Since its accidental invention in 1946, the microwave has become a household hero, liberating us from laborious cooking tasks with its dielectric heating.
While many of us enlist the help of the microwave for simple heating and reheating jobs, the capabilities of this kitchen appliance go far beyond – even breaking free from the realm of cooking.
Here are 10 hacks that will have you looking at your microwave with fresh fondness – and one you definitely shouldn't try at home. Need a new microwave? Check out our product reviews.
1. Bake a cake in your mug
If the need for a little 3pm-pick-me-up strikes but the cupboard is bereft of sweet treats, you can easily whip up a delicious cake using a mug and a microwave.
Find your biggest mug (the bigger it is, the less likely your cake will overflow) and fill it with four tablespoons of caster sugar, four tablespoons of self-raising flour and two tablespoons of cocoa powder. Add one egg and mix ingredients well.
Whip up a freshly-cooked cake in just a few minutes.
Next, add three tablespoons of milk, three tablespoons of vegetable oil and a few drops of vanilla essence. Stir to combine. If you want to get creative, you can also add some choc chips, nuts or dried fruit.
Microwave the cake on high for about two minutes (keep an eye on it; ours took less than two minutes to cook) – or until the cake has stopped rising and is firm to the touch. Grab your spoon and dig in!
2. Get the squeeze on citrus
Squeezing citrus can often leave you feeling a little cheated. You know there's more juice hiding inside, but your hand is cramping trying to coax it out.
Luckily, CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair has the solution. Simply place the whole fruit in the microwave for 10–15 seconds, roll between your hands or on a benchtop and then squeeze.
You'll find you can harvest a bit more juice after the fruit has warmed up and is easier to squeeze. Definitely a good one to know when citrus is out of season and expensive.
3. Make fancy-looking parmesan crisps
When we first heard about this microwave hack we weren't expecting much in the way of crispiness. But when we tried it we found they were delightfully crunchy – ideal to crumble over soups and salads, or to nibble on as a standalone snack.
A "delightfully crunchy" hack.
Place a sheet of non-stick baking paper on a plate and spread an even layer of grated parmesan cheese into a round. Microwave on high for 30 seconds to one minute, then carefully remove the plate from the oven and the crisps from the paper. The cheese will crisp up as it cools.
Alternatively, you can turn them into parmesan cups which you can then fill and serve as an appetiser. After removing them from the microwave, drape the still pliable cheese around a cup or ramekin and leave to cool and crisp up.
4. Quickly rehydrate dried lentils and beans
If you always forget to soak your dried lentils or beans overnight, this little shortcut from Fiona will become a firm favourite.
Place one cup of dried legumes in a microwave-safe bowl and add enough cold water to just cover them. Add half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda (this helps to soften the legume skin) and microwave on high for 10 minutes.
You'll still need to let them stand for at least one hour before using, but that's more agreeable than 12 long hours!
5. Cook perfect rice, every time
If you struggle with the absorption method of cooking rice on the stovetop and don't have the bench space for a rice cooker, you'll be pleased to hear you can make perfect rice in the microwave. (We were sceptical too, but cooking rice this way actually gives you more control.)
Cooking rice in your microwave gives you a bit more control.
Simply place two cups of rinsed rice in a large microwave-safe container and fill with enough water to cover the rice by two centimetres.
Cover with a lid or plastic wrap (remember: no foil!) and cook on high for five minutes, then on medium for seven minutes. (You may want to place a sheet of non-stick baking paper under the container to catch any spillages.) Remove the container and keep covered for 3–5 minutes so the rice can continue to steam.
Check the consistency. If it's not ready, pop it in the microwave again for one-minute increments until done – we needed an extra three minutes to achieve fluffy, separated grains for our medium-grain rice. Keep in mind that brown rice will take a little longer.
CHOICE tip: Now is a great time to clean your microwave as the steam from the rice will help soften any residue, making it easier to wipe off.
6. Soak dried fruit, fast
When baking, if a recipe calls for dried fruit to be soaked overnight in brandy or tea, don't panic if you haven't left yourself enough time. Fiona says you can use your microwave to rehydrate fruit in next to no time.
Place the dried fruit and liquid in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap and heat on high for two minutes before leaving to stand for five minutes. (This example is for four cups of fruit and one quarter of a cup brandy.)
Let the fruit cool before adding to your recipe.
7. DIY dried herbs
Don't compost that half-used bunch of wilted herbs, use your microwave to turn them into dried herbs instead.
The herbs can be stored for up to one month.
Wash and dry your herbs, then lay them on a sheet of paper towel. Carefully place on your microwave's turntable and cover with another paper towel. Microwave on high for two minutes or until the herbs crumble easily.
Continue to heat at 30-second intervals until the herbs are dry. (It took us two intervals for ours to crumble easily.) Store in an airtight container for up to one month.
8. Make your own heat pack
Have a little niggle that would benefit from some gentle warmth? If you have a cotton sock and some rice, then relief is just the touch of a button away.
Fill a natural fibre casing (such as a cotton sock or bag) with uncooked rice, wheat or dried beans, tie securely and microwave for one to three minutes, depending on size. You can add a soothing aromatic, such as dried lavender or rosemary, for extra relaxation.
But make sure you keep an eye on your heat pack while it's in the microwave, as overheating poses a fire risk. When ready, remove it from the microwave with a kitchen mitt, and thoroughly check it over for any hot spots before applying to your aches. It's a good idea to spritz the heat pack with water before microwaving, too.
9. Remove a stamp
While we don't condone reusing stamps, if you're an avid collector this stamp-removal hack might be worth a try.
We found this hack a bit hit and miss.
Dampen the stamp with a few drops of water and microwave on the lowest setting for 20 seconds.
It should peel of easily, but when we tried it on three old stamps only one came off and not that neatly. We had better luck with a just-stuck stamp, so if you accidentally write the wrong address on an already-stamped envelope, give it a go.
CHOICE tip: Dry paper can be a fire hazard, so keep the heat low, the time brief and don't walk away.
After giving your microwave a thorough workout, it's likely to be sporting some splatters and undesirable odours. But you don't need to spend too much time or elbow grease to make it sparkle again. Fiona advises using a lemon to deodorise and clean your microwave in just minutes.
Place a small, microwave-safe bowl of water with a few slices of lemon into the microwave and heat on high for two or three minutes. Once done, let it sit for five minutes so the steam can do its work, then all you need to do is remove the bowl and wipe the walls, door and ceiling of the microwave with a dry microfibre cloth.
A lemon in water will deodorise and clean your microwave in minutes.
Don't do this at home
Sponges and dishcloths are dirty and dank places where bacteria love to congregate. But short of turfing them after a short period and inheriting some environmental guilt, is there anything you can do to extend their lifespan?
One popular suggestion is to microwave your sponge, with a 2007 US study suggested that microwaving dirty dishcloths and sponges for two to four minutes will zap 99% of germs.
There's a risk you'll set your sponge and microwave on fire
Despite the internet largely embracing the practice, the jury is out on whether this is actually a good idea. A 2017 study found that regularly sanitised sponges (via microwave or boiling methods) don't contain less bacteria than uncleaned ones.
More worryingly, there's a risk you'll set your sponge and microwave on fire, and fire services strongly warn against microwaving sponges.
We recommend steering clear of this one altogether. Instead, try soaking sponges in a diluted bleach solution. Or for Chux style kitchen cloths you can also throw them in the washing machine (choose a 'sanitise' cycle and/or a 90 degrees super hot wash).
And on the same trajectory as dish sponges, it's probably not a good idea to attempt disinfecting your cloth face masks or any synthetic fabrics in the microwave either.
Do keep in mind that microwaves can differ depending on wattage and whether they're convection or inverter. So use given times as a guide but always stay nearby to your microwave when you're cooking, just in case something goes awry.
Also be aware that certain things don't belong in the microwave – such as plastic takeaway containers and aluminium foil – and that food comes out hot!
It's easy to forget that temperatures can be just as scalding in a microwave as a regular oven.