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We've got a lot of questions about specific microwave cooking here - for example, "can I cook hamburgers in the microwave oven?" But rather than asking about specific foods, I would like to see some more general guidelines or widely applicable advice.

If I want to prepare a recipe or just cook a single item, how can I predict how it will turn out if I nuke it in the microwave instead of doing what the original recipe calls for (steaming, grilling, etc.)? Do some cooking methods work better than others in a microwave? And if some ingredients cook better than others in a microwave, why is that the case?

I'm looking for answers that don't rely on complicated techniques or specialized equipment. Making a cake using compressed gas, for instance, might be interesting or cool to watch, but is really not what I'm after in this question. I'm talking about being able to just pop something in, maybe adjust the power level, and go.

Assumptions:

  • A normal microwave - no convection or other exotic features.
  • Home use, not professional cooking - "good enough" rather than "the best possible tool for the job." For example, some food might be best if reheated in an oven, but still just fine in the microwave.
  • Basic tasks, not replacing a kitchen - generally, "I want to cook X, and I have a stove, an oven, and a microwave. Could I just as easily do it in the microwave as anything else?"
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The possibilities are endless! jetcitygastrophysics.com/2013/02/01/… –  Brendan Feb 21 '13 at 22:55
    
@Brendan Setting aside the pouring hot oil over it at the end (not exactly a microwave-only task), that appears to fall generally under the category of "steaming (covered)", which is the kind of generalized answer I'm looking for here! –  Jefromi Feb 21 '13 at 23:12
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Since this is accumulating close votes... if you want to close this, please consider editing to improve. This is a really common thing for people to want to know, and the list of basic cooking techniques is really not that broad. All of us with decent kitchen experience have a good sense: "I'm doing X. Can I do that in the microwave?" This is specific, helpful knowledge to pass along, as Brandon's answer shows. –  Jefromi Feb 22 '13 at 3:12
    
The question would be more answerable in "what kind of cooking can't be done in microwave". There are a few specific processes that can't be done, all the rest is possible. –  SF. Feb 22 '13 at 9:25
    
Aside from the fact that I answered the question, I think it still fits as an answerable question for this site. It's not a mechanical question, it's about technique and possibility with a common household machine and knowing the basics of it can be helpful for a lot of folks who may be confined to a microwave as a primary means of cooking (i.e. dorms) –  Brendan Feb 22 '13 at 14:03
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2 Answers

Generally the categories go something like this:

  • steaming - covered for most things (for example fish) or uncovered for naturally cased products like potatoes

  • boiling - good old ramen noodles is a good example.

  • crisping/frying - for example, microwave fried herbs

  • dehydrating - for example, microwave jerky

You can even make a cake!

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It seems like the crisping/frying and cake are kind of special cases, requiring a very specific technique and only working on certain things. –  Jefromi Feb 22 '13 at 2:12
    
well i think you can apply that technique to a lot of things that you would want to fry that are also delicate but yes i agree the cake is pretty specific. –  Brendan Feb 22 '13 at 2:22
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Microwaves in general provide all-around, not too powerful heat. Very roughly, this means it's kinda like cooking on a low-powered stove, except the heat comes from all directions, not just below. (And depending on the microwave, it might heat a good bit less from below.) The things that work are therefore the things that work with relatively gentle, constant, extended heating. This translates approximately into the following traditional cooking methods:

  • Steaming. If there's not a whole lot of liquid, and there's some empty space for steam to move around in, this is what you'll get. For example, a covered bowl of vegetables (maybe with a little extra water), or even fish on a plate covered with plastic wrap, will come out about like if you steamed it.

  • Heating, simmering, boiling. If you've got a more substantial mass of food, you'll get something on the continuum between these three, depending on how much of it there is, what power you set your microwave to, and how long you cook it. This means you can do anything from melting butter (carefully) to cooking oatmeal to boiling noodles. (And along with that, you get the canonical use: reheating food.)

  • Dehydrating. This is a bit of a corner case, but if there's relatively little water in something to begin with, and it can escape easily, the heating will dry the food out substantially - this allows things like dehydrating herbs or even microwave jerky.

And the things you can't do? Anything that requires high heat, especially dry heat, anything where you'd expect the food to brown or get crispy. Roasting, broiling, pan-frying, and so on - the heat from the microwave just isn't going to accomplish it. And on top of this, anything where the cooking time really matters is a bad idea. Even if the microwave might eventually get it hot enough, it's going to take a bit to get there, so if you're looking to quickly cook something in an already hot pan then take it out, it's not going to work. Yes, there are complex ways to work around some of this (for example the herb-frying Brendan mentioned) but as far as what's straightforward to do, you'll want to avoid all these things; they're easier to do the normal way.

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this also depends on the type of microwave you have. A basic lunchroom microwave is going to perform like you state but some of the new microwaves have features like convection that can expand on it's capabilities. I understand that is specific but worth pointing out nonetheless. –  Brendan Feb 22 '13 at 17:33
    
@Brendan Fair; I edited the question to specify it's just a microwave. –  Jefromi Feb 22 '13 at 19:07
    
This answer might benefit from a layman-oriented explanation of what microwaves actually do. For example, things with low moisture aren't going to cook well because microwaves essentially work on the water... –  Aaronut Feb 23 '13 at 17:55
    
@Aaronut The thing is, I don't think it's quite that simple - I know we commonly say they're good at water, but I think they're reasonably effective with oil too, and apparently some of my dishes, so I'm hesitant to complicate things. –  Jefromi Feb 23 '13 at 22:26
    
Are you saying your microwave will heat up a dish by itself? That's unusual; dishes tend to get hot in the microwave simply because of contact with the food. –  Aaronut Feb 24 '13 at 7:22
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