I'm stuck microwaving my lunch at the office and it always comes out soggy, unevenly heated, or undercooked. I'd like to eat a lunch that somewhat resembles the food it once intended to be. Is there any way I can use the microwave without turning my meal into something unappealing?
Microwaving Goodbye to Lunch
Chances are you're aware of the many benefits of a real, standard oven, but just in case you're avoiding one hiding in your office I have to recommend you give it a shot. Ovens do take a bit longer to cook, but a matter of minutes. You get better quality food by sacrificing an extra 5-10 minutes of waiting?and you can do work, or whatever else, while you wait. If you say you're stuck with a microwave you are probably stuck with a microwave, however, so you might want to consider buying a toaster oven (or mini oven) for the office. That may sound extreme, but they come as cheap as $30. Perhaps you can get others to pitch in or even talk to HR about ordering one since they are so inexpensive and offer better results for the food that fits inside. In the event that microwaving is your only option and you have to use it, however, let's discuss what you can do to improve the quality of your lunch when it exits the mildly-competent reheating contraption.
Find Your Microwave's Hot Spots
If you've ever used one, you know that microwaves don't heat evenly. Fortunately, you can improve your microwave's accuracy by finding your microwave's hot spots. All you have to do is nuke a plate of marshmallows. Wired Magazine explains how this works:
Cook a tray of marshmallows in your oven. In the hot spots, "the marshmallows puff up and melt, and in the cold spots the marshmallows don't change much," says Lou Bloomfield, professor of physics at the University of Virginia. If there are too many hot spots, your best strategy is to keep your food moving, which is why most microwaves have turntables (one study showed these can increase the temperature uniformity by 40 percent).
You may find that some of your microwave's hotter spots shy away from the center. If this is the case, and have a reasonably small meal, just shift it to the outer edges of the microwave (or turntable, if applicable) for more even cooking.
Make Food Crispier with Parchment Paper
When you want crispier food in the microwave, parchment paper helps. Just place it underneath your lunch, or wrap your food in it, and it'll help keep it crispy. We're not entirely sure why this works, but we tried it with pizza and wound up with a better end-product. (It works great for toaster sandwiches, too.) Ultimately, you're not going to get super crispy food with this trick, like you might with a standard oven, but it offers a marked improvement.
Turn Your Microwave into a Pseudo-Steamer
When soggy isn't a problem, and steaming your food actually benefits the outcome, the microwave isn't such a bad option. Whether you're reheating rice, vegetables, or anything else that can withstand moisture, you simply need a paper towel or an extra dish.
When reheating, place a damp paper towel tightly over the top of your dish. You can ensure it stays put by placing the ends underneath the dish itself. Doing so helps lock in the heat and creates a bit of steam in the microwave. Alternatively, just place an extra dish on top of your food. Two bowls do the trick rather well and, like the paper towel, prevent a mess. You can also steam and prevent mess using a shower cap, but some are wary of using plastic for this purpose.
Handle a Hot Pocket (or Other Filled Food Item) Properly
When lunch means a Hot Pocket, or something else with an ideally gooey center, you can help your microwave cook the food more evenly. Simply heat the Hot Pocket (or whatever) for half the designated amount of time, take it out of the microwave, and shake it up. This will move the heated parts around so that the center, which is likely closer to a block of ice, will melt more easily. After a fervent jiggling, stick your food back in the microwave for the remaining time. When you take it out, you'll find your evenly-cooked lunch.
Make a Fresh Lunch in the Microwave
If you don't want to reheat, just heat. Cooking your food for the first time in the microwave provides a fresher product that doesn't suffer from many downsides of the nuking process. Steaming vegetables, for instance, often works as well as an actual steamer in less time. A bowl with a tiny bit of water, veggies inside, and a few minutes yields surprisingly fresh cooking. You can also make macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, eggs or oatmeal, a baked potato, rice, and even a chocolate cake. If you make a mess, just steam clean it all with a little vinegar. While your options may be a little limited in the microwave, cooking a fresh meal now and again provides a nice alternative to the less-than-desirable results you'll often get when reheating.
Photos by Sascha Burkard (Shutterstock), Leigh Prather (Shutterstock), John Morgan, Kai Chan Vong, and Lori Ann.