Since its accidental invention in 1946, the microwave has become a household hero, liberating us from laborious kitchen tasks with its super-fast cooking powers.
While many of us just use the microwave for leftovers, its powers go far beyond just reheating. So much so that CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair calls it one of the most useful and underrated appliances in Aussie kitchens. (She definitely rates it over an air fryer!)
"Most people use very little of their microwave's potential," she says. "It can be a very handy kitchen helper if you know what to do."
So if you're not using your microwave to help you with these kitchen tasks, you should be!
CHOICE tip: Microwave power levels range from high to medium to low, and using the right power settings will give you a better final result. If you don't choose a power setting, it'll cook on high by default.
A good microwave should be able to safely and effectively defrost a 1.5 kg chicken in 30 minutes.
1. Defrost a whole chicken
If you've forgotten to get the bird out of the freezer to defrost ahead of the roast, never fear – your microwave is up to the job.
In fact, when we test microwaves in our kitchen labs for our expert microwave review, we assess how well each model performs at this common kitchen task.
Our kitchen experts check that each microwave defrosts the chicken thoroughly and safely (i.e. without starting to cook the bird). That's the day there are a lot of defrosted chooks up for grabs in the CHOICE office.
"Most microwaves can easily defrost a 1.5kg chicken safely in 30 minutes," says Fiona.
The timing will depends on the weight of the chicken and the power level that's pre-programmed for defrosting.
CHOICE tip: While foil is generally a no-no in microwaves, a little bit is okay when defrosting a chicken to protect the wings and legs from cooking. Just make sure there's less foil than food, and that it doesn't touch the walls.
2. Cook crisp, tender (and healthier!) vegetables
For those of us who grew up in the '80s when microwaves first became widely used in Aussie households (and we weren't exactly familiar with how to use them correctly), you may associate microwaved vegetables with limp, grey and watery broccoli. That doesn't have to be the case, says Fiona.
"Microwaves are actually an incredibly easy way to cook perfect steamed vegetables – keeping them crisp, tender and full of the nutrients you lose if you boil them," she says.
When we review microwaves, we test each model to see how well it cooks broccoli. (Fun fact: our experts choose broccoli to test as it shows overcooking very quickly by changing its colour and losing its shape, making it a tricky veg to cook.)
The top-rated models in our microwave review all score a perfect 100% on the broccoli test.
3. Parboil potatoes
You can't have a roast chook without roast potatoes.
One of the (many) secrets to the perfect roast potato – all crisp and golden on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside – is parboiling your potatoes before you roast them.
And guess what? Your microwave can help with that, too.
Prepare the potatoes as you would if you were deep-frying or roasting them. If you have sensor cook or auto cook, use these settings, otherwise cook on high for 3–4 minutes.
The time it will take will depend on the weight of the potatoes and the wattage of the microwave you are using – check your microwave's manual for exact cooking times.
Cooking rice in your microwave gives you a bit more control.
4. 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, your microwave is the answer. It gives you great control over cooking rice, giving perfect grains every time.
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 and cook on high for five minutes, then on medium for seven minutes.
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, and cooking times may vary depending on your microwave's wattage.
CHOICE tip: This 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.
5. Melt chocolate and soften butter for faster baking
If you're trying to bash out a cake at the last minute for the school bake sale you've forgotten about, melting chocolate over a double boiler and waiting for butter to soften on the bench wastes precious time.
Your microwave can speed things up so you'll finish with time spare to decorate it.
Chocolate is a very heat-sensitive food, so it's the perfect way to assess a microwave's performance when we test them in our kitchen lab. Ideally, you want the chocolate to melt evenly when stirred without the chocolate seizing (this means that you've microwaved it too long and its become overheated, so it looks grainy and more like a paste).
Inverter microwaves are great at this: they provide constant and even power so there are no hot spots. (Here's what an inverter microwave is and why you should consider one.)
Only have a regular microwave? No problems. Just put your microwave on a medium-low setting.
To melt 180g of chocolate in a 900–1000W microwave, run it for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and stir halfway through. For a 700–800W model, run it for 4 minutes, stirring halfway through.
If you want to soften butter without melting it, pop it on a low setting for 15 seconds. If it's not soft enough, give it another whirl.
6. Make no-fuss microwave scrambled eggs
If you don't want to dirty a pan to make scrambled eggs (or perhaps you want to scramble an egg at work for a quick lunch but only have a microwave), then you can do it just as easily in a microwave.
Prepare two eggs as you would if making in a pan – scramble them together and season with salt and pepper and add cream if you like.
Place in a microwave-proof ramekin, cover and cook on medium for 1 minute and 30 seconds, stirring twice, during cooking. Allow to stand for a few minutes.
Fiona shares her top tip: "Always undercook the eggs slightly as they will continue to cook on standing and they will be creamy in texture just like you made them in a pan."
7. Perfect steamed fish
In the same way microwaves are perfect for steaming veg, they're great for gently cooking delicate fish fillets like salmon, ideal for a healthy fish dinner. And it's quicker than doing it in your oven or on the stovetop.
"The best way to cook fish in a microwave is to use a microwave-proof steamer," says Fiona. "Place water in the base and sit the fish fillet on the rack, season and cover with the lid. Cook on medium low for approximately 4–6 minutes depending on the weight of the fillet."
8. No-oil-needed pappadums
If cooking pappadums on the stovetop gives you nightmares of hot oil splattering everywhere, give them a try in the microwave. You'll still get perfectly crisp pappadums, no oil required.
Fiona shares her method:
- Place pappadums in a bowl in the microwave, leaning on each other.
- For three pappadams, cook for 1 minute on high and then increments of 20 seconds, removing papadums that are done (you will know they're ready as they will puff up).
- Allow to stand for a couple of minutes to become firm and crisp.
9. 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.
A note on microwave safety
Do keep in mind that microwaves can differ depending on wattage and whether they're a regular microwave or 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. Items such as plastic takeaway containers, metal trays, and some dinnerware and glassware may not be microwave safe, so check before you use them.
It's easy to forget that temperatures can be just as scalding in a microwave as a regular oven – don't forget that food comes out hot!
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.