microwave cooking

In one of my most recent labs, we tried using the microwave for a few of the major food groups (my midsection still winces at the memory of those microwaved muffins). Microwaves work by exciting the molecules in food directly with radio waves. This type of ‘radiation cooking’ is considered pretty harmless, but it’s probably not a good idea to stick your face up close to the door. The excited molecules transfer their energy to surrounding food particles and thus heat the food. The more you stir and let them sit, the more evenly most foods will heat. Here’s a summary of what worked in our lab and what didn’t:

Bechamel (basic white sauce): perfection. But honestly, how can something that has so much butter taste bad? This was quite simple and a viable alternative to the stovetop method but not really a timesaver. You have to stir and test the sauce so often that it feels like the microwave door is never closed. We made it with margarine and reconstituted nonfat dry milk (NFDM), which sounds gross but didn’t taste too bad.

Stale bread: not so great. Since we let the test subject cool off before tasting, it ended up even staler than before due to moisture loss.

Ground beef: shaped into a patty ~1/2 inch thick and set on a plate sprayed with PAM. Did you know the colour of a patty doesn’t necessarily indicate its doneness? This is why it’s so important to actually use a thermometer to check cooked meat (internal temperature should be 160 F). We ended up with a decently brown colour and a good internal temperature, but the meat tasted rubbery and gross (secondhand report, I wasn’t brave enough to try it). Why? Great question.

Carrots: cut into long, thin slices and placed in bowls with water. We covered one bowl and left the other open for 2 minutes at full power to observe the steaming effects. Rather to no one’s surprise, the covered carrot won the doneness taste test. It was sweeter, flatter, lighter, and softer than the uncovered carrot. Steaming added convection heating (hot air/liquid constantly rising to top of an enclosed space) to radiation heating (microwaves), allowing the covered carrot to cook more thoroughly and evenly.

Muffins: we made a basic muffin mix (NFDM, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, egg and oil) and poured it into 6 Pyrex cups sprayed with PAM. 3 went into the microwave, 3 into the oven. Microwaved subjects were (or would have been, if not for experimental error) larger than oven subjects and had this horrible gluey, tough texture where oven subjects were slightly crisp on the outside and firm on the inside. Why? I’d guess the swift heating did something to the starches-or didn’t do something which the slow heating accomplished, but again, great question. I’ll have to ask at the next test-tomorrow.

So if  you’re out of time and want to eat hot and healthy, microwave steam some veggies. Don’t go for the muffins, unless you’re sure of the recipe. This one looks tasty. I’ll try it sometime and let you know how it goes.


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