When something is quick we automatically think it's easy, too. So, it's no wonder that with microwaving, we just fling in a bunch of ingredients and expect them to emerge just as quickly as an attractive and tasty dish.
The trouble is, they don't. Not to say that microwaving is particularly difficult; it's just that with a little extra care, the most common microwave cooking complaints can be prevented.
For instance, to achieve evenly cooked chunks of vegetables, start by using a round dish, like a nine-inch glass pie dish. The little waves tend to bounce back and forth in the corners of square dishes instead of cooking the food in a steady, even manner.
For extra insurance against uneven cooking, chop all the chunks the same size. And, when microwaving two or more kinds of vegetables at once, choose those that are similar in texture. Otherwise, the more delicately textured vegetables will become tough and dry while the denser ones continue to cook. Carrots and parsnips are a good microwave cooking combination; carrots and peas are not. You can, however, begin to microwave the carrots first and add the peas when the carrots have a minute or two left to go.
Vegetables with two textures, such as broccoli (spears and florets) and asparagus (spears and tips) should be microwaved in a star-burst formation. Arrange them with the tender tips at the center and the hardier spears radiating out. This protects the tips from overcooking and drying out. So will a couple of tablespoons of liquid, like defatted chicken stock, splashed on the vegetables before microwaving.
As for poultry, whole birds don't microwave evenly. Even more dismal is microwaved poultry skin. The best results come from chicken cutlets, which are boneless, skinless chicken breasts. First, pound each cutlet to an even thickness by sandwiching it between two sheets of waxed paper and whacking it with the bottom of a heavy skillet. Then arrange the cutlets in a round dish to maximize moistness and a tender texture. Note that a little moisture is needed to protect the surface of the poultry from dryness during microwaving; two good choices are prepared mustard spread on the cutlets and dry white wine poured over the cutlets.
Like poultry, fish fillets don't come in perfectly even shapes. Most often, the ends of fillets are thinner than the middle, and during microwaving they'll overcook before the middle of the fish is done. To solve the problem, simply fold the thin ends under, making a little package of even thickness. Fish steaks, like sword and tuna, should be no thicker than half an inch. If the steaks are thicker, slice them in half horizontally to keep the flesh moist during microwaving. Sprinkling on a couple of tablespoons of liquid before microwaving helps to lock in moisture, without the need for added fat. Tuna steak is interesting with a mixture of half defatted beef stock and half red wine vinegar.
About now, you may be observing a pattern to the foods that microwave well. Low-fat, high-water content foods such as fresh vegetables, lean poultry and fish do best, especially when they're evenly sized, comparatively small and microwaved in a round dish. In contrast, large hunks of fatty meat microwave unevenly and, if they contain bones, may even be unsafe. The USDA says that bones can shield the microwaves from cooking surrounding meat adequately. Besides, if you're going to enjoy roast beef, it should be nicely browned on the outside, a trick that the microwave will never pull off in a natural manner. If you want roast beef, roast it in an oven.
Tiny chunks of meat, however, like ground beef, lamb and pork and venison can be microwaved in a glass pie dish and the results are interesting. The meat, though tasty, will be a wimpy shade of gray instead of brown, so for visual reasons it should be drained of fat and added to soups, sauces or fillings for vegetables. One plus is that the Journal of American Dietetics claims that microwaved ground meat contains less fat than ground meat that's been cooked any other way.
Salt is another microwave mishap waiting to happen. Salt causes dry patches and uneven cooking when sprinkled on food before microwaving because the grains of salt attract the microwaves and the food directly beneath them cooks faster. If you want to salt your food, do so after it's been microwaved.
When it comes to the microwave unit itself, you can avoid major disappointments by adjusting cooking times to suit the wattage of your unit. Most microwave recipes are created in a 700-watt microwave. If yours has less wattage, increasing the cooking time slightly will yield the results you want. Look in the instruction manual or call the dealer to discover your wattage, which typically ranges from 400 to 750 watts. Anything under 500 watts is rather silly to use for cooking, because thermal cooking is just as fast or faster. Also be sure that your microwave is not plugged into a circuit that is shared with another major appliance, say a refrigerator. If it is, the microwave may not be putting out the even power it needs to cook foods properly.
Most importantly, it's best to adopt the attitude that the microwave is just another kitchen appliance, not the be-all and end-all of cooking. One mistaken notion is that the microwave can do everything a thermal oven can do only faster. It can't because it cooks with moist heat and a thermal oven cooks with dry heat. So it's impossible to expect baked foods like muffins, cakes and cookies to be up to snuff in the taste and texture departments.
On the other hand, with a little knowledge, you can use the appliance to enhance your regular cooking routine, making it a more enjoyable experience.
Judith Benn Hurley is the award-winning author of "Healthy Microwave Cooking" and other books.