In the before times, while I certainly indulged in more than my fair share of now increasingly limited restaurant meals, I was also one of those people who took great pleasure in cooking delicious food for myself. But as much as anyone loves cooking, no one wants to prepare three meals a day from scratch for however long those of us able to socially distance are urged to self-isolate. Enter the microwave.
The small household appliance has been a part of my culinary world since birth, having grown up in a family that embraced meal prepping né leftovers, frozen meals, and microwave popcorn. In my work now as a recipe writer, the microwave typically softens butter for baking when I’m in a rush or melts chocolate without the need for a double boiler, saving me from my sporadic forgetfulness and making certain tasks a breeze. Many, it seems, ignore the machine’s full utility and only go so far as rewarming their coffee or softening an ingredient. But microwaves are capable of so much more.
While just about any chef would agree that traditional ovens and stoves are their preferred choice for reheating food, maximizing our limited grocery hauls by using the microwave is increasingly helpful under our current circumstances. “I use it mostly for heating up leftovers,” Oakland-based chef Preeti Mistry says. “Which seems appropriate in these times, when everyone is trying to waste as little as possible.” Particularly when people should be limiting trips to the grocery store and home delivery through services like Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Peapod is nearly impossible to get, it’s a matter of food security to make the most of what we already have in our fridges and pantries.
Take rice for example. Believe it or not, the microwave is one the best methods of cooking rice when it comes to taste, texture, and ease. James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Paola Velez likes to use it “to warm up day old rice if I’m being lazy.” And Momofuku chef-founder David Chang shared on Instagram how to freeze leftover rice and reheat it in the microwave.
Other beginner-level cooking you can do with your microwave includes preparing your morning — or anytime, really — bacon and “baking” any of those potatoes you have lying around. Chef Hugh Acheson also alerted the unknowing to the existence of microwave queso, which I highly recommend make an appearance in everyone’s quarantine diet at some point.
“Learn how to make microwave cake,” Velez urges people looking to reach Jedi-level microwave cookery. The Kith/Kin executive pastry chef also uses the appliance to melt chocolate and proof frozen brioche goods like pecan sticky buns. “If I’m in a hurry I put it in 30 seconds at a time on a microwaveable plate until it defrosts and then proofs a bit (almost double in size),” she says. “Don’t overdo it since it will collapse if you leave it in the microwave too long!”
“My parents make pappadums in the microwave. [It’s] healthier than deep frying and easier than roasting on a stovetop flame,” Mistry says. “I think it’s about 30 seconds a pappadum. They were very proud to show me this hack they had.”
And you can consider the microwave a fine tool for actually cooking fresh ingredients. For those wanting to consume something other than bacon, starch, and cheese, microwaves are also an excellent way to prepare vegetables while preserving nutritional value. “Using the microwave with a small amount of water essentially steams food from the inside out,” one Harvard report reads. “That keeps in more vitamins and minerals than almost any other cooking method and shows microwave food can indeed be healthy.”
Round out your meal by cooking some eggs or poaching chicken or fish. “This might sound gross, but the other day my oven was broken and I was planning on poaching white cod,” one of my friends, a photographer, shared. “I ended up putting butter, lemon juice, and paprika [in with the cod] and microwaved it for one minute. It was some of the best, most delicate poached fish I’ve ever made.”
In sum, microwaves are great. Maybe not for everything —”I totally disapprove of things that should be crispy going in the microwave,” Mistry says — but they can cover a lot of ground to make your cooking life easier.
“The microwave is a machine from the future here in present day,” Chang wrote in an Instagram caption. The time is nigh to embrace it.
Aaron Hutcherson is a writer, editor, and recipe developer based in New York City.