Choose Right Settings and Cooking Technique for Microwave Oven

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settings_cThough I am totally devoted to microwave cooking, I am realistic enough to take a balanced view of its capabilities. It will not entirely eliminate the use of conventional methods and a conventional cooker in many instances, but a better understanding of the ways in which the microwave works will prove to you just how invaluable it can be. Microwave cooking is different from conventional cookery in that although you do not have to stand over it, you do have to stand by.


Variable control

Most microwave ovens have a Defrost setting in addition to Maximum or Full power. Many others are equipped with a selection of power settings enabling a stronger or weaker microwave requirement to be used and allowing greater flexibility in cooking certain foods.

The power levels on microwave ovens are marked in many different ways according o the manufacturer's style. They may be numbered 1 to 10, or have descriptive controls such as Roast, Simmer, Keep Warm and, yet again, on others percentages are used - these you may or may not have to programme yourself. Microwave ovens vary not only in their declared output, i.e. 500 watts, 600 watts, 650 watts or 700 watts, but each model has its own personality and the power level on any setting may vary by 10% above or below, all of which will affect the cooking time.

The settings of a microwave oven can be compared with a gas or electric oven, where the heat is made more or less intense. In the majority of microwaves, the reduction in energy is achieved by the automatic turning off of the microwaves for a few seconds. The switching on and off has many advantages, for example, when cooking poultry the resting period gives the flesh a chance to relax and when cooking delicate items such as eggs, milk or cheese, the risk of high temperature curdling is reduced.

There is no appreciable difference in the result when using numbers 9 and 10, but some foods do cook more successfully on Medium (50%) whilst others are better on Defrost (35%). Warm (10%) is useful for very delicate defrosting, proving yeast mixtures and keeping food warm. Milk which boils over easily can be controlled by reducing the setting when the milk is seen to rise.

Cooking techniques

Though I am totally devoted to microwave cooking, I am realistic enough to take a balanced view of its capabilities. It will not entirely eliminate the use of conventional methods and a conventional cooker in many instances, but a better understanding of the ways in which the microwave works will prove to you just how invaluable it can be.

Microwave cooking is different from conventional cookery in that although you do not have to stand over it, you do have to stand by. Stirring is as important for microwave cookery as it is for conventional and just as food can spoil through lack of care with saucepans burning on the bottom, so can microwaves spoil food in a different way. To avoid this, in addition to stirring, it is necessary to be careful with turning, covering and the greatest mistake is overcooking.

Stirrable dishes, such as soups, stews and vegetables, should be frequently stirred, as microwaves otherwise tend to cook more around the outsides of the dish than in the centre. This is because the outside gets extra power as the microwaves enter from the top and the sides, while the middle receives the microwaves mainly from the top.

Non-stirrable foods should be turned two or three times during cooking, to even out the effect of the hotter and colder areas in the cavity.

Food that cannot be stirred or repositioned should not be cooked in a rectangular dish, as the portions in the corner will overcook, due to the fact that the microwaves enter from both angles as well as from the top. Choose containers which readily hold the food but are not bigger than necessary. Shallow foods must sometimes be arranged in a single layer and fillets of fish or chicken breasts for example will cook quickly because they are so thin, but they must be repositioned during cooking or you will find that the outsides cook white the middle remains raw. Overlapping is only desirable if the food is manageable enough to be repositioned - gammon steaks respond well to this.

Covering foods helps to hasten cooking by trapping the heat and moisture-but because of the rather violent nature of microwave cooking, it is inadvisable to cover too tightly. Starchy liquid from potatoes, high-water content fruits, such as plums or rhubarb, will boil up and over, pushing their way between the lid and the dish. It is a good idea in some instances to place the lid slightly on one side. Cling film will balloon up. It rarely bursts but when cooking is completed, lids will be difficult to lift off and cling film gets sucked down on to the food in the dish. Although cling film does not need to be pierced it should be vented by pulling back one corner before cooking commences.

Sometimes the method for a recipe, such as the Steak and Kidney Pudding on page 71 states that a dish should be covered loosely in cling film. To do this, fix the cling film on one side of the dish, then lift it high above the dish, drawing off twice as much as you would normally use. Fix the other end of the cling film on the opposite side of the dish and allow the cling film to drop into natural folds. If during cooking you find that the folds are sticking together, thus preventing the food from rising, clip them in one or two places with scissors or make a slit in them with a sharp knife.

If the wing tips, legs and thinner parts of poultry, such as the breast become dark in colour or appear to be drying up, they should be covered with small pieces of aluminium foil (provided the manufacturer of your microwave recommends its use), then overwrapped with cling film to shield the foil. Make all the usual tests for cooking but do this in several places instead of the usual one. Thick items should be turned over halfway through cooking. This applies both to joints of meat and also to jacket potatoes and large baked apples.

Foods that you wish to keep as crisp as possible should be covered only by greaseproof paper or paper towels. Paper towels can also be used underneath rolls, bread or pastry, when they are being defrosted or warmed, to absorb the excess moisture.

To keep food hot while standing outside the microwave, it is sometimes covered with foil. To do this make a tent out of the foil but put a small slit in the top to allow steam to escape, otherwise the condensation will drop back and soften the food. Jacket potatoes, however, are best wrapped in a clean ovenglove or teatowel when standing, to keep their skins crisp.

One difference between cooking on the hob and cooking in a microwave is that in the first the container heats up to such an extent that it is sufficient to continue cooking food after the gas or electricity has been turned off. Containers in a microwave should only become hot if they are in prolonged contact with hot food. To allow for this, undercook rather than overcook food, so that after a short standing time, the food can be tested and if necessary further cooking undertaken.

Because the microwave oven is slow to heat water-based liquids (apart from milk), soups should be cooked in concentrated form and extra liquid added afterwards or use hot stock or water to start with.

Vegetables normally requiring water in cooking need only half a cup of water in the microwave oven. Salt the water but do not sprinkle salt directly on the vegetables. When pieces are cut up uniformly or sliced thinly they will cook more quickly whether by conventional or microwave means, thus a food processor can be a particularly useful adjunct

If your microwave oven is fitted with a turntable you will find spills are contained by the raised edge but some ovens have a fitted shelf which is level. In this case any spills must be wiped up immediately. The reason for this is that although spillage is a nuisance in any case, the microwaves cannot tell the difference between the food and the wasted liquid and will continue to cook the residue, baking it on to the shelf.

Limitations

The microwave will carry out most cooking processes that are otherwise done conventionally, it will take the place of the hob for boiling, steaming and poaching and for cooking most foods in liquid in a saucepan. It will not, however, deep fry, because the temperature of the fat cannot be adequately controlled and the risk of fire will be dangerously high. Shallow frying is also not possible because the microwaves will cook the fat and the food simultaneously- in conventional cookery the fat seals the food first and cooking is completed by conduction.

Microwave frying is a special kind of cooking requiring the use of a treated dish, which is specially designed to become very hot and transmit this heat to the underside of the food. Microwave frying, being unique, keeps fat absorption to the minimum.

Grilling must be carried out conventionally, but the baking, braising and casseroling of most foods is both fast and successful in the microwave oven.

On the whole, the microwave oven should be used for cooking moderate quantities - that is to say up to four to six portions at a time. This will involve a saving in fuel particularly when heating liquids - you have to cover the element of most kettles with water so that you probably are heating more than you need. It is not more economical to heat large quantities of a large weight of high density vegetables in the microwave. It would be just as quick or quicker to do this in a saucepan - but the colour, of course, will not be as bright and there will be a greater loss of vitamins due to the higher proportion of water used. However, do not put very small quantities into the microwave, for example, don't try to blanch one onion. The microwave power would be too strong for this and may cause sparks.

The microwave oven cannot cook foods that have to be crisp outside and soft inside. If you are reheating crisp foods, such as chips, make sure that they are covered with a paper towel and not cling film, which would cause softening.

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