Microwaves may have had a reputation in the past for drying out food and leaving cold spots in your dinner, but the best modern microwaves can rustle up delicious meals in minutes – as long as you use them properly.
How you arrange your food on the plate, how long you let it stand and even the type of container you use can affect how well your food turns out.
We’ve rounded up the best advice we’ve found buried inside microwave instruction manuals, and some top tips from our microwave experts, to help you transform your disappointing dinners into crowd-pleasing winners.
Of course, having a decent microwave to start with makes a big difference. But whether yours is a top-scoring Best Buy microwave or a sluggish old relic, these simple tricks could drastically improve the quality of your microwave meals.
Want a microwave that’ll cook mouthwatering meals quickly and evenly every time? Head to our round-up of the best microwaves for our top picks.
12 top cooking tips hidden in your microwave manual
1. Flatten food and spread it out for more even cooking
It’s tempting to pile food high on your plate, but it can mean the middle of your food cooks slower than the edges, particularly if your microwave isn’t too great at distributing heat evenly.
Microwaves don’t travel very far into your food – they work by warming up the outer layers of food first, which then transfer energy to the middle.
Spreading food more thinly and evenly should help you avoid ending up with meals that are cold in the middle and crispy at the edges. Plus the larger surface area can speed up the cooking process.
If possible, arrange food in a circle and place thicker pieces towards the edge of the plate to help it cook more evenly and avoid those cold spots.
2. Be patient and let it stand
It’s tempting to tuck in to your dinner as soon as the timer goes off, but letting food stand for a few minutes after the microwave has stopped is an important part of the cooking process.
Microwaves heat from the outside in. After the microwave stops, heat carries on spreading to the centre. Standing time allows the middle to finish cooking, without the outside burning or drying out.
Follow any given instructions for standing times. As a general rule, leave 2-3 minutes standing time for plated meals, five minutes for jacket potatoes and 10-15 minutes for denser foods such as meat joints. Make sure you cover food while it stands so it doesn’t lose heat.
3. Don’t be square
The shape of your dish can affect how evenly your food cooks. Food in the corners of square or rectangular containers tends to receive a more concentrated dose of microwave energy, which can leave a meal dry and overcooked.
So, next time you’re heating up a big casserole or chilli, opt for a circular or oval dish for more even cooking. And if reheating a tub of food, consider tipping it onto a plate or rounded dish instead.
Flatbed microwave reviews – see the best models with no turntable, handy for heating awkwardly-shaped dishes
4. Check the power level
Avoid the temptation to whack the power up to the highest setting in a bid to get to your dinner quicker. Cooking certain foods on full power will dry them out or burn the outside before the middle is done.
- Use the highest setting to heat up things with a high water content, such as soups, or to cook dense foods such as minced meat or veg
- Turn down the power when reheating ready meals, leftovers, and foods that require slower cooking such as casseroles or meat
Microwave power levels and what to use them for
|Power level (watts)||Recommended for|
|HIGH (800W+)||Heating drinks or soups. Cooking vegetables, poultry and fish, minced and tender meats.|
|MEDIUM HIGH (600-800W)||Reheating ready meals and leftovers, cooking casseroles or stews|
|MEDIUM (400-600W)||Slow-cooking drier meats such as ham or pork, bigger joints of meat or whole poultry or fish|
|LOW (100-400W)||Defrosting, softening butter, heating bread or keeping food warm|
If this seems like too much effort, look for a microwave with auto programs that’ll set the time and power level for you. We test each microwave to see how easy the programs are to set, so check the ratings on our microwave reviews for the models that are easiest to use.
5. Get to know your microwave timings
Our tests have revealed big differences in how long microwaves can take to heat the same food. Some take twice as long as others to heat food to the same temperature, even when used on the same power setting.
If you’re using a microwave you’ve not used before, set the timer for a little less than the recommended cooking time and add more time if it’s still not cooked through.
6. Cover your food
Not only will covering your food make you more popular with whoever uses the microwave after you, and avoid pesky food splatters that you’ll curse come cleaning day, it’ll also make your food taste better. The trapped steam helps to hold in moisture and stop food drying out, and speeds up the cooking process.
Use a microwave steaming lid or microwave-safe cling film – just make sure there’s an opening or hole for steam to escape.
7. Use foil as a heat-shield (with care)
You may have heard foil can’t be used in the microwave. As a general rule it’s best to avoid it, as microwave energy can’t pass through aluminium – resulting in uneven cooking.
But if there are parts of your meal that are vulnerable to overcooking, you can use this to your advantage. Place foil over the corners of square dishes, thinner edges of food – such as the tips of salmon or chicken fillets – to shield them and stop them cooking as quickly.
Make sure that the foil isn’t within 2cm of the wall of the microwave as otherwise it can cause sparks and damage your microwave.
8. Divide and conquer for quicker cooking
As microwaves work by heating the outer layers of food first, it can take a while for heat to reach the middle of dense piles of food. If you’re cooking a large load it can be quicker to divide it onto several smaller plates rather than heating it together in one big dish.
Some microwaves lose power if you heat several dishes in a row, so you might need to put successive dishes in for a little longer each time.
We test how well each microwave copes with re-heating multiple dishes. See how we test microwaves for more on how we uncover the best models.
9. Keep it moving
Stirring or turning food is the surest way to avoid those dreaded cold spots. Stir at least once during cooking, making sure to stir from the outside, inwards.
If it’s a food that can’t be stirred, such as chicken, burgers or jacket potatoes, turn over halfway through instead.
10. … even on defrost
Just as with heating food, make sure you turn food at least once while it’s defrosting to avoid some parts starting to cook while others stay frozen.
Our tests have revealed that some microwaves can defrost to an extremely even temperature – within a degree or two of zero throughout, while the worst microwaves will cook some parts of your food and leave the rest frozen solid.
Even a Best Buy microwave could leave you with patchy results if you don’t follow the guidance and turn food halfway through.
If your food weighs more than 500g, turn it at least twice during defrosting. Some microwaves come with auto defrost programs that will beep to let you know when to turn your food, so there’s no excuse for a part-frozen, part-fried chicken breast!
11. Don’t trust what you see
If you’re forever wiping soup off the ceiling of your microwave, don’t rely on visual cues, as things aren’t always as they seem from outside the tinted window.
Soups, sauces and drinks can reach more than 100°c in the microwave without appearing to bubble or boil, so even if you’re keeping an eye on progress, you might not spot an impending eruption.
Stirring halfway through cooking can reduce the risk of a liquid nightmare, and some manufacturers also say putting a glass rod or microwavable utensil in the container can stop liquids boiling over. Finally, a use for that glass rod you have lying around your kitchen.
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12. Use the right container
Using a container of the wrong material can stop your food cooking correctly, damage your microwave or even make food unsafe to eat.
Which materials can go in your microwave?
|Material||Can it be used to microwave food?|
|Earthenware / ceramics||Porcelain and glazed ceramics are fine, but bone china may crack|
|Plastic||Microwave-safe only. Non microwave-safe plastic can melt and make food unsafe to eat|
|Glass||Heat-resistant only. If not, use to warm only as can break at higher temperatures|
|Paper plates and cups||For short-term cooking only. Don’t leave unattended|
|Metal (including containers with metal handles/trims)||No – metal prevents microwave energy from reaching food and results in poor, uneven cooking. Can also cause sparks or fire|
|Plastic foam||No – can melt and contaminate the food inside|
|Aluminium foil trays||Not unless stated – can result in uneven cooking or even damage to the microwave|
How to tell if a container is microwaveable
If you’re unsure if a container is microwave safe, use this simple test:
- Fill a microwave-safe dish with cold water
- Put in the microwave alongside the container you want to test
- Heat for one minute
If the container is cool while the water is hot, it’s suitable for microwaving. If the container is warm, this means it’s absorbing microwave energy itself, so is not suitable for microwave cooking.
And finally, don’t ignore the extra buttons
It’s tempting to just whack the microwave on for a few minutes and hope for the best, but there are some useful extra features to be found on modern microwaves:
- Auto programs – most microwaves have a selection of auto programs to take the guesswork out of microwave cooking, usually for popular jobs such as cooking jacket potatoes or reheating a meal. Just enter the weight (some have an built-in scale to weigh it for you) and it’ll set the recommended time and power level to cook your food.
- Multi-step programming – some microwaves allow you to program different cooking modes to begin one after the other, for example to automatically defrost and then heat your lasagne.
- Silent mode – if you can’t stand the myriad of beeps and blips your microwave makes, there’s usually a way to silence them once and for all. It’s not always immediately obvious from the controls, so check your instruction manual – or the manufacturer’s website, to find out how to turn them off. You might need to press and hold two buttons at once.
Need a new microwave? Get more advice on choosing the right one for you in our microwave buying guide.