Microwave ovens have gained popularity primarily due to the fact that they are time efficient as well as use less electricity. Cooking in microwaves definitely has certain advantages to cooking over a gas stove, but you should be very well aware of the dangers of a microwave, so that you do not cause harm to yourself while using it. Here are some tips for cooking safely with a microwave.
Dos and Don'ts of Microwave Cooking
As the name implies, a microwave oven uses microwaves to heat food. Microwaves are electromagnetic waves with very long wavelengths. These waves get easily absorbed by the water, sugar, and fats present in foods. The moment they come in contact with the water or fat molecules, they get agitated, and this produces heat which cooks the food.
★ Always use microwave-safe containers for heating and cooking. Cookware that is specifically labeled as "microwave safe" can be used in the microwave. Some manufacturers may even print microwave safety cooking tips, or look for a microwave symbol of four parallel waves, a sign that the cookware is intended for use in microwave ovens.
★ Plastic containers should be avoided, unless labeled "microwave safe". Harmful compounds from the plastic may leak into the food and pose a health hazard. Do not use newspapers and brown paper bags, they can catch fire. Even the use of aluminum foil is not recommended for use in microwaves, unless explicitly stated. Never use ice cream and margarine tubs or one-time use plastic bowls. Glass containers can be used only if they are labeled "microwave safe".
★ Metal containers are a strict no-no. The microwaves are unable to pass through metal, and the food will never get heated. Moreover, there is a danger of the metal converting the microwaves into electric current, that may even cause a spark. This also holds true for metal wires, especially the ones used in Chinese take-away cartons. Transfer the food to a microwaveable bowl if you want to heat it.
★ Covering the container with a lid ensures uniform cooking. Do not close the lid tightly, leave a small gap to allow the steam to escape. You can use Saran Wrap to cover the food, just spike it in a couple of places to let steam escape. Stir the food, or rotate it, if it's too chunky, at least once during the cooking cycle.
★ Preferably, use shallow containers to cook food. Food stored in them will get cooked uniformly as compared to foods in high-walled containers.
★ When heating packaged frozen foods, follow the instructions on how to reheat very carefully. Pierce the thin plastic wrap so the steam escapes, and once done, carefully lift the wrap with the opening facing away from you. Do not let the plastic come in direct contact with the food.
★ If you are heating foods high in fats, it's better to stick to glass containers. There is a risk of chemical additives from plastic dissolving and contaminating fatty foods at very high temperatures.
★ Microwaves should not be used to sterilize bottles. Use your gas stove to boil water and sterilize baby bottles and jars, even though it takes a longer time.
★ Never let children use a microwave without adult supervision. Make sure they do not stand too close to the microwave when it's on. Use the child safety lock if your microwave is equipped with one.
★ If you use the microwave to defrost food, set the correct temperature and do not use foam and plastic trays to defrost, as they cannot withstand extreme heat. Poultry, fish, and meat items begin to cook during defrosting, and bacteria and germs can thrive in partially cooked food. So it is best to immediately cook them thoroughly once they have been defrosted. For best results, switch to low power settings and rotate the food at least twice during defrosting.
★ Invest in a food thermometer if you regularly use the microwave to cook and reheat poultry, beef, veal, lamb chops, and meat. Check to see if the internal temperature has reached 165°F. That is the safest minimum internal temperature that foods should attain before they can be consumed. You can continue to cook it further as per your personal preference. Let the food continue to stand in the microwave for three to four minutes before you remove it to check the temperature. Ideally, foods should be steaming hot before you eat them, whether it is poultry, fish, casseroles, ready-to-eat hotdogs, or leftovers.
★ Do not heat stuffed chicken or other poultry items in the microwave. The stuffing inside might not get cooked thoroughly; it is recommended you cook the stuffing separately. If you are heating a roasted whole chicken, always leave it inside for at least five minutes after the microwave has been turned off, it lets the heat pervade deep inside and the food item gets cooked well.
★ Be cautious when heating food items which are layered, especially pies and pasties. The outermost layer might not feel too hot to touch, but the insides can be burning hot. Do not pop it right inside your mouth. Wait for a few minutes or cut it with a knife to allow excess heat to escape before you eat it.
★ Eggs should not be boiled in a microwave. Steam will build up inside the eggshell and the egg will explode inside the cooking chamber.
★ Be aware of foods that can cause arching. Arching refers to the sparks that are caused when certain ingredients in the food react with metallic elements found inside the cooking chamber. Hotdogs and carrots are known to cause arching. The salts present in hotdogs and minerals found in carrots can produce sparks when heated in a microwave. If that happens, immediately turn off the microwave and cook the food by other means.
★ Liquids can superheat in a microwave if heated for a longer duration than necessary. This can very well happen if you use a very smooth container or a squeaky clean bowl straight out of your dishwasher, fill it with a liquid and heat it in the microwave. The water or liquid will be perfectly motionless once the microwave stops, but the moment you disturb the bowl or agitate the liquid, it might explode causing serious burns. To avoid this, let the bowl stand in the microwave for a few minutes before you remove it so it cools down, or add a pinch of sugar or salt to it to prevent superheating.
★ If you are heating baby food, stir the food and taste it to check the temperature before you feed your baby to prevent scalding.
Microwave ovens are no doubt one of the greatest inventions of the last century, and studies have shown that food retains more of its nutrients and vitamins when cooked in a microwave as compared to other means of cooking. By adhering to the suggestions mentioned above, you can be sure that food is prepared quickly and safely, saving you both time and electricity.