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Back to basics: Microwave cooking

We all have them in the kitchen – here’s how to make the most of this useful appliance.

Microwave ovens are a valuable piece of kitchen equipment in our busy lives as they are fast and efficient to use. Often used simply for reheating and defrosting foods, the microwave has huge potential for creating whole healthy meals in minutes.

Microwaves are invisible waves that cause water, fat and sugar molecules to vibrate very fast, producing heat by friction. Contrary to popular belief, the heat spreads through the food from the outside to the centre. It penetrates food in a microwave oven from all sides to a depth of up to 4cm. This is why stirring during cooking and allowing a standing time at the end of cooking is important; it allows heat to spread evenly through the food.

  • Microwaves are only transmitted when the door is shut and the oven is turned on.
  • Microwave oven watt output for domestic use varies, ranging from 650 to 1200 watts. It’s important to know the wattage of your oven. As a general rule, the higher the wattage, the quicker the cooking time.

All cooking times stated in these recipes and ideas are based on an 850 watt output microwave. Use these guidelines to adjust cooking times to your microwave:

650 watt – add 20 seconds per minute
700 watt – add 15 seconds per minute
750 watt – add 10 seconds per minute
800 watt – add 5 seconds per minute

Power levels given may vary with different ovens. As a guide:

High – 100%
Medium – 50-60%
Defrost/low – 30%
Very low – 10%

Microwaves are especially useful for cooking fresh vegetables and fish because there is no need to add extra fat or large amounts of water. So all the nutrients, textures and colours are retained during cooking.

Step 1 Lightly beat 4 eggs with 6 tablespoons milk in a pyrex or microwave-proof bowl.

Step 2 Cook on high power for 1 minute, remove from  microwave and beat again. A few small pieces of scrambled egg will start to form.

Step 3 Return to microwave and cook on high for a further 30 seconds and beat again. Cook for another 20-30 seconds or until eggs look scrambled but are still quite wet looking. At this point, add any ingredients you wish and season. Cook for another 30 seconds. Serve.

NB: Remember to remove the fork when returning the bowl to the microwave each time!

  • To make citrus fruit easier to squeeze and get maximum juice, place the lemon, orange or lime in the microwave. Heat on high for 20-30 seconds. Cut in half and squeeze.
  • To slice through the skin of pumpkin more easily, place the pumpkin in the microwave on a paper towel. Heat on high for 1-1 1/2 minutes, depending on the size of the pumpkin. This will not cook the pumpkin but will  soften the skin, making cutting much easier.
  • To dissolve gelatine, sprinkle gelatine over the required quantity of liquid in a small microwave-proof bowl. Heat on high for 20-30 seconds.
  • Freshen crackers by placing them in a single layer on a piece of paper towel and microwave for 40-60 seconds at medium/high. Remove from the microwave and leave for a few minutes. The crackers will be soft when taken out of the oven but will become crisp on cooling.
  • Cooking vegetables– vegetables retain their flavour and colour when cooked in the microwave. Frozen vegetables will take 2-2 1/2 minutes cooked on high per 150g serving and need no added water.
  • Jacket potatoes are fantastic cooked in the microwave. For best results, prick the washed potatoes all over with a fork and place on a piece of kitchen paper. Cook 1 medium potato on high for 6 minutes. Once cooked, wrap in foil, shiny side facing inwards to reflect the heat back onto the potato. Stand for 2-3 minutes.
  • Ratatouille topping for baked potatoes– thinly slice some zucchini and dice red capsicum and onion. Place in a microwave-proof bowl and heat on high for 2 minutes. Add a can of chopped tomatoes flavoured with olive oil, basil and garlic and heat for a further 1 1/2 minutes, stirring halfway through. Heat for a final  30 seconds and serve over the baked potato.
  • Tasty mushrooms– simple savoury snack. Place 2 portabello mushrooms in a microwave-proof dish and heat on high for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of edam cheese and cook on high for a further 1 1/2 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and season with pepper. Serve.
  • Cooking fruit– fruit such as apple and rhubarb are cooked well in the microwave. No extra water needs to be added so they are full of fruity flavour. Cut into small pieces and place in a microwave-proof dish. Cover and cook on high for 3 minutes per 300g, stirring halfway through. Cooked apple can be mixed with some Greek yoghurt and soft brown sugar for an easy pudding. Add a squeeze of lemon to prevent the apple browning.
  • Make a dried fruit compote by placing a cup of apple juice and orange juice in a microwave-proof dish. Cook on high for a minute. Add 1 cup dried apricots, 1/2 cup dried apple slices and 1/4 cup raisins and cook on high for 2 minutes. Set aside for 1 hour for the fruit to plump.
  • Cooking fish– fish is so quick and easy to cook in the microwave. As a guide place 125g fish fillets in a single layer in a shallow microwave-proof dish. Cover loosely and microwave on high for 2 minutes until just cooked. Stand for 2 minutes.

Whatever you plan to use your microwave for, there are some basic rules to follow for efficient use:

  • Use glass or toughened plastic (marked suitable for the microwave). Pyrex bowls and jugs are ideal. Never use metal containers in the microwave or plates with a metal trim. Choose plastic containers that carry a microwave-proof label. Plastic containers like ice cream containers, yoghurt pots and margarine tubs are not suitable.
  • When sealing bags for use in the microwave, do not use metal ties.
  • Plain paper towels, greaseproof paper and paper plates can all be used in the microwave.
  • If you plan to cook straight from the freezer to the microwave, freeze the food in a container that can be put straight in the microwave (toughened plastic is ideal for this). To keep food moist while it is being cooked, cover it with a lid or piece of plastic wrap. Pierce the wrap or leave a gap at the side so that the steam can escape. Remember, steam can burn so take care and protect your hands. Dishes do become hot when cooked in the microwave so use oven gloves to remove items and to protect from the steam.
  • Arrangement of food in the microwave affects the cooking time. Awkward-shaped foods such as broccoli and asparagus should be placed with the thinner or more delicate areas facing the centre of the dish.
  • As a general rule, most foods can be cooked in the microwave in about 1/3 to 1/4 of the time it takes to cook them in a conventional oven (depending on the thickness of the food, whether it is frozen and the amount  involved). The more food you cook, the longer it takes, eg. 1 potato takes 6 minutes, 2 will take 9-10 minutes. If a microwave recipe specifies standing time, always allow for this as the food continues to cook during this period. Once food is cooked, cover with foil, shiny side facing inwards.

Cooked foods reheat extremely well, retaining their flavour, colour and texture.

  • The most efficient way to reheat food is to place it in the dish it is to be served from, covered. A layer of steam builds up under the cover and this keeps the food moist and warms it up more quickly. Upturned plates can be used if you do not have plastic wrap or lids.
  • Larger quantities of food such as soups, casseroles and larger servings of vegetables should be stirred during cooking.
  • Always make sure food is thoroughly reheated. As a guide, plated food should be hot enough if the underside of the plate is too hot to touch.
  • Defrost frozen meat and poultry on a low microwave-proof rack to prevent food sitting in its juice. If there is time, leave meat to stand for 30 minutes before cooking.
  • Remove bought items from aluminium containers and plastic dishes and place on a plate before defrosting.
  • Defrost frozen fruits by heating on a low setting for 2 minutes per 200g. Leave to stand and defrost for a little longer if necessary.
  • Always defrost food thoroughly before cooking.
  • Clean the inside of your microwave regularly with a damp cloth.
  • To remove strong smells, place a few lemon slices in a bowl of water and microwave on high for a few minutes. Leave in the microwave for 5 minutes to freshen it up.

Try these delicious microwave recipes

  1. Scrambled eggs with salmon
  2. Smoked chicken tortillas
  3. Rhubarb berry mousse

Date modified: 24 January 2023
First published: Nov 2007


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