Almost every American household and workplace break room has one. It's the nemesis of a certain celebrity homemaker. There are entire aisles of food products designed specifically to be used with it. We're talking about the microwave, of course! Microwave cooking has not always gotten the respect it deserves.
This kitchen appliance is a must-have in summer, when people would rather be on the porch sipping lemonade than perched over a hot stove fixing dinner. Microwave cooking is particularly desirable in summer because:
- There's no preheating required -- just press the necessary buttons and go!
- It cooks your food quickly. By the time you've poured yourself a tall glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon, your meal can be ready.
- It cooks and warms up your food without heating up your entire kitchen.
You don't have to stand over or near the cooking food, getting all sweaty.
Microwave Cooking: How It Works
A microwave oven is rather mysterious, don't you think? You put your food in a small box with an even smaller window, you press a few buttons, and a couple of minutes later your food is hot.
Well, it's called a "microwave" because it uses high-frequency radio waves. These waves cause the food molecules to vibrate, which creates friction that heats your food quickly.
These radio waves pass easily through nonmetal containers, which help to cook the food from the top, bottom, and sides at the same time.
Nutrients & Microwave Cooking
If cooking time is lowest in the microwave (compared with boiling or steaming), doesn't that mean fewer nutrients will be lost or destroyed in nutrient-rich items such as veggies?
It isn't quite that simple. No matter what the cooking method, some heat-sensitive vitamins, like vitamin C, will be lost. And when you cook vegetables in water, some of the water-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals they contain can literally leak into the water. Drain the water, and you lose some of these nutrients down the drain as well.
But therein lies the microwave solution: Use very little water (a tablespoon, for example), and your nutrient losses are thought to be very little.
A recent Spanish study measured losses of the phytochemical family of flavonoids (a water-soluble nutrient) when microwaving broccoli. The researchers noted a huge loss of flavonoid antioxidants (about 97% were lost) during the cooking process. But the results aren't really useful to those of us who microwave with almost no added water: The researchers used 2/3 cup of water to microwave just 1 1/2 stalks of broccoli. When the broccoli was steamed instead, the researchers noted that only 11% of the flavonoids were lost. So the moral of that study is to use as little water as possible when microwaving vegetables.
Here are two other tips to reduce nutrient loss:
- Rinse your vegetables right in the microwave container, tipping it over with the cover (many microwave veggie cookers have lids with drain holes) to allow water to drain out. Whatever water droplets remain should be plenty to cook your vegetables.
- There's no need to rinse or add any water when using frozen vegetables. They have enough frozen moisture in them already. Just pop them straight into your microwave-safe container.
Microwave Cooking Safety Tips
To make sure you're using your microwave safely:
- Stand at least 2 feet away and to the side of your microwave when it's in use. Microwave levels are highest directly in front of the oven.
- Biter, beware. Because microwaves heat from the inside out, food can be warm to the touch on the surface and scalding in the middle. Because microwaves heat liquids and sugars fast, be especially careful with foods that have sweet filling or liquid centers, like pastries.
- When microwaving liquids, use a low power and/or shorter cooking times because they heat quickly in the microwave.
- Be careful from steam trying to escape when you open microwave containers like popcorn bags or covered soup mugs. Don't open the container near your face.
- Look for a microwave with a turntable that automatically rotates your food as it cooks.
- Don't forget to poke holes in foods like potatoes and hot dogs before you pop them into the microwave.
- Old margarine containers and Styrofoam take-out containers are not made for microwave use, so don't use them in a microwave.
- Glass cookware (like Pyrex) and lead-free ceramic ware (like Corning Ware) are good mediums for cooking food in the microwave.
- Microwave-safe plastic cookware can be used, too. The trick is that you need to throw it out when it starts looking like it is aging.
Plastic Wrap & Microwave Cooking: The Concerns
What about cooking foods in or under plastic wrap - is it safe?
"There's no question that chemicals in plastic can migrate from the wrap into the food it comes in contact with," editors with the Environmental Nutrition newsletter wrote in a recent article. "More debatable is what effect these chemicals have on your health."
It seems that one particular resin that helps make the wrap stretchy and clingy -- polyvinyl chloride (PVC) -- contains the plasticizers (DEHA diethylhexyladipate) that may be linked to hormonal abnormalities in animals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, maintains that the amount of plasticizer that may migrate into food is safe.
An article in the FDA Consumer magazine asserts that DEHA exposure may occur when eating certain foods that have been wrapped in plastics -- especially fatty foods such as meat and cheese -- but that the exposure levels are very low.
"The levels of the plasticizer that might be consumed as a result of plastic film use are well below the levels showing no toxic effect in animal studies," the article says.
In its April 2004 issue, Environmental Nutrition named two wraps that do not contain the plasticizers: Glad Cling Wrap and Saran Cling Plus Clear.
But no matter what plastic wrap you buy, it makes sense to avoid using it in the microwave because other options are easily available. Cover your food with a sheet of wax paper or microwave-safe paper towels, or use a hard plastic cover made especially for the microwave (these sell for a few dollars at kitchen stores).
3 Microwave Cooking Recipes
Here's a side dish perfect for summer, an easy vegetarian entrÃ©e, and a dynamite dessert.
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal as 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat + 1/2 cup starchy foods and legumes without added fat.
2 cups corn (frozen or cut off the cob)
2 cups shelled edamame (green soybeans, available frozen)
1 large, ripe tomato, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon whipped butter or less-fat margarine (optional)
- Add corn and edamame to microwave-safe dish and toss to blend. Microwave on HIGH for 3-4 minutes or until vegetables are nice and hot.
- Stir in the chopped tomato, salt and pepper, and whipped butter or margarine if desired.
Yield: 6 servings
Barley Eggplant Bake
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal as 1 1/2 cups "hearty stew, chili, bean soup" OR 1 portion "light frozen pasta or rice dish with meat or fish or vegetarian with light sauce" + 1 ounce low-fat cheese.
The trick here is cooking the barley ahead of time so that all you have to do is assemble the dish and pop in the microwave.
3 cups cooked pearl barley (cook in chicken broth for color and flavor)
3/4 sweet or yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 small eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (flavored olive oil works well)
1 1/2 teaspoon Garlic & Herb Mrs. Dash (salt-free herb seasoning blend)
Black pepper (to taste)
3 ounces reduced-fat cheddar cheese (about 3/4 cup shredded or 4 thin slices)
- Spoon cooked barley evenly into the bottom of a microwave-safe, 9-inch, deep-dish pie plate (or similar casserole dish). Spread half of the onion slices evenly over the barley. Layer the eggplant slices to cover the barley completely.
- Drizzle eggplant and rice mixture with the olive oil, then sprinkle the Garlic & Herb blend over the top. Spread the remaining onion slices over the top of the eggplant. Cover with a microwave-safe cover and cook on HIGH about 12 minutes (the eggplant should be soft and cooked throughout).
- Layer the sliced or shredded cheese over the top and cook on HIGH, covered or uncovered, for exactly 1 minute longer (just until cheese is nicely melted).
Yield: 3 servings
Fruit and Cream Crisp
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members: Journal as 1 portion medium dessert + 1 portion fresh fruit.
2 tablespoons light cream cheese
1 teaspoon sugar or Splenda
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup sliced or diced fresh fruit (like peaches, berries, or cherry halves)
A pinch or two of ground cinnamon
1/3 cup low-fat granola
1/8 cup light vanilla ice cream or nonfat frozen yogurt (optional)
- Add cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla to a medium/large microwave-safe dessert cup (like a Pyrex custard cup) and stir with a fork to blend. Spread cream cheese mixture evenly on bottom of the cup, then top with the fruit of choice.
- Sprinkle some cinnamon over the top of your fruit, then cover with granola. Cover with a microwave-safe cover and microwave on HIGH until fruit and cream cheese are lightly bubbling (1 1/2 to 2 minutes). Serve as is or slightly cooled, or top the warm dessert with a cookie scoop of light vanilla ice cream or nonfat frozen yogurt.
Yield: 1 serving
Per serving (with sugar): 290 calories, 7 g protein, 49 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 186 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25 g.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; Â© 2006 Elaine Magee