Food Friday: Microwave Cooking

19 08 2011

As summer is heating up, the microwave is a great way to get something yummy in your family’s tummies, without heating up the kitchen.

Do you remember your family’s first microwave? I sure do… going to the appliance store, throwing down hundreds of dollars for a clunky brown machine. But boy, do they make life easier. I went a year once without a microwave, and let me tell you, when I succumbed to the modern technology once again, I was so grateful for it! Microwaves are just so versatile.

Don’t worry about safety. Experts tell us that microwave ovens work similarly to radio waves, or ordinary daylight for that matter, by converting electrical energy into short, high-frequency waves. This vibrates the water molecules in food at a fast rate, creating the friction that heats food. Microwaves work by attracting those micro-waves, but since the food is cooked from the outside in, the dish is usually only cooked to a depth of about 1.5 – 2 inches. The rest then cooks by heat conduction, so a turntable model helps eliminate the problem by rotating your food for you.

So today, for Food Friday, let’s talk about a few tips for food’s best modern appliance friend — the microwave.

  • Many recipes are written for a 700-watt oven, so if you have a higher wattage, adjust the cooking time by adding about 20 seconds per minute per 100 watt. (If you don’t have that handy instruction manual, your microwave might say inside the cover door. If not, you can determine a microwave’s wattage by boiling 1 cup of room temperature water. Microwave on high. For a 850-1000-watt oven, your water should take less than 2 minutes; for 650-800-watts, 2-3 minutes; for a 400-650-watts, 3-4 minutes.)
  • To allow for variance in oven wattage, check food for doneness at the minimum cooking time given.
  • Of course, when following microwavable directions, times and tips will depend upon your wattage, the size of your oven, food portions, etc. But did you also know the cleanliness of your microwave can affect food time? So cover splatter-prone dishes, and wipe down your microwave regularly to ensure you’re not hindering the waves with food particles.
  • If your microwave doesn’t come with a turntable, most department stores sell them in their kitchenware department, but be sure to measure the inside of your oven before purchasing to make sure it will fit.
  • You can also determine where your microwave’s “hot spots” are by lining the bottom with waxed paper, corner to corner. Spread the paper with a thin layer of pancake batter and cook on high, checking every 30 seconds until the batter begins to cook. Some of the batter will be cooked through, while other spots are still wet. This will tell you where food cooks fastest. Now you can adjust your food placement, or stir to distribute heat accordingly.
  • Come to think of it, microwaves can be kind of a pain to clean. Why not line them anytime with waxed paper that you can simply throw out when messy.
  • If your microwave does get a little messy, clean it while warm. Mix up a 4-cup measuring bowl with 2 cups water, 2 tablespoons baking soda, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Cook on high for 8 minutes and let stand another 3. Remove the water, and wipe down with a paper towel.
  • If you’ve ever tried, you know this, but don’t heat a dish with any metal, since metal deflects the waves and can spark. Also never heat lead crystal in the microwave. Make sure any dish, including paper plates are save for microwave cooking. Most plastic these days is made for the microwave, but some can melt during prolonged cooking.
  • Whenever possible, cook food in a round dish. Glass cake pans are perfect, since microwaves concentrate in the corners of square or rectangular dishes and can overcook.
  • As a rule of thumb, cover any foods that would be covered during conventional cooking. A paper plate or paper towel makes a disposable cover for microwaved food. Plastic wrap can melt at high temperatures and contact with the food. If your wrap does indicate safe for microwave cooking, make sure it’s at least an inch from your food.
  • If covering with wrap, vent your tightly stretched plastic in a couple places to prevent it from collapsing when removing from the heat. And when you take your dish, be careful of steam escaping those vents.
  • If you need to seal a bag to cook in, use dental floss, rather than twist ties, that contain metal.
  • Remember that thin foods, room temperature foods, foods high in fat or sugar all can make the cooking process quicker. Take factors such as bone-in and moisture into consideration when trying to determine how long to microwave a dish.
  • Volume in a microwave also affects cooking time. Doubling the quantity in a microwave requires more time, unlike a conventional oven.
  • Cut food into uniform pieces that will cook more evenly.
  • Stir foods like casseroles and puddings to distribute food evenly for cooking. If you can’t stir, rotate a half turn halfway through cooking time to allow for any hot spots in the oven. (Or, purchase a turntable that will do this for you, as mentioned above.)
  • Always arrange the thickest part of the dish on the outside, since this will cook fastest. For example, point a drumstick toward the center, so the meaty part of the chicken leg is at the edge.
  • Many beloved Southern foods are great to cook in the microwave for ease and quickness — bacon, baked potatoes, and steamed vegetables are a favorite in my family. Vegetables do especially well in the microwave, as the retain color and nutrients.
  • You can also recrisp crackers, corn chips, or potato chips that have absorbed moisture by microwaving them for a minute or two on high.
  • In the summer, when you’ve got lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to juice, freeze it. Then you can thaw quickly out of season by microwaving in a glass cup ans stirring every 30 to 60 seconds.
  • As a general rule, meat, poultry, and vegetables take about 6 minutes per pound in a 650-watt oven on high. Count on 3 minutes for fish or fruit, which contain a higher water content that cooks more quickly.
  • When a recipe calls for the food to “stand” in the microwave after cooking, be sure to allow it to do so. This accounts for about 25% of the cooking that occurs during that period. The vibrating water molecules are still producing heat before slowing to a stop. Similarly, don’t cook food until “done” in a microwave, since it will be overdone by the time you serve. Cover food during standing time, so it doesn’t lose heat.
  • Prick skins of foods like eggplant, whole potatoes, squash, or tomatoes so steam can escape or you might be dealing with an exploding mess afterwards.
  • Be sure to look for a hotel suite with a microwave when you go on vacations. These days, many hotels have the option, and you can save money by making breakfast, snacks, and sometimes even a meal with proper planning in the microwave oven.
  • I love to make double portions of dinners sometimes, and store in individual size portions. These serve as homemade “frozen dinners” on a night where I can’t bear to cook, or need a lunch for work in a hurry.

Be creative with what you can do with that microwave. It’s one of the most valuable “tools” in the kitchen. You can defrost, warm, blanch, soften, melt, open (think coconuts and oysters), loosen skins, dry, juice, dissolve, toast, reliquefy, peel, reheat, freshen, poach, recrisp, thicken, and caramelize — all in the microwave.

And speaking of meals coming from a microwave, come back next week for our second annual Southern Universities Week!

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