When did “I don’t have a microwave” start carrying the same cultural cache as “I don’t have a television?” We’re all so proud of shunning these dinging little boxes that somehow manage to make food heat unevenly… and yet according to some experts (including superstar Chef David Chang, microwaves may be well overdue for a comeback).
But first, a bit of mythbusting: microwaves are not going to give you a spidey-sense… nor are they going to give you cancer.
Microwaves work by stimulating molecules in food, particularly water molecules, making them vibrate. This energy turns into heat. And yes, microwaves use radiation to make this happen, but it's low-frequency, non-ionizing radiation, reports the BBC, just like lightbulbs and radios. As added protection, microwaves are fitted with metal shields and screens over the windows, which keep the radiation from leaving the oven.
The bottom line? When used correctly, says the World Health Organization, microwave radiation is perfectly safe.
When Should You Avoid the Microwave?
That said, microwaves are not perfect – at least, not in all cases. There are a few times you should avoid using the microwave.
1. With Plastic
Plastic takeout containers, food-safe storage boxes, and even plastic wrap are big no-nos in the microwave. Microwaving plastic causes the endocrine-disrupting phthalates to break down and leach into food (somewhat less than ideal, don't you think?) One 2011 study that showed that the majority of more than 400 different food-safe plastic containers tested leached phthalates into food when microwaved, and this holds even when only the lid is plastic due to condensation forming and dripping down onto your leftovers.
Instead, transfer your food to glass before microwaving (or, better yet, transition away from plastic in the kitchen entirely). Need some tips? Check out our guide to 15 plastic alternatives for all your kitchen storage needs.
2. With Too Much Water
One common mistake when microwaving is to heat water on its own, which can bubble out of its container, forming a messy (and potentially dangerously hot) problem to address. But this isn't the only time you need to be wary of microwaving water.
When veggies arrive in our kitchens, they're just brimming with healthy potential; it's our method of cooking that downgrades these rich nutritional benefits. Eating veggies raw or lightly steamed is the ideal way to maintain these health benefits; boiling or microwaving in too much water can have a negative effect on their flavonoid content, according to Xianli Wu, lead researcher of one 2019 study on the effects of various forms of cooking on the flavonoid content of broccoli.
3. To Cook Meat
Microwaves are a lifesaver for reheating, but not super when it comes to cooking from A to Z (despite what some TikTok recipes would have you believe). By virtue of the way they work, microwaves often heat unevenly, and they lack the ability to brown meats like steak and chicken, lending that lovely caramelization a good pan sear brings to the table. At best, microwaving raw meat leaves you with something rubbery and far from palatable. At worst? It cooks unevenly, opening the door to pathogens.
In short? Best not.
When Should You Use the Microwave?
These instances aside, however, microwaves can actually be your best friend in the kitchen. Recent converts include Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and co-author of "The Lost Art of Real Cooking."
“I grew up with that fear, thinking that you shouldn’t stand in front of the microwave," he says. "I used to tell people that I thought it was the work of the devil."
But more recently, he's discovered that there are certain kitchen tasks that "actually work really, really well in the microwave," and this inexpensive kitchen appliance can be a major time-saver.
1. To Cook Certain Vegetables
Microwaves' quick heating capacity means that some veggies, particularly ones you want to enjoy lightly steamed, cook very well in the microwave –and research shows that this approach is super healthy to boot.
While some research indicates microwaves could remove a whopping 97 percent of the flavonoids in broccoli, Wu's study pokes holes in this argument, claiming that cooking broccoli al dente (just one minute in the microwave) leaves broccoli’s nutritional content uncompromised. In fact, researchers write, microwaving broccoli for such a short period of time could even preserve flavonoids better than steaming.
And this doesn't just hold for broccoli. A 2010 study found that microwaving Brussels sprouts increased their polyphenol content by 90 percent.
That said, other veggies fare less well in the microwave: One study found that microwaving and steaming causes a loss in phenolic content in squash, peas and leeks.
One veggie that definitely doesn't suffer in the microwave is the potato, one of Albala's favorites for ease and speed. Potatoes cook up far more quickly in the microwave than in the oven or on the stovetop, meaning that a “baked” potato or sweet potato is just minutes away.
Albala also uses the microwave to pre-cook potatoes, frying them at the last minute to give them a golden glow.
“It would take you an hour to do a crispy fried wedge potato, unless you have a fryer," he says, "but if you just microwave it, cut it up into wedges, and then put it in olive oil in a nonstick pan, and it’s the best.”
2. To Cook Bacon
While the microwave is not the ideal way to cook most meats, bacon is an exception. Bacon usually forms harmful nitrosamines when cooked, but one study indicates that microwave-cooking is the method that forms the least of these carcinogenic compounds. (Of course, since nitrosamines are a byproduct of nitrites and nitrates, opting for bacon devoid of artificial nitrates is an even better option.)
3. To Heat Ready-Made Meals
Whether you’re heating up your own leftovers or ready-made meals, the microwave is a lifesaver.
“The microwave allows people to make meals more easily and minimize what for some is the daunting task of a cooked meal every single day,” explains Mike Wystrach, CEO and Founder of Freshly, a Nestle brand delivering healthy, ready-made meals that can be reheated in just three minutes.
Just be sure you're reheating microwave-friendly meals or leftovers! While things like stews and sauces reheat well, other foods, like French fries, bread, or pizza, lose out on texture, something that Food Scientist Nick Sharma tells The Spruce Eats has to do with the very way microwaves work. By vibrating the water molecules, pizza crust becomes at once soggy and cardboardy. And at high temperatures, the sugar in bread and pizza crust melts, softening briefly before recrystallizing into a hard, chewy mess. Not super appetizing!
But for the right kind of leftovers or ready-made microwaveable meals, microwaves can be a real time-saver – and contrary to urban legends, a completely safe option for you and your family.
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