Give Your Microwave More Love: Maxing Out Your Microwave
As I work on the article I have re-heated my tea a couple of times in my microwave, which I do everyday. As with many microwave models mine has a “baked potato” function that I use when I need a baked potato fast. Re-heat last night’s leftovers? Check. But I also use it as a serious kitchen appliance.
It’s time for you to examine how you are using your microwave as you might be missing out on all that your microwave has to offer. (See our review of our new Sharp Microwave Model R551ZS, with its really snazzy Softening feature for butter, chocolate, ice cream and cream cheese). In our Test Kitchen we consider it a vital appliance, right up there with our stand mixer, food processor and range oven. Sure, we re-heat beverages, but we use it for so much more. In fact, we use our microwave more than any of these other appliances, putting it into action several times a day. So how come so many people relegate its use to reheating and the occasional batch of popcorn?
What Do You Use Your Microwave For?
We think it is because you have just never thought beyond those tried and true uses, which it does so well. It also melts butter and chocolate, softens winter squash for easier cutting, warms honey for easier pouring and measuring, heats our tortillas, and helps reheat and cook dishes especially on busy food holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving. (Our main oven can only hold so much and the stovetop gets crowded so we always plan some dishes around the microwave as well).
Microwave Technology vs. Radiant Heat
Let’s first talk a little about microwave technology versus radiant heat (your standard oven). Microwaves ovens use radio waves that agitate water molecules in food; moisture in the food comes to a boiling point and heats the food from the inside. This inside-out heating is not optimum for every kind of cooking, so it behooves us to understand what it does well so that we can make our microwave ovens work for us, not against us. Radiant heat, which is what you have in your standard oven, is heat that is created via an electrical element or gas, and the heat literally radiates throughout the oven cavity, heating food from the outside.
What this means is that there are certain techniques to employ that will give you your best results from your microwave and you do have to think about it differently from your main oven.
If you have access to the Internet and an interest in food (and of course if you are reading this, that’s you!) then you know of the proliferation of mug cakes in the last few years. These are individual servings sized cakes, made in mugs, right in the microwave.
We were in a particularly snacky mood and decided to go for broke with one of our favorite decadent flavor combinations. Behold our Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Mug Cake. Or as we like to call it, Chocolate Crazy Monkey Mug Cake for One.
We came across a mention of “toasting” nuts in the microwave at kitchn.com and they referenced Harold McGee, whom we love for the explaining science and technical aspects around all things food. We were doubtful, but curious. Could we “toast” nuts in the microwave? The thing about his book, On Food and Cooking, is that every time we read it we pick up new things, such as this concept.
Our tests show that you can, but the results are not quite as good as when done in the oven, however, when we need let’s say just 1/2 cup of nuts to be incorporated into a dish, turning on the oven seems like such a waste of time and energy. Here’s how to do it in the microwave.
Whether you store your nuts at room temperature, in the fridge or in the freezer, spread them out in a single layer, well spaced apart, on a microwave safe tray or flat plate. Microwave on High power for 1-minute intervals and keep checking until nuts smell fragrant and have taken on some color. The timing will depend on the strength of your microwave, the amount of nuts and the temperature they were to begin with (sometimes ours are right out of the freezer). Now, with oven baking we always find that the construction of the pans that we use can greatly affect the heat conductivity and therefore the timing and the toasting results. With the microwave we experienced very even, reliable results every time.
We have written about ripening bananas using a radiant heat oven, but what about the microwave? It can be done and it is fast. One caveat, while the bananas will soften to a good consistency for making banana bread, they do not sweeten very much as the sugars to not have time to convert during this process.
Pierce the unripe bananas, still in the peel, several times all over with a fork. Place bananas on a paper towel in the microwave and heat on High power for 30 seconds. Check bananas for texture. Depending on how green or ripe your bananas were to begin with, this process might have to be repeated 3 or 4 times, always in 30 second intervals, to get to the desired softness. Allow the bananas to cool, then use in a smoothie or baking recipe.
Reheating, Cooking and…Cleaning?
And no article on using your microwave is complete without mentioning the old sponge trick. Okay, it isn’t food, but we use sponges all the time for cleanup and the microwave can sterilize them, extending their lifespan.
Make sure sponges have no metal fibers. Place in microwave and power on High power for 2 minutes. Voila! Also, to clean the microwave itself if it should have some baked on crud, we do the following. Stir together a 50/50 mixture of distilled white vinegar and water in a microwave safe bowl and heat on High power for a few minutes or until some steam is created. The steam will soften the grime. Allow bowl to cool briefly in microwave and then wipe down the interior with your newly cleaned sponge.