Get Cooking With Your Microwave

Try these tips and recipes to help you make the most of this popular appliance.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Almost every American household and workplace break room has one. It's the nemesis of a certain celebrity homemaker. There are entire aisles of food products designed specifically to be used with it. We're talking about the microwave, of course!

This kitchen appliance is a must-have in summer, when people would rather be on the porch sipping lemonade than perched over a hot stove fixing dinner. Microwave cooking is particularly desirable in summer because:

  • There's no preheating required -- just press the necessary buttons and go!
  • It cooks your food quickly. By the time you've poured yourself a tall glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon, your meal can be ready.
  • It cooks and warms up your food without heating up your entire kitchen.
  • You don't have to stand over or near the cooking food, getting all sweaty.

How It Works

A microwave oven is rather mysterious, don't you think? You put your food in a small box with an even smaller window, you press a few buttons, and a couple of minutes later your food is hot.

Well, it's called a "microwave" because it uses high-frequency radio waves. These waves cause the food molecules to vibrate, which creates friction that heats your food quickly.

These radio waves travel fast because they are extremely short (perhaps that explains where the word "micro," meaning small, came from). These short waves pass easily through nonmetal containers, which help to cook the food from the top, bottom, and sides at the same time.

Microwaving and Nutrients

If cooking time is lowest in the microwave (compared with boiling or steaming), doesn't that mean fewer nutrients will be lost or destroyed in nutrient-rich items such as veggies?

It isn't quite that simple. No matter what the cooking method, some heat-sensitive vitamins, like vitamin C, will be lost. And when you cook vegetables in water, some of the water-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals they contain can literally leak into the water. Drain the water, and you lose some of these nutrients down the drain as well.

But therein lies the microwave solution: Use very little water (a tablespoon, for example), and your nutrient losses are thought to be very little.

A recent Spanish study measured losses of the phytochemical family of flavonoids (a water-soluble nutrient) when microwaving broccoli. The researchers noted a huge loss of flavonoid antioxidants (about 97% were lost) during the cooking process. But the results aren't really useful to those of us who microwave with almost no added water: The researchers used 2/3 cup of water to microwave just 1 1/2 stalks of broccoli. When the broccoli was steamed instead, the researchers noted that only 11% of the flavonoids were lost. So the moral of that study is to use as little water as possible when microwaving vegetables.

Here are two other tips to reduce nutrient loss:

  • Rinse your vegetables right in the microwave container, tipping it over with the cover (many microwave veggie cookers have lids with drain holes) to allow water to drain out. Whatever water droplets remain should be plenty to cook your vegetables.
  • There's no need to rinse or add any water when using frozen vegetables. They have enough frozen moisture in them already. Just pop them straight into your microwave-safe container.
Microwave Safety Tips

To make sure you're using your microwave safely:

  • Stand at least 2 feet away and to the side of your microwave when it's in use. Microwave levels are highest directly in front of the oven.
  • Biter beware. Because microwaves heat from the inside out, food can be warm to the touch on the surface and scalding in the middle. Because microwaves heat liquids and sugars fast, be especially careful with foods that have sweet filling or liquid centers, like pastries.
  • When microwaving liquids, use a low power and/or shorter cooking times because they heat quickly in the microwave.
  • Be careful from steam trying to escape when you open microwave containers like popcorn bags or covered soup mugs. Don't open the container near your face.
  • Look for a microwave with a turntable that automatically rotates your food as it cooks.
  • Don't forget to poke holes in foods like potatoes and hot dogs before you pop them into the microwave.
  • Old margarine containers and Styrofoam take-out containers are not made for microwave use, so don't use them in a microwave.
  • Glass cookware (like Pyrex) and lead-free ceramic ware (like Corning Ware) are good mediums for cooking food in the microwave.
  • Microwave-safe plastic cookware can be used, too. The trick is that you need to throw it out when it starts looking like it is aging.

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