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Microwave Cooking

The Ultimate Guide

This is a complete guide to microwave cooking. If you’re looking for how to pick the best model for your kitchen, quick and easy microwave meals, or how to use your microwave to make delicious desserts, then this is for you. Let’s get started.

How Microwaves Work

What is a microwave? 

A microwave (short for microwave oven, yes they’re the same thing) is a small oven that heats and cooks food using microwave radiation. The microwaves cause molecules in your food to vibrate at a high frequency, creating heat, allowing the food to be cooked without heating up the air surrounding it. This speeds up cooking time, meaning you can satisfy that mug-cake craving a whole lot faster than with a conventional oven.

How do microwave ovens cook food?

It all comes down to a device called a magnetron”.
This generates microwaves and disperses them through the waveguide into the oven cavity, where they bounce around until they come into contact with your food. As they pass through the food, the microwaves are absorbed by water, fats, sugars, and certain other molecules, vibrating quickly and generating heat.

Fun Fact

Microwave ovens heat up liquids more efficiently than solids, causing them to cook faster — that’s why the inside of your pizza pocket is a molten lava trap.
A diagram displaying the functioning components of a microwaves, including waveguide, magnetron, fan, power supply and turnable, to show how microwave ovens work.

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Types of Microwaves

Microwaves differ in what they’re capable of, where they’re going to be installed, and power capacity.

This can seem like a daunting choice if you’re setting up a new kitchen or replacing an old model — after all, a microwave isn’t something you’ll be replacing very often, so you want something that’s going to be perfect for your needs for a long time.

Types of Microwaves by Capabilities

  • Microwave Only (also called a “Solo Microwave”):
    A basic microwave that heats and defrosts, ideal for basic microwave cooking and reheating leftovers.
  • Grill Microwave:
    Combines normal microwave cooking with a grilling element; this can be used to grill meat and vegetables as well as the standard reheating.  
  • Combination/Combi Microwave:
    Also called a convection oven, this has the combined functionality of cooking with microwaves as well as cooking with radiant heat to allow you to roast, crisp and brown like a conventional oven.

Types of Microwave by Kitchen Location

A panasonic microwave oven on a counrertop, used for microwave cooking.

Countertop Microwave Oven
The old faithful — also called a portable microwave, this is the smallest and most popular type of microwave. However, it does take up valuable counter space.

An above-range microwave oven in a kitchen, used for microwave cooking.

Above-Range Microwave Ovens
The second-most popular microwave oven, these are designed to be installed above the stove. Learn more about their features and benefits here.

A built-in Panasonic microwave oven, used for microwave cooking.

Built-in Microwave Oven
A built-in microwave oven can give a stylish, seamless look to your kitchen as it’s designed to be built into the wall of your kitchen.

Microwave Oven Drawers
Relatively newer to the market and more expensive than other types of microwaves, microwave oven drawers also contribute to an aesthetic kitchen and save on counter space. Learn about the best microwave oven drawers here.

Microwave Types by Power Capacity

The main thing you need to know is the higher the power, the quicker it will cook food, but that also generally means a much bigger microwave. 

Buying a New Microwave

Microwaves typically have a lifespan of about 10 years — so if you’re buying a new microwave, you want to make sure you’re making the right choice for you.

Whether you’re replacing an old microwave or building your dream kitchen, consider these factors to make an informed choice:

  • Countertop microwaves are just plug-in-and-go, making them convenient if you’re renting and most likely to just be reheating leftovers and making popcorn. 
  • Built in and over-the-range microwaves require professional installation and cost more, but they have the benefit of more robust features. Not only do they save counter space, but they also function as an extractor fan for the stove.
  • If you’re cooking for a family, invest in a microwave with sensors and features to help you save time cooking. Microwaves like the Panasonic Countertop Microwave FlashXpress Broiler can handle whole meals, like pasta bakes and nachos, from scratch and use built-in broilers to still achieve a crispy topping. 

Cooking with Your Microwave

The microwave is the unsung hero of the kitchen when it comes to fast cooking — and not just reheating leftovers. Depending on your microwave’s features, you can use it for cooking a whole range of full meals from scratch.

Microwave Cooking Tips

1. No Metal. Mostly.

Shape matters. Some microwaveable meals will have metal sleeves that are designed to heat the food more evenly, but they behave very differently to a fork in the microwave. Don’t mess with metal in the microwave.

2. Keep it Covered

Use cling film or a reusable silicone lid to keep the inside of your microwave splatter-free, ensure even heat-distribution and keep food moist. However, avoid airtight containers (unless you like microwave explosions.)

3. Leave to Stand

Don’t ignore this step! The final step of the cooking process with some microwave meals takes place after cooking, this final step will allow food to reach an even temperature

4. Know Your Wattage

Microwaves can vary from 600 to 1650 watts, which will impact your cooking time. If you don’t know your microwave’s wattage, use this test to find out.

5. Microwave Safe

Not all containers are suitable for microwave cooking — microwave-safe plastics won’t break down, overheat or cause burns when it’s handled. Check for a “Microwave-Safe” label.

6. Stir it Up

Ensure an even temperature throughout by stirring from the outside-in partway through cooking. Follow your recipes guidelines for the right timing when removing your food midway to stir.

Microwave Cooking — Desserts

Watching The Great British Baking Show (aka The Great British Bake Off, aka GBBO, aka the most soothing show on television) and struck with the immediate need for cake? From microwave mug cake to microwave fudge, there’s a huge variety available for when you need something sweet pretty much immediately.

Microwave Cooking — Vegetables

If you’re looking for a healthy way to cook vegetables, the microwave’s rapid cooking ability is your friend. 

“Microwaving is a safe cooking method that preserves most nutrients due to short cooking times.

As you’re cooking for a shorter period of time, and in less liquid, vegetables retain their color, crunch and vitamin levels more so than with other cooking methods such as boiling or poaching. It’s also a quick and easy way to add more vegetables to your meals, providing low-calorie and nutrient-dense additions with very little effort.

Microwave Cooking — Quick Meals

Store-bought microwave meals are convenient, but packed with preservatives — salt, sugar and chemicals that increase the shelf-life and flavor, but don’t do a whole lot of good for your body. Master a few of these quick microwave meals so you can make dinner fast, with simple whole ingredients.

What Not to Cook in Your Microwave

The microwave is an extremely useful and safe way to cook, but there are certain things that are better left to other cooking methods.

eggs by Vectors Point from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate that eggs in shells aren't suitable for microwave cooking.

Eggs in Shells

Because they’ll explode, and it’ll be messy. And Gross. 
Plastic foil by Ronald Vermeijs from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate that aluminum foil is not suitable for microwave cooking.

Aluminium Foil

Metal in the microwave is never a good idea, avoid a fire by never putting foil in the microwave.
paper bag by JiKimz from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate an item not suitable for microwave cooking.

Paper Bags

Make DIY popcorn bags with care — the microwave’s heat can also cause these to catch fire.
Bottle by Sarah from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate an item that's not suitable for microwave cooking.

Baby Formula

Even if the bottle is cool to touch, uneven heating can cause it to be scalding hot in some spots within.
Chili by Luiz Carvalho from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate an item that's not suitable for microwave cooking.

Hot Chilis

Unless you like the sound of spicy vaporised capsaicin blasting you in the face when you open the door.
Yogurt by Joe Harrison from the Noun Project, used to demonstrate an item that's not suitable for microwave cooking.

Single-Use Plastics

Yogurt pots and butter containers aren’t built for the microwave’s high heat and may melt. 

Are Microwaves Bad for You?

You may have heard that microwaves cause cancer, or can reduce the nutritional content of food, or even cause cataracts. Some of this confusion comes from the name “Microwaves” — as we know, this refers to the appliance “Microwave Oven”, whereas the noun “microwave” also refers to the electromagnetic waves the appliance itself creates.

A graph showing the range of microwave rays from non-ionizing to ionizing.

Also, while it’s true that microwaves produce radiation, it’s very different to the type of radiation associated with atomic bombs and nuclear disasters. Microwave radiations are non-ionizing, and so don’t cause cancer.

Microwave energy can, in theory, be absorbed by the body but microwave ovens are designed to prevent any leakage. Even if you were exposed to radiation from your microwave, the dangers would be getting burnt — not cancer. 

Microwaves are a safe, effective, and highly convenient cooking method. There is no evidence that they cause harm — and some evidence that they are even better than other cooking methods at preserving nutrients and preventing the formation of harmful compounds.

And as for killing nutrients? Well, yes, they do — because all cooking methods do. The six major nutrients are Carbohydrates (CHO), Lipids (fats), Proteins, Vitamins, Minerals, Water. Some nutrients become more easily digestible after cooking (such as proteins) and some are lost through heat (such as Vitamin C.)

In fact, because of the microwave’s short cooking time it preserves more vitamin C than most cooking methods.

For a deep-dive in debunking the myths around the dangers of cooking with a microwave, read this post by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, PhD.

Cleaning Microwave Ovens

For day-to-day maintenance and minor cleaning, use a lemon cut in half to clean your microwave quickly and naturally.

Make the Most of Your Microwave

In summary, your microwave can be a useful tool for cooking quick, healthy meals at home. Add extra veggies to your meals quickly and easily. Save time by reheating healthy lunches (if you’re looking for other ways to save time cooking, read 8 Ways to Save Time Cooking and Eat Healthier.) As long as you’re avoiding processed, packaged foods, you’re on the right track. For more quick and easy microwave recipes, download the free Drop Recipes app.

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Oh hai. I'm one of the marketeers at Drop HQ. I'm a vegetarian Dubliner, and am currently seeking advice on keeping plants alive at my desk. Please send all plant advice and inquiries to