise.

So really, you need to read critically and figure out what the potential advantage for a new microwave method is. For something like pasta or rice (provided you do it right), the payoff is not having to babysit a pot on an open flame for 10-20 minutes (so you can go out of the room and hock your kid as much as you need to. Or want to.) For big items like eggplant or butternut squash, it’s the huge time savings and not having to heat up the house. For green vegetables, it’s the ability to get crisp-tender down to a perfected science in just a few minutes. Sometimes, as for cranberry sauce, it’s the cleanup factor. For quiche and pumpkin pie and quick breads…well, what can I say? It’s the time, definitely the time. Not JUST the microwave tricks value.

4. Read skeptically and be willing to play around with the instructions. Most magazine tips and even microwave cookbooks don’t bother helping readers adjust for different oven powers or setups. You have to do that for microwaving. “Microwave 10 minutes uncovered on 70% power” is not nearly the reliable cooking instruction that “Bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until golden around the edges” is. Results could be all over the map–undercooked, scorched, or exploded all over the inside of the oven–depending on the reader’s own oven power and dimensions, the shape, volume and thickness of their cooking containers, the quantity of food they’re preparing…Those factors, combined with whether you add water and if so how much, whether you cover the container or raise it on an overturned bowl or saucer and whether you let the food rest at all can be extremely variable from kitchen to kitchen, and any one of them can shift the balance between “miracle method” and “unappetizing” and even onward to literal “kitchen disaster”.

The variability of cooking needs and equipment is the real problem with most quickie magazine tips and even cookbook instructions for microwaving. It probably explains best why microwave cookbooks tend to date so quickly and why most people only use their microwaves to heat water and melt butter or chocolate chips (and think they’re being really daring) whenever they’re not just using them to heat up a box of “meals-for-one” or a bag of popcorn.

To do anything more demanding, you have to be willing to read any microwave instructions critically and take some time to adapt them to your oven, containers, and desired amounts of food. You have to be willing to play around. You have to be willing to ruin one batch of something and adjust your methods. Most readers aren’t that critical–even with ordinary cooking techniques. I hope you are.

Because once you get past the silly “Ain’t it amazing what you can stick in a microwave” factor, the potential for a good, repeatable kitchen workhorse is definitely there.

I wish Clark hadn’t been satisfied to do something so slapdash and generic and put her name to it, and I wish she, and all the other top-tier food writers, took microwaving seriously enough to put a little effort into writing about it, test out the variables, do the hard graft, pound a little shoeleather (not literally, unless they’re starving and fresh out of any other food source…see objection #1 up there) and above all, be a little less gullible about all the nonfood claims that make their way around the internet like culinary urban myths. In short, I wish they’d all do their homework before they and their editors just assumed they knew what the hell they were talking about.

Ah, well. This is the world we live in, so we have to think for ourselves.

Here are a few people who really do know how to microwave and can teach you the basic principles if you’re willing to try things out and try things more than once, with adjustments. And yet I’d still recommend reading critically, because the ovens they used for their cookbooks were older and lower-power than the ones available now, and might have been bigger or smaller than yours. The microwave utensils might have been plastic back in the ’90s. I recommend microwave-safe ceramics and pyrex for anything more than a very brief reheat. Also, sometimes I think they didn’t go far enough in their experiments, or tried to match conventional stovetop and oven cooking methods too literally (as with continuous cooking in the instructions for rice, when it’s really better to just heat a few minutes to a simmer and then let it soak up with the power off.)

Still though, these are the microwave cookbooks I’ve liked best for learning the concepts and thinking how to get real food at high quality from a microwave oven.

Moghul Microwave: Cooking Indian Food the Modern Way (1990) by Julie SahniMoghul Microwave: Cooking Indian Food the Modern Way, by Julie Sahni (William Morrow, 1990)

Indians are very practical and decades ahead of Americans on microwaving things like eggplants and other vegetables. The slow food movement’s “authenticity” argument doesn’t seem to bother them as long as the results are good. Sahni’s timing for things like basmati rice is generally off because she wrote this book for a low-power microwave oven, and her instructions don’t take advantage of absorption steps with the power off, as my rice and pasta method does, but the general ideas and recipes are worth taking on and adapting for your kitchen.

Quick Harvest: A Vegetarian’s Guide to Microwave Cooking, by Pat Baird (Prentice Hall, 1991)

Baird’s recipes are also a lot longer on timing than they would be today in a high-power oven, so you have to adapt, but her general notes are practical and encouraging. She also talks about the make-or-break factors most people don’t consider, like allowing for standing time after a microwave run to let the heat spread. And her food encompasses everything from casseroles to desserts.

The Complete Guide to Microwave Cooking (2000) by Carol BowenMy favorite, though, is Carol Bowen’s The Complete Guide to Microwave Cooking (Practical Handbook) (Anness, 2000), a British guide with great step-by-step instructional photos for each recipe and a large front section with practical tips on how best to arrange food for even cooking of meats and fish and so on. Bowen’s times need paring down for high-power ovens, and she doesn’t go as far as to cook pasta or rice in the microwave, but her recipes are adventurous and include a number of popular Indian restaurant favorites as well as British baking.

This, incidentally was the first book I ever saw with microwave instructions for tea breads, cake layers, and even Irish soda bread. I didn’t believe they could work but once I gave them a try I was hooked on the potential of microwaving and ready to experiment for myself–which is exactly the spirit I’m still looking for.

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