By Aaron Kassraie, AARP, June 2023
Are you using your microwave properly? Here are 10 ways you could be using your microwave wrong. These tips will help maximize efficiency and safety.
Microwaves are one of the easiest appliances to use in the kitchen, but their improper use can lead to unintended consequences affecting the taste, texture and even the nutritional value of your food. To help avoid these mistakes, we spoke with William Lendway, a dietitian, chef and assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, whose specialized degrees include culinary arts and nutrition. See if you are making any of these 10 common mistakes and learn to maximize the benefits of your microwave.
1. You steam vegetables with too much water
Many cooking methods rob vegetables of their nutrients by leaching them into the water in which they are cooked.
To minimize nutrient loss in the microwave, use less water when steaming or heating vegetables. This works well because compared to some techniques, microwave cooking offers a shorter preparation time and can help retain more nutrients that typically break down when exposed to heat, such as B vitamins and vitamins C and D.
For best results, use blanched or frozen vegetables in the microwave to avoid uneven heating or overcooked greens, Lendway recommends.
2. You heat up spicy food in the microwave
The compound that gives spicy foods their heat factor, capsaicin, is also an irritant. When you microwave something like a spicy pepper, the food can emit steam similar to pepper spray and irritate your eyes, sinuses and lungs.
3. You cook raw meat
When raw meat goes into the microwave, its cells are exposed to frequencies that make it rapidly vibrate and create heat. This can cause it to cook unevenly, resulting in a dry and tough texture.
On the other hand, defrosting meat in the microwave until it is pliable can be a good way to quickly prepare it for cooking. A little bit of a cooked edge is normal, but be careful not to overheat it, Lendway says.
To reheat previously cooked meat, cover it and pair it with gravy, mashed potatoes or another food high in water content to help trap in moisture.
4. You don’t poke holes in food with skin
When foods with high water content are heated in the microwave, they expand and the water inside turns to steam. When that moisture has no way to escape, certain foods will explode. This typically applies to foods that have a sort of skin, such as potatoes, eggplant and certain meats like hot dogs or sausage. Poke holes in any food that has skin to avoid building up pressure. Cooking an egg in its shell is never advised!
5. You use cheap plastic containers.
Certain plastic containers shouldn’t go into the microwave, especially the more flexible, cheap ones, Lendway says. It’s important to avoid chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which can enter the body along with foods that have come in contact with them and damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. When BPA gets heated, it is more likely to leach into water and food.
To avoid any dangerous chemicals in plastics, opt for glass containers. But make sure that they are made from tempered glass so they won’t shatter when heated in the microwave.
6. You think the microwave cooks food from the inside out
Microwaves penetrate food to a depth of approximately 1 to 1.5 inches, but the heat will struggle to reach the center of thicker foods. As a result, the inside of the food gets cooked gradually, starting from the outer layers and progressing toward the middle.
Note that the air surrounding food in a microwave oven is at room temperature. As a result, the food’s surface doesn’t reach temperatures high enough to brown or crisp its outside. That’s why food cooked in a microwave doesn’t develop the desirable crispy appearance you expect from many conventional cooking methods.
7. You microwave water too long
Water that is microwaved too long can become superheated, meaning it is warmed past its boiling point — even though it doesn’t appear to be boiling. When superheating has occurred, any movement, such as picking up the container or pouring something into it, can result in a strong eruption of boiling water. Check your manufacturer’s instructions to know how long is too long to microwave water.
8. You’re afraid of standing near the microwave
A federal standard limits the amount of radiation that can leak from an undamaged microwave to a level much lower than what can be harmful to humans.Remember that interlock systems almost immediately stop the production of microwaves whenever the door is opened.
9. Your microwave is damaged
Microwaves are safe when operated as intended, according to the Food and Drug Administration. However, if your microwave’s door hinges or seals are damaged, bent, warped or otherwise compromised, it is important to discontinue its use. A microwave that can operate with the door open or cracked may leak radiation.
10. You don’t account for standing time
Microwaves cause water, fat and sugar to vibrate at 2.5 million times per second. Once the food is removed from the oven, the molecules continue to generate heat as they come to a standstill. This is referred to as carryover cooking time, resting time or standing time.
This lasts longer in more dense foods such as turkey or roast beef, and less so in breads, small vegetables and fruits.