9 Actually Great Uses for Your Microwave

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

While I wouldn't go so far as to recommend cooking entire meals by microwave (though there's a veritable treasure trove of cookbooks promising delightful mug meals, mug cakes, and other zappable feasts), you might just be amazed by what you can, nay should, nuke in the kitchen.

Unlike conventional stovetop and oven-based cooking methods, microwaves operate by firing electromagnetic radiation at your food. These waves effectively target the food's internal water molecules, agitating them at a rate that produces enough friction to generate heat. It would be a stretch to say microwaves heat food from the inside out, but it's more accurate than perceiving them as enclosed boxes of hot air—they have, to quote Kenji, "the unique ability to penetrate through the exterior of food when heating it." For this reason, they excel at cooking ingredients evenly, rapidly, and efficiently—you can get the full why and how from Kenji's excellent post on the science of heat and temperature.

So, while microwaves won't produce enough heat to incur the Maillard browning reaction responsible for that delicious crust on your steak, and while they have a tendency to dry foods out if preventative steps aren't taken (hence the film of plastic that comes over your tray of frozen lasagna), there are plenty of tasks better suited to microwaves than any traditional heating element out there. I polled my colleagues for their favorite tried-and-true microwave shortcuts; from dehydrating herbs to par-cooking potatoes to toasting nuts, these nine uses will put even the most adamant skeptics in their place.

Make Your Own Powdered Herbs and Other Seasonings

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Since microwaves target water molecules, they're an ideal tool for dehydrating everything from leftover fresh herbs to scallion greens and even tomato skins. Not only does drying these ingredients in the microwave take a fraction of the time it would take to preheat your oven or toaster oven for the same purpose, but our tests have found that the microwave does a better job of preserving both color and flavor to boot. Once they're dry, a quick pass through a spice grinder or a few minutes with a mortar and pestle will leave you with a vibrantly flavorful powdered seasoning that'll last way longer than the fresh stuff.

But you don't have to harness the microwave's dehydrating powers to make a great seasoning—we also use it to toast and simmer dried chilies in chicken stock for a bold, nuanced chili paste that'll put your store-bought chili powder to shame.

Toast Nuts and Pumpkin Seeds

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I've spent years toasting nuts in a stovetop skillet or a sheet pan in my oven. I've also spent years throwing out batches of charred nuts that I left unattended for just a minute too long. But that's just one reason toasting them in the microwave is so compelling—it's also faster, easier, and involves less clean-up. If you've tried this method before and remain unimpressed, don't walk away just yet. We've found that tossing the nuts in a little oil helps them brown and develop the same complex flavor you'd get from more conventional methods.

This technique will work for pretty much any nut, not to mention pumpkin seeds—just toss the raw nuts or seeds in a neutral oil like canola (or olive oil, if you want the added flavor), and microwave them in one-minute intervals, tossing them each time, until they're golden-brown.

Make Rice

Bowl of cooked white rice

Cooking rice in the microwave won't save you any time, but it is foolproof and easier to clean than a starch-crusted pot—plus it frees up stovetop space to make any accompaniments you desire. I won't go so far as to argue that microwaving rice is as good as owning a good rice cooker—it only really works well with white rice, and it makes just a couple of servings—but it's a close second when you want a modest amount of rice and need your burners for something else.

The method itself is simple: just rinse any type of white rice in warm running water, then transfer it to a bowl with the volume of liquid recommended on the package. We add an extra two tablespoons of water to compensate for evaporation, and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel (a tight-fitting lid will only cause water to boil over). Microwaved on high for 10 minutes, followed by 15 more minutes on medium, it yields a bowl of perfectly cooked, fluffy rice.

Cook Corn

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

If you're looking for an ideal indoor method for perfectly cooked corn on the cob, it doesn't get any easier than this. Just stick a whole, unshucked ear of corn in the microwave and cook it on high for three minutes.

What, you thought there was more?

...And Popcorn

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Yes, yes, we all know about microwave popcorn. But what about the kind that tastes better, costs way less than the pre-packaged stuff, and doesn't make the same mess as the stovetop variety? All you need to make perfect microwave popcorn is a jar of kernels, a brown paper lunch bag, and a dash of oil and salt to round things out.

The real upsell here, though, is that you have full control over what goes into that bag before it hits the microwave: Brown-bag popcorn is easily customized with whatever seasonings you fancy. Check out our favorite flavor variations to shake things up—think Thai coconut curry, bagna cauda, brown-butter maple, and beyond.

Fast, Easy Bacon

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

When I'm cooking bacon for a crowd, I usually load up a few sheet trays and cook it in the oven—it's hands-free, splatter-free, and super reliable. But cooking it in a microwave oven is even better: You get those same benefits, plus you don't have to preheat the oven, clean the sheet trays, or wait 20-odd minutes for the bacon to cook. Just lay your bacon slices between two pieces of paper towel on a microwave-safe plate and zap 'em on high for three minutes. If they're not quite done, continue cooking in one-minute intervals until they're crisp. Pro tip: Bacon served straight out of a microwave can be a little chewy. But if you let it rest for a couple of minutes before digging in, it'll crisp up beautifully.

Par-Cook Potatoes

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Sometimes the microwave is just a way station on your journey to the perfect dish. Take Kenji's ultimate recipe for potato hash, for instance. While most recipes call for parboiling cubed potatoes before frying them, we found that the process softens the potatoes so much that they start to fall apart. One solution is to add some vinegar to your cooking water; the other cuts the boiling water, the pot, and the wait out of the equation altogether. Just microwave the potatoes instead—a few minutes should do the trick. And, for the ultra-crispy hash brown fanatics out there, I'm happy to report that the microwave totally crushes it.

The same principle can cut the time separating you and the perfect baked potato by at least half an hour: Just poke a few holes in the potato, microwave it for 10 minutes, and transfer it to a 425°F oven or grill until it's fork-tender with a crisped skin. Jazz it up with some pimento cheese, vegan cheese and broccoli, or garlic and Parmesan.

Make Tender Green Vegetables

[Photograph: Fiona Reilly]

Stovetop steaming isn't rocket science, but it still requires more prep and time than this microwave alternative. Any green vegetable that you'd be tempted to steam or blanch—think broccoli, green beans, bok choy, asparagus, and the like—can go straight into the microwave instead. You can get precise prep instructions from our article on how to steam vegetables in the microwave, but the general rule of thumb remains roughly the same: Just place your veggies on a plate, cover them with a triple layer of damp paper towels, and microwave on high for one or two minutes, until the vegetables are fork-tender.

The microwave is also ideal for par-cooking porous vegetables like eggplant or zucchini—it's one of our favorite time-saving tricks for this all-American eggplant Parmesan. Start by layering the slices in paper towels on a microwave-safe plate and top them with a second plate to help press out extra moisture and air. After a couple of minutes in the microwave, the vegetables condense and flatten, losing the frustrating sponginess that makes them soak up every last drop of oil in the pan.

Foolproof Cakes

[Photograph: Ideas in Food]

You're skeptical. I understand; I was, too. Then I discovered that I could make a dense, fudgy homemade chocolate cake (or this mocha version) in under 10 minutes. Oh, and the whole only-using-one-bowl thing doesn't hurt, either. Then again, more experienced bakers who like a challenge shouldn't dismiss the microwave altogether—just take a gander at these lighter-than-air Rocky Road sponge cakes, jam-packed with marshmallows, dark and white chocolate, toasted walnuts, and bourbon.