Food Safety Tips for the Microwave

Over 80% of kitchens in Europe and the United States have a microwave. How safe are they? Provided they are used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, they are easily as safe as a conventional oven. Microwaving food can actually make food taste better when compared to other forms of heating. For example, fish when cooked, wrapped,  in a microwave, it retains more of its flavours than when cooked another way, and steaming vegetables in a microwave also retains more flavour, and goodness,  than when they are boiled to oblivion on a hob!

However like all appliances in the kitchen, especially those generating heat, and cooking foodstuffs, there are safety rules and tips to be followed:

  • When you defrost meat, poultry, egg-based foods and fish that you have taken from the freezer, you should cook it straight away or very soon after defrosting is complete. This is because during defrosting in the microwave, food heats up and bacteria will become active and start multiplying if left for a period. Another way of putting this is, don’t defrost using the microwave until you are ready to go straight on to cooking. Plan your meals!
  • Cover foods with a microwave-safe plastic wrap, wax paper, parchment paper, microwave safe paper towels or lid over the plate to hold in moisture and provide safe, even heating. It also retains the flavours better. Such items should be labelled as appropriate for microwaves.
  • It may seem very fussy, but you ought to consider getting a food thermometer. Many delicate foods will deteriorate if they get too hot, while no-one wants to re-heat food to find it is not at the required temperature. After reheating foods in the microwave oven, allow the food to stand for a minute or two, then check that food has reached an appropriate temperature; say 165°F.
  • Never use metal objects in the microwave. These will reflect the waves and cause sparking and may damage your machine. Be aware that some ornate plates have metallic paint on them which will cause this effect.
  • When cooking larger items be they food or liquid, stop the cooking half-way through and give a stir or turn the item(s) over. This ensures that there are no cold-spots.
  • When cleaning the over (for example after a potato has exploded because you didn’t puncture it first with a fork) don’t use abrasive or metallic cleaning pads. These can damage the reflective surface within your microwave oven.
  • The oven door should be tight fitting and if the door is opened, the fail-safe should always turn off the microwave straight away. Check the door seals too. If anything looks not right, then get it checked out. Almost all microwaves come with guarantees for this. Does the light come on when you switch on the microwave? If not, it may not be just a bulb that needs replacing, it may be some other fault. Check it is still heating to the right temperature. Any rusting inside the microwave indicates it’s time to invoke the guarantee and/or buy a new microwave.
  • Some people use microwaves to dry articles of clothing quickly, because they are in a hurry. Don’t do this! There is a risk of fire and fibres from the clothes may attach to the insides of your microwave oven and impair its performance when cooking food.
  • When cooking thicker meats or fish, the microwaves will only agitate the water molecules to a depth of one inch. The heat generated will then penetrate deeper into the food, but not as quickly as the outer one inch heats up. That is why you should let food stand, and also use a clean thermometer to check the temperature in the centre of the food.
  • Finally, most accidents with microwaves occur (as they do with conventional ovens) when taking hot food or liquid out of the appliance. Always use oven gloves, and make sure no children are standing next to you that may jog you and cause a spillage. Beware of siting your microwave high up on a shelf. It can be very tricky taking food from them and a risk of an accident therefore increases.

Most of the above can be filed under “common sense”, but just to repeat, always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your microwave oven. If you’ve lost them, you can often find a copy of them online. Failing that write or e-mail the manufacturer with details of your model.

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