by Carol Bradley, PhD, RDN, LD, BCBA

The microwave ranks near the top of the list of cooking appliances that people can’t live without. Making good use of your microwave can save on energy and keep the heat out of the kitchen.

Microwaves are unique in the way they heat as opposed to conventional cooking. They cook efficiently because their energy heats the food not the container. However, “cold spots” can occur due to the irregular way microwaves enter the oven and are absorbed by the food. If food doesn’t cook evenly, bacteria may survive and cause food-borne illness. The following tips can reduce that risk.

When defrosting food, remove wrap from foods before defrosting. Foam trays and plastic wrap can melt and cause chemicals to enter food. Be sure to cook meat and poultry immediately after thawing. Some areas of the food will be partially cooked. In order to ensure bacteria are destroyed, food must be fully cooked all the way through.

Microwave-safe cookware is essential for safe cooking. Safe utensils for microwave cooking include glass and glass ceramic cookware. There are new plastic storage containers on the market labeled microwave safe. However, margarine tubs and other plastic food containers can warp or melt and contaminate food.

Wraps and bags, including wax paper, oven cooking bags, parchment paper and white paper towels should be safe. Avoid letting plastic wraps touch foods and never use newspapers or brown paper bags in the microwave. If you are in a hurry, try the new microwave cooking bags with directions on how long to cook each item. For example, fresh broccoli is ready in just 3 minutes!

When cooking, never partially cook any food. When microwaving food to partially cook before transferring to the grill or conventional oven, do so immediately after removing from microwave. Arrange food items uniformly in a covered dish and add a little liquid. Under a cover such as a lid or vented plastic wrap, steam will help destroy bacteria and ensure more uniform heating.

Cook large pieces of meat on medium power (50%) for longer times. This will prevent the outside from overcooking before the inside is done. Stir or rotate food once or twice and turn large pieces over so foods cook more safely. This may be necessary even if your microwave has a turntable. Use a thermometer or the oven’s temperature probe to be sure food has reached a safe temperature. Ovens vary in power and efficiency. Check to make sure red meat is 160F and poultry is 180F.

When reheating foods, heat leftovers and precooked foods to at least 165F. Food should be steaming and hot to the touch. It is not safe to eat leftovers that are not fully reheated. Cover foods to hold in moisture and ensure safe, even heating but do not let plastic wrap touch food if used. Microwaving baby food and formula is not recommended due to uneven heating. The “hot spots” can scald a baby’s tender mouth.

The best part of using a microwave is that clean up is so much easier than conventional cooking. Foods are cooked right in the serving dish when you microwave.

Your favorite vegetables from the garden can be cooked in about 7-10 minutes depending on your microwave. General cooking instructions begin with using a small amount of water in the bottom of a glass dish. Be sure to cut vegetables into pieces of uniform size for more even cooking. Cover the dish with a lid or plastic wrap to ensure fastest cooking. Allow to stand for a few minutes after removing from the microwave as foods continue to cook for about 3-5 minutes. If you have leftovers, they can be transferred into smaller dishes, covered tightly and reheated a day or two later for about 2-3 minutes.

Recipes can be as simple as cooking your favorite chicken spaghetti or broccoli and rice casserole in about 10-15 minutes, depending on your microwave. Adjust recipes for the number of people to be served.

Instead of spaghetti, slice 1 lb of zucchini and microwave in about ¼ cup of water in a covered dish. After 8 minutes, add a can of diced tomatoes, top with grated mozzarella cheese and or Parmesan cheese and microwave for about two more minutes.

Why not make stuffed bell pepper halves in the microwave? Just brown the meat and add your favorite sauce while the bell pepper halves are steaming side by side in a covered dish in the microwave (about 10 minutes). Scoop the meat and sauce mixture combined with uncooked instant brown rice into the bell pepper halves and cook for about 10 minutes. Total prep and cooking time is about 25 minutes.

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