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I am wondering if microwaving food is considered dry heat or moist heat.

It has a similarity to frying in oil as it doesn't heat it in water. And I know frying in oil is dry heat.

But if I put bread in the microwave it goes soggy, not brown (no Maillard reaction), so that suggests it's moist heat. I understand the reason it doesn't brown is because the food surface temperature is low, unless a "browning pan" is used in the microwave.

Are the terms dry heat vs. moist heat dependent on whether the surface temperature of the food is such that browning occurs? Or is it based on whether or not there is water/steam surrounding the food?

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Does your stove cook with moist heat or dry heat? What about your oven? Nonsensical questions, right? Same goes for your microwave: it's not the appliance that determines moist vs. dry, it's the ingredients. –  Marti Jan 14 at 19:10

2 Answers 2

It is not inherently either, but most often it performs similarly to moist heat.

Microwaves work by directly exciting polar molecules within the food, usually water or fats.

If the food contains significant quantities of water (like most fruits, vegetables, meats and so on) then microwaving usually acts very much akin to steaming, which is a moist heat method.

In some fringe cases, most particularly bacon, where there is a significant amount of fat that can be directly excited to temperatures higher than water can obtain without evaporating, you can essentially fry by microwave... and of course, frying is a dry heat method.

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apparently the definition of frying doesn't include cooking meat in its own fat(like, with no fat around it). From wikipedia "Frying is the cooking of food in oil or another fat...Chemically, oils and fats are the same, differing only in melting point, but the distinction is only made when needed... Frying techniques vary in the amount of fat required[the examples are suggestive that frying requires immersion in fat]" –  barlop Jan 14 at 23:22
    
@barlop Bah.... –  SAJ14SAJ Jan 14 at 23:23
    
And if you're heating food in a pan with no oil, and the thing you're heating, like chicken, has fat and water, then is it dry heat or moist heat? –  barlop Jan 14 at 23:31
    
@barlop I somehow have the feeling that you are giving the distinction dry vs. moist heat more importance than it deserves. It is a convenient shorthand for throwing a few common cooking techniques together, but not very precise. If you need precision in your expression, you should be using other terms, and probably not bundling techniques at all. But to answer your comment, it is not the content of the food that counts (so the fat and water inside the chicken don't matter). If you heat chicken on a hot teflon pan without oil, it is the pan which transfers heat to the chicken, so it is dry. –  rumtscho Jan 15 at 1:06

I would say that microwaving is neither.

Heating with conventional methods works through heat coming outside of the food. Conduction and radiation will heat solid foods immersed in a gas or a liquid. "Moist heat" means that the liquid is water, "dry heat" that you are using another fluid to transfer heat. The distinction is useful, because with water, you 1) can't get above 100 C (even in a steamer, the steam just condenses on the food), 2) you can hydrate starches and gums, and 3) taste-carrying components are "leached" into the water by dissolving. You don't get these with air or oil.

But a microwave does not use a fluid to transfer heat. It uses pure radiation, but not in the non-penetrating infrared range the way a fire does, but in the microwave range. So it technically does not function neither like moist nor like dry heat. And in practice, the implications of neither dry nor moist heat cooking are present when you have cooked something in a microwave.

It is like trying to decide if meat is fruit or vegetable. It is neither, and microwave cooking is neither dry nor moist. If you have a source which claims that "dry" vs "moist" is an exhaustive categorization of cooking methods, it is probably older than microwave ovens, or too elitist to consider them worthy of kitchen use.

Added your very useful comments to your answer
"I somehow have the feeling that you are giving the distinction dry vs. moist heat more importance than it deserves. It is a convenient shorthand for throwing a few common cooking techniques together, but not very precise. If you need precision in your expression, you should be using other terms, and probably not bundling techniques at all. But to answer your comment, it is not the content of the food that counts (so the fat and water inside the chicken don't matter). If you heat chicken on a hot teflon pan without oil, it is the pan which transfers heat to the chicken, so it is dry."

and

"The air in a broiling appliance is still relevant. But I said that in dry heat, you get heat from outside from both convection and infrared radiation, and in a broiling oven, you just have a higher infrared-to-convection ratio of heat sources. It is still dry heat just like any other oven. And still different from a microwave, where the radiation penetrates deep into the food before starting to warm it."

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You write ""dry heat" that you are using another fluid to transfer heat. " So I suppose cooking something in an oven with no water, is dry heat because the fluid is air? But what if one is cooking food in a broiling appliance the air is not that relevant, it could even in theory have no air at all, then there's no fluid. But it'd still be dry wouldn't it? –  barlop Jan 14 at 23:30
    
The air in a broiling appliance is still relevant. But I said that in dry heat, you get heat from outside from both convection and infrared radiation, and in a broiling oven, you just have a higher infrared-to-convection ratio of heat sources. It is still dry heat just like any other oven. And still different from a microwave, where the radiation penetrates deep into the food before starting to warm it. –  rumtscho Jan 15 at 1:01

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