Microwave Cooking for One and All: 8 Great Tips Every Home Cook Should Know

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

By the time I sent my boyfriend Josh a copy of Microwave Cooking for One, I wasn't sure whether I was mailing a gag gift or a Hail Mary. It was early fall and he was living out of a Marriott hotel in Lansing, Michigan. His room overlooked a vacant parking lot on one side and the interstate on the other; the boxy expanse of a mobile home park unfolded in the distance.

Josh was fresh out of college and two weeks into a monthlong stint working on political communications for a labor union during the final push of the 2008 presidential campaign. But in his spare time, he was spiraling into a deep depression that he attributed to, among other factors, his dwindling options for food. He slid from cruising for promising local restaurants, to daily excursions to Cracker Barrel and McDonald's, to a routine of microwavable Lean Cuisine "stir-fries," consumed over an impressive volume of beer and a near-nightly viewing of Fievel Goes West, which HBO seemed determined to play on endless repeat. The whole experience culminated in a case of persistent vertigo and tinnitus caused, his doctors later explained, by a diet excessively high in sodium.

It's a testament to what happens when you take a man weaned on excellent home-cooked meals and plop him into a world of fast-food chains, Walmarts, and a so-called kitchenette featuring little more than a handful of silverware, some plates, a mini-fridge, and a microwave. But while Josh sounded more offended than enthused when he called to tell me he'd received my gift, Microwave Cooking for One is what ultimately sutured him back together just long enough to get him home.

Or at least, that's what I told myself. I began to hope that the book would propel him out of the freezer aisle and back to handling fresh produce; he'd buy a cheap knife and cutting board and start doing more with his hands than peeling back plastic and popping beer tops. The dishes to which he'd become partial might not qualify as life-changing, but the act of cooking—even microwave cooking—would begin to make a real difference. If nothing else, I hoped the book would inspire him to get out of his dingy hotel room and into a brightly lit grocery store, where he'd find himself interacting with actual human beings instead of a cartoon mouse. And maybe, just maybe, it would encourage him to start experimenting with food again.

Instead, what happened was that Josh cooked from the book, and a few times at that. He even got genuinely excited when he realized he could make fish in the microwave (it's not nearly as smelly as you think, I swear). But was the book a life-altering force of change? Let's just say there's a reason why microwave cooking on its own isn't prescribed as a cure for depression, especially when the recipes come from a text that's commonly touted as the saddest cookbook ever: The truth is, it's just not that good.

But here's the thing. 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 that have hit shelves of late), 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 eight 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 that makes toasting them in the microwave 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.

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 five 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. Just place your veggies on a plate with a splash of water, cover it tightly in plastic wrap, and microwave on high for one or two minutes, until the vegetables are fork-tender. As the water turns to steam, it'll cause the plastic wrap to puff up, so you don't have to worry about it sticking to your food.

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 spongy quality 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.