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Microwave You Use It Every Day But Can You Make It Cook?

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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Published: April 2, 2008
FOR years, I hadn’t used my microwave for much besides reheating leftovers and softening ice cream. I make popcorn the real way, I steam my vegetables on the stovetop, and everyone knows a potato doesn’t really bake in a microwave.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times
READY THE SPOON Chocolate pudding made in a microwave oven can be served warm or cold.
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"Even though it may rearrange my DNA and make me go blind, my microwave will be forever the workhorse of my kitchen."
Kitty, Florida
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But after all, the thing is sitting there, built into my wall. You have one, too, unless it broke and you haven’t replaced it (understandable but unusual). Shouldn’t you be using it for more than reheating coffee?
I thought so, and so I decided to revisit the microwave. The push came as I was hurriedly putting together appetizers for a dinner party. I’d decided to make a combination frittata and Spanish-style tortilla (impure, I know, but they’re close enough), and it occurred to me to nuke my medium-size waxy potatoes instead of parboiling them. A few minutes in the microwave, a few minutes’ resting, peeling, then quickly browning in olive oil; I went on from there. (You can see the results, read the recipe, and check out scores of readers’ comments about microwaves on my blog.)
This success inspired me to give the thing another shot. I called Barbara Kafka, who wrote the bible “Microwave Gourmet” (William Morrow, 1987), and has devoted a portion of her life to refining her technique ever since. What did she use her microwave for most, after a quarter century of experience and experiment?
“Vegetables,” she said, without hesitation. “Their color is better, their flavor is better, you have no water dripping, and there are studies that show they retain more vitamins.”
I don’t know about the vitamins (although Harold McGee makes the same point in his article today on the science of microwaving), but in other respects, she’s right.
For any vegetable you would parboil or steam, the microwave works as well or better, and is faster. Put the vegetable in a bowl with a tiny bit of water (or sometimes none), cover and zap. Asparagus: two minutes; artichokes (a revelation): six; cauliflower (try my cauliflower with tomatoes and pimentón): five; potatoes or beets: four; spinach: one or two; eggplant: we’ll get to that. Timing, though, is tricky, especially if you strictly follow an older recipe.
“I did my original work on a 700-watt oven, which is very low power by today’s standards,” Ms. Kafka said. If you have an old oven, you can use the old times. But your current oven is probably 1,100 watts or more, which is more than 50 percent more powerful; check the label to see the wattage. So, Ms. Kafka said: “Go slowly — you can always add, but you can’t take away.”
It’s the starting and stopping, the opening and closing, that can make microwaving annoying. But Ms. Kafka is right: if you err on the side of undercooking, you can’t go far wrong. So if you’re using an older recipe, start by cutting either the time or the power in half. Take notes; they will help you the next time you make a recipe from the same source.
One of the real beauties of the oven is that when the timer goes off, the thing stops heating. You can set your asparagus for two minutes and go for a walk; when you come back it’ll be “parboiled.” Try that on top of the stove!
I was starting to think the microwave needed a new name that would reflect the thing it does best. Something like “the whiz-bang steaming oven.” Reinvigorated and inspired, I reviewed the reader suggestions I’d asked for on Bitten.
Most, not surprisingly, were for vegetables. Some went farther afield, and these I pursued with mixed and mostly unconvincing results. Toasting nuts and spices: yes, but not easier than stovetop. Poaching or scrambling eggs: fast, but unreliable beyond belief. (I have never had a harder scrambled egg.) Melting butter or chocolate: yes, but if your timing is off, you’ll make a mess and possibly burn the chocolate. “Baked” apple: a nice snack.
The microwave does a fine job on rice, saving you a pot because you can do it in your serving dish, as long as you can figure out how to set your oven so that the water doesn’t boil over, meaning you have to wash the carousel. (One-and-a-half times as much water as rice, salt, plastic wrap with a vent slit cut in it, about 12 minutes at full power.) But risotto, no, at least not for me; all the stirring makes it more trouble than it’s worth. It’s the same for chicken stock, which I’d rather make by the gallon than by the quart, thank you.
My conclusion to that point was, if you can steam it, you can microwave it. But only with vegetables was the improvement clear.

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