Ask LH: How Can I Microwave Food Without Ruining It?

Ask LH: How Can I Microwave Food Without Ruining It?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m stuck microwaving my lunch at the office, and it always comes out soggy, unevenly heated or undercooked. I would like to eat a lunch that somewhat resembles the food it once intended to be. Is there any way I can use the microwave without turning my meal into something unappealing? Sincerely, Microwaving Goodbye to Lunch

Photo by Sascha Burkard (Shutterstock), Leigh Prather (Shutterstock), John Morgan, Kai Chan Vong and Lori Ann.

Dear MGtL,

Just in case you’re avoiding a standard oven that happens to be available where you work, I have to recommend you give it a shot. Ovens do take a bit longer to cook but you get better quality food — and you can keep working while you wait. If you really are stuck with just a microwave, however, you might want to consider buying a toaster oven for the office. That may sound extreme, but they are not as expensive as they sound. Perhaps you can get others to pitch in or even talk to HR about ordering one since they are so inexpensive and offer better results. In the event that microwaving is your only option, however, let’s discuss what you can do to improve the quality of your lunch when it exits the mildly competent reheating contraption.

Find Your Microwave’s Hot Spots


A microwave doesn’t heat evenly, but you can improve its accuracy by finding its hot spots. All you have to do is nuke a plate of marshmallows. Wired explains how this works:

Cook a tray of marshmallows in your oven. In the hot spots, “the marshmallows puff up and melt, and in the cold spots the marshmallows don’t change much,” says Lou Bloomfield, professor of physics at the University of Virginia. If there are too many hot spots, your best strategy is to keep your food moving, which is why most microwaves have turntables (one study showed these can increase the temperature uniformity by 40 per cent).

You may find that some of your microwave’s hotter spots shy away from the centre. If this is the case, and you have a reasonably small meal, just shift it to the outer edges of the microwave (or turntable, if applicable) for more even cooking.

Make Food Crispier With Baking Paper


Place baking paper underneath your lunch, or wrap your food in it, and it will help keep it crispy. We’re not entirely sure why this works, but we tried it with pizza with good results. (It works great for toaster sandwiches too.) Ultimately, you’re not going to get super-crispy food with this trick like you might with a standard oven, but it offers a marked improvement. [clear]

Turn Your Microwave Into A Pseudo-Steamer


When steaming your food actually produces a better outcome, the microwave isn’t such a bad option. Whether you’re reheating rice, vegetables or anything else that can withstand moisture, you simply need a paper towel or an extra dish.

When you’re reheating, place a damp paper towel tightly over the top of your dish. You can ensure it stays put by placing the ends underneath the dish itself. Doing so helps lock in the heat and creates a bit of steam in the microwave.

Alternatively, just place an extra dish on top of your food. Two bowls do the trick rather well and, like the paper towel, prevent a mess. You can also steam and prevent mess using a shower cap, but be wary of using plastic for this purpose.

Handle A Filled Food Item Properly


When lunch means a Hot Pocket or something with a gooey centre, you can help your microwave cook the food more evenly. Simply heat the item for half the designated amount of time, take it out of the microwave and shake it up. This will move the heated parts around so that the centre will melt more easily. After a fervent jiggling, stick your food back in the microwave for the remaining time.

Make A Fresh Lunch In The Microwave


If you don’t want to reheat, just heat. Cooking your food for the first time in the microwave provides a fresher product that doesn’t suffer from many downsides of the nuking process. Steaming vegetables, for instance, works as well as an actual steamer and takes less time. A bowl with a tiny bit of water, veggies inside and a few minutes yields surprisingly fresh cooking. You can also make macaroni and cheese, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, a baked potato and rice. If you make a mess, just steam clean it all with a little vinegar. While your options may be a little limited in the microwave, cooking a fresh meal now and again provides a nice alternative to the less-than-desirable results you’ll often get when reheating.


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  • I would venture a guess that the hot food heats the air trapped in the baking paper while allowing steam to escape, keeping the outside crisper. Just a guess though.

    • Forget the shower cap, that’s a ridiculous idea. Just use a container with a lid like a microwave-safe tupperware container or a chinese food container. Put a little water in it and lift one of the corners (some tupperware containers have a special hole in the lid you can open) and zap it for a few minutes. Works really well.

      • In addition, a higher priced microwave does a better and smoother job, as a recent home mover and a new microwave owner, my new one works much better that the cheapo one.

  • My best advice is; Do not use the microwave at 100% power level, unless your intention is to boil or nuke the crap out of your food. Always adjust the power level to 70% or lower. You’ll need to cook for a minute or two longer but the results will be edible. You’ll also be able to start eating straight away; No need to wait for the food to cool down, nor will it burn the roof of your mouth. You’ll be amazed at the great results, simply by cooking at a lower power level, for a bit longer.

    • Agree, this is because the microwaves do not penetrate the food very well. Therefore time is needed for the heat to diffuse through the food and turning down the power stops outside from being over done in the meantime.

  • Pizza can be reheated without the base becoming soggy and unappealing by simply placing a mug of water in the microwave alongside the pizza. It doesn’t turn out quite as crispy as it was originally, but it’s a big improvement.

    Surprised this wasn’t already mentioned – it’s one of the oldest tricks in the microwaving book.

  • Best advice I can give is to just cook for a longer time on a lower heat, maybe stirring a couple of times (depending what you’re cooking. That will help cook it more evenly.

  • You could also consider getting a digital thermometer to check your food is actually hot in the middle. Since I got one I use it when cooking all the time as it takes out all the guess work of whether something is cooked or not. Thermapens are best because it reads in 3 seconds but cheaper ones will do for testing a microwaved meal.

  • Ask LH: How Can I Microwave Food Without Ruining It?

    A: For reheating left-overs etc…… gently gently is the key instead of say 2 mins on HIGH. Go for 10 minutes at 20-30% power.

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