How to get the most out of your microwave
Most microwaves can do a lot more than just reheat and defrost your food, but often just getting those basics right can be a challenge.
This guide will walk you through some microwave dos and don'ts and give you some helpful tips on how to get the best results. That way, yours won't just sit on the worktop gathering dust.
Get to know your microwave
How many cooking options you have will depend on the type of microwave you own. There are three main types:
- Microwave only These models tend to be quite basic and are designed for heating and defrosting foods. They’re the cheapest option you can go for, so they're ideal if you’re on a budget, and usually less bulky than other models.
- Combi microwave These have extra convection cooking and grill functions, so you can cook in the same way as a conventional oven, as well as microwaving. They’re the most expensive type of microwave you can choose, but offer more flexibility and usually more cooking space too.
- Microwave with grill These have a grill function that can be used to brown food.
Microwaves are also available in varying degrees of power. Most models we test tend to be somewhere between 700 and 1000 watts, and these are the most common types you’ll find.
Avoid the temptation to immediately switch the power up to ‘high’ just because you want your dinner that little bit quicker. Cooking some foods on full power will dry them out, or even burn them on the outside before the middle is completely cooked.
You’ll need to adjust the cooking time for most items depending on how powerful your microwave is. Usually there will be instructions on the packet for varying power levels, but otherwise it’s usually safest to microwave in short bursts until your food is heated through.
The most basic models just have a timer and power dial, so you approximate the time needed to cook your meal, but some more advanced models may have auto programmes for certain popular meals or food types, such as popcorn or a baked potato.
It's worth looking over the manual, as often the icons on the microwave itself aren't very self explanatory. Some will have features such as multi-step programming, so you can set the microwave to defrost then cook, for example, or useful features like silencing any annoying beeps.
Select your food wisely
Although (theoretically) you can microwave any item of food you want, some foods microwave fare better than others.
If you’re planning on cooking most of your meal in the microwave, make sure you choose foodstuffs with a high moisture content, such as boneless poultry or fish. These will stay nice and juicy and shouldn’t dry out (unless you overcook them).
Things you should avoid putting in the microwave include:
Whether they’re shelled or unshelled, the moisture inside eggs creates an extreme steam build-up when microwaved, to the point where they can explode. They’ll usually only explode once you’ve taken them out, too, and could scald your hand or the inside of your mouth.
If you choose to microwave a chilli pepper, you’ll inadvertently release large amounts of capsaicin, the chemical that makes them spicy. This means that when you open your microwave it’ll be released into the air, which could lead to a burning throat and sore eyes.
Leafy green vegetables cook in their own moisture, so should always be rinsed under running water and cooked in a microwave-proof container sealed with cling film or a well-fitting lid. If not, you could risk your veg sparking and starting a fire inside your microwave.
According to the UK Food Standards Agency, you should avoid reheating rice in the microwave, because it can contains spores of bacteria that could give you food poisoning if not properly and thoroughly reheated. If it isn’t possible to serve your rice as soon as it has been cooked, ideally you should cool it in an hour and store it in the fridge for no more than one day.
There are no real safety issues with these, they just won’t taste great. You shouldn’t heat items like sausage rolls for anything longer than around 30 seconds, as otherwise the inside will begin to cook, giving off steam and causing the surrounding pastry to go soggy.
You should also avoid heating up any foods with liquid inside, such as mince pies, as the filling tends to get extremely hot while the outside can still feel quite cold to the touch.
Rearrange your plate for the best results
You might think heating up your food is as simple as bunging it in the microwave, hitting start and impatiently pacing around the kitchen for a few minutes, but there’s actually a little bit of an art to it.
1. Consider what you’ll put your food in (or on) to heat it up. If you’ve taken something straight out of the freezer and it’s already in a container, consider transferring it onto a plate for the best results. While a container of food will heat up eventually, it will likely take longer and you could be left with some cold spots.
2. Arrange food in a thin layer on your plate, ideally no deeper than around an inch. Place thicker items around the outside edge of the plate and thinner foods towards the centre, as microwaves cook the edges of a plate of food before they cook the middle.
3. For smaller dishes, consider only arranging food around the edge of your plate and leaving a hole in the middle. This means everything should cook a lot faster, leaving you with a steaming hot dinner in just a few minutes.
4. Use a circular container if possible. If you use a square or rectangular one, you risk burning the corners of your dinner because of the way the microwaves overlap during cooking (though some models have a special design to minimise this problem). Circular containers help microwaves to heat your food more evenly.
Think outside the box
Microwaves are handy for heating and defrosting food, but they can also be used for a host of other kitchen tasks, such as:
Rehydrating stale bread If you’ve got a stale loaf in your cupboard and don’t want to wait around for the oven to preheat, you can do a pretty good job of reviving bread in your microwave. Moisten a small amount of paper towel, wrap the portion of bread inside, then microwave for around 10 seconds, keeping an eye on it the entire time. Just don't overdo it, or it will end up soggy.
Drying out herbs To make your fresh herbs last longer, remove the leaves and spread them on a plate lined with a clean kitchen towel. Cover them with another clean dish towel and microwave for around a minute, then in 20-second bursts until all the moisture is gone. They should crumble easily when completely dry, and can be popped in a jar in your cupboard. You can also make homemade confetti from flower petals using this method.
Getting the most out of lemons and limes Putting citrus fruits in the microwave makes them far easier to squeeze, meaning you get far more juice out of them. Depending on how big the fruit is, microwaving it for 10 to 30 seconds should do the trick. Leave it to cool for at least a minute before squeezing out every last drop.
Peeling garlic Peeling the skin off garlic cloves can be tricky at the best of times, but it's especially frustrating if you’re putting together dinner in a rush. If you pop an unpeeled clove in your microwave for around 15 seconds, a small amount of moisture will build up on the skin, making it far easier to peel.
Always check your microwave’s instruction manual before you do any of these, though. Some have clauses in them that state you’ll void your warranty if you heat up certain non-food substances.
Make sure to always double-check containers before popping them in the microwave. Not all plastic containers are microwave-safe. If you’re unsure, always decant into a microwave-safe container before heating.
Keep your microwave clean
In order to get the best possible results from your microwave, you need to keep clean.
Little and often is best, as this will prevent food from building up and sticking to the interior of your microwave. If you've had a spillage, the sooner you deal with it the better. Dried-on messes will be harder to shift.
To remove stubborn food spatters inside your microwave:
- Fill a microwave-safe bowl with water, white vinegar and sliced citrus fruits (lemon, lime or orange)
- Heat on full power for several minutes, or until the viewing window steams up
- Leave to cool for at least five minutes
- Open the door and wipe down the interior with a clean sponge.
If your turntable is on the grimy side, simply remove it and wash with warm soapy water – or pop it in the dishwasher if your model permits.
You can wipe down greasy, smudged viewing windows with a 50/50 mixture of vinegar and water, before rinsing and leaving to air-dry. Your best bet for getting the gunk out of the rubber door seals is a damp cloth dipped in a little baking soda.
Need a new microwave?
Whether you're after a cheap, basic microwave or a high-end model with all the bells and whistles, we've uncovered brilliant buys for every budget.