Microwave Dinners Are Making a Comeback, but Could They Possibly Be Good?

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There are certain office etiquette rules you won’t find in your employee handbook, and Steph Chen is asking you to break the biggest one: Don’t microwave fish. “It’s such a stigma,” she says, “Cooking raw fish in the microwave—as long as you don’t overcook it—results in a medium-rare perfect fillet.”

She’d recommend cooking all your seafood in the microwave, actually. Even lobster. “It retains the most juiciness and bounciness that way,” Chen swears. She ought to know—she’s been cooking in microwaves for years now as she developed Anyday, a line of cookware designed to yield better meals from the classic household appliance.

She’s made it her mission to help people get more out of the device (which, it turns out, 90 percent of Americans own), and she isn’t alone. Momofuku founder David Chang has been a longtime advocate of microwave cooking (even co-authoring a cookbook on the topic) and collaborated with Chen on the line, calling it “a machine from the future here in the present day.”

Renewed interest in the microwave seems to be spreading nationwide. Back in March 2021, The New Yorker devoted nearly 2,000 words to a feature on “How to Cook in Your Microwave,”and over the past 90 days, Google searches have been climbing for learning to zap far more than your typical Hot Pockets and popcorn. Popular queries include microwave apple crisp (up 350 percent), microwave acorn squash (also up 350 percent), “Can you make rice in the microwave?” (up 250 percent) and “How long to cook a sweet potato in the microwave?” (up 80 percent).

It seems the microwave’s on a bell curve: When they launched, they were all the rage. “Then, people thought, ‘ew, that’s terrible,’ because [cooking in a microwave] didn’t feel high class or delicious or healthy, but there’s been a recent resurgence of a desire to cook real food in it, and of people realizing they can get time back in their day by using it,” Chen explains.

Hold Up—Is Microwave Cooking Healthy?

table with shakshuka, water and cutting board with bread on it

That time-saving appeal also works in your favor nutritionally, since microwaves’ shorter cook time means vitamins and other nutrients aren’t exposed to heat for as long as, say, an oven, so they don’t break down as much, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Microwave ovens produce non-ionizing radiation, so they don’t have the same cell-damaging risks as machines that emit ionizing radiation, and they’re regulated by the FDA to ensure their safety.

But Can You Cook *Good* Meals With a Microwave?

Saving time—and making better use of an underutilized appliance—has it appeals, but we’ve all been victim to cold spot-ridden leftovers and dry, rubbery chicken. So how do you use it to cook genuinely craveable meals? It all comes down to a few keys.

1. Turn Your Microwave into a High-Speed Steamer

A microwave heats the moisture molecules within food, rather than the air around it (like an oven does), which is why it cooks food so quickly, Chen says. As a result, you’ve got to find ways to retain the food’s moisture. That could be wrapping buns or bread in a damp paper towel, or looking for a lidded bowl with a vent to allow excess air to escape. Avoid one-size-fits-all microwave lids, Chang advises: They “either completely cover a dish, trapping excess air, or aren’t sturdy enough and lead to microwave splatters.” (That’s why he was big on Anyday’s lids having a vent knob.)

2. Don’t Crowd Your Plate

Cook foods in an even layer, and opt for microwave-safe glassware and ceramics, Bon Appetit recommends, since they have higher thermodynamic conductivity than other materials, so they heat food faster.

person pressing buttons on microwave
Grace Cary/Getty Images

3. Master Your Power Settings

Most of us simply punch in a time and hit “start” to cook, but Chen recommends getting familiar with your power settings. By default, your microwave will likely heat things at 100 percent, which is like sticking food in your oven at its highest heat. “Some foods are best cooked at a low simmering heat; it’s the same with microwave cooking,” she explains, adding that it can be best to try a lower power setting when cooking grains and fish.

Here are some basic guidelines, courtesy of one enduring 1985 Oklahoman feature:

  • 100 Percent Power — Ground meat, poultry, shellfish, bacon, pie crust, pasta, water-based soups, casseroles
  • 70 Percent — dairy-based foods/casseroles, rib roast, duck, brownies, cheesecake; reheating leftovers
  • 50 Percent — ham, pork, eggs, custards; good for softening butter and cream cheese, as well as melting chocolate
  • 30 Percent — less-tender cuts of beef and lamb, grains; good for simmering chili, stews, sauces and defrosting
  • 10 Percent — Keeping food warm, proofing yeast-based doughs

4. Start with Less Time

Just like you would with baking, start on the lower end of the cook time, since it’s always easier to add a few more seconds until a dish is fully cooked than try to revive it once it’s dried out.

So, What Should You Cook First?

Mashed potatoes are one of Chang’s go-tos. “Cooking potatoes in the microwave isn't just faster since I don't have to wait for a pot of water to boil, but the potatoes are actually more delicious since they don't lose any flavor to the water," he told People.

Once you’ve conquered that, you’re ready for fish. And don’t worry—Chang has a recipe for that, too.

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...