Another look at a kitchen's friend: the microwave


Allow me to introduce you to your microwave. I met mine just the other week.

This mysterious, stigmatized box has acquired a reputation as a mere popcorn popper and leftover heater-upper. But it can do so much more. It can fry. It can dry. It can produce a perfectly steamed whole bass with ginger and scallions, topped with fried parsley. Just give it four minutes.

Game-changing new uses like that were brought to my attention with the release of Modernist Cuisine at Home, a home-cook-friendly iteration of Modernist Cuisine, the six-volume megabook on the science of contemporary cooking that routinely calls for such tools as a centrifuge. The At Home recipes can still be quite demanding (a 45-minute scrambled egg, a 29-hour roast chicken), but when I got to the chapter on the microwave, my world flipped on its axis.

''The microwave tends to be an underappreciated thing in the kitchen,” the author Nathan Myhrvold told me over the phone. “It's overused for one set of tasks and underused for another.”

Microwave cooking — not reheating, but cooking — can be particularly healthful, something to keep in mind in the wake of the holiday cookie overload. Steaming involves no added fat, and frying requires just a swipe of oil.

To take full advantage of the microwave's capabilities, you have to explore the nuts and bolts of the keypad and learn how to adjust power levels. You've probably touched only the number keys and the Start button. Maybe Defrost if you felt daring. Now it's time to get friendly with your microwave's Power buttons.

A general rule of thumb: the lowest power settings, 500 watts and under, turn your oven into a makeshift dehydrator. “When you dry things out, water has to migrate through the food, and wick itself from the center of the food to the edge,” Myhrvold explained. “If you heat it up very gently, the water gradually gets drawn out, instead of getting hot and cooking.”

At higher settings, 500 to 800 watts, the device can fry and steam. And if you simply want to heat something quickly, use the highest setting possible, as you do for tea and coffee.

So how do you adjust the wattage? First, determine your unit's full power level. Most home microwaves generate a maximum of 800 to 1,350 watts. Check the microwave's front, or inside the door, or hunt around online. That higher figure is your base.

Then get out your calculator. If you want to steam something at 800 watts and have a 1,000-watt microwave, set the power level to 80 percent, or 8. (Level 9 is 90 percent, and so on. Some microwaves also have shortcut buttons like “medium” and “medium high” that correspond to specific percentages.)

For a 1,100-watt microwave, the math is a bit trickier: 800 watts is about 73 percent of the top output, so you may have to round down and set the power level to 7. (By the way, adjusting the level does not actually change the wattage. It simply means the microwave will pulse on and off at its fixed wattage until the desired level is reached.)

Now you're ready to nuke.

A few of Myhrvold's microwave recipes — an eggplant Parmesan, which purports to turn the vegetable creamy instead of rubbery, and a steamed chocolate sponge cake — echoed ones I had seen before. But his instructions for making three foods — fried parsley, beef jerky and steamed fish — were new to me.

Fried parsley? Many high-end restaurants, including those of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse, fry or dry their herbs in the microwave to give them added crunch and visual appeal.

To fry mine, I stretched plastic film over a plate, swiped the surface with cooking spray, and laid separated parsley leaves on top. After a couple of minutes at 800 watts, I had flat, crisp parsley, perfect for garnish. No spattering pot of oil. Minimal cleanup.

The beef jerky recipe was a bit more involved; it called for nuking marinated beef strips at 30-second intervals, stopping to blot up the moisture in between blasts, then flipping and continuing. The process was messy, and the result wasn't exactly jerky-ish enough — the meat was a bit soggy, with a grayish hue. Myhrvold assured me that extra blotting and extra time would dry the beef sufficiently, but it didn't seem to warrant the effort.

The drying technique came in handy, though, for dried fruit. Following the jerky protocol, I nuked apple rings at the lowest possible power setting for about an hour, flipping and blotting every 15 minutes. Blotting fruit with a paper towel felt significantly less weird than doing so with warm meat, and the result was perfect.

But the oven performed best on the steamed fish with scallions and ginger, cooked in a microwave-safe zip-top plastic bag at 800 watts. The beauty of the dish is not just in its simplicity, but also in its flexibility. While Myhrvold's main recipe calls for cod, he allows for different types of fillet or whole fish — as long as it will fit comfortably in the bag, or on a plate covered securely with microwave-safe plastic wrap (no tails flopping out).

During my first try, with a bass fillet, the bag exploded; when water boils and becomes steam, it expands in volume by a factor of 1,600 (Myhrvold explained that one liter of water becomes 1,600 liters of steam), so excess air will heighten the risk of popping. I was left with a wheezing bag and fish chunks. On the next try, with a whole bass, I removed as much air as possible from the bag before nuking. Success.

On went the soy sauce dressing. The dish looked and smelled professionally prepared. The flesh was perfectly cooked, the taste fabulous — an elegant weeknight dinner in no time. Cleanup was nil (I simply tossed the plastic bag), and my apartment didn't smell fishy.

I asked Myhrvold: what else can this magic machine do?

Well, he suggested, cut a small X in the navel of a seedless grape, and microwave it on full power. “If you're lucky,” he said, “what will happen is, it'll fall apart into a plasma and shoot around in little rockets.”

Thanks, but I'll stick with the fish.

Microwaved Black Cod with Scallions and Ginger

2 (8-ounce) black cod fillets, with skin or not (see cook's note)

4¼ teaspoons soy sauce

¼ teaspoon sesame oil

4 (¼-inch-thick) round slices of ginger plus 1 tablespoon finely julienned ginger, for garnish

5 or 6 scallions, white and green parts separated and julienned

1½ teaspoons Shaoxing or other white wine

3½ tablespoons peanut oil

Cook's note: You can also use halibut, rockfish, trout, black sea bass, pomfret or sole

Place each fillet in a separate microwave-safe zip-top bag, then place the bags skin (or skinned) side down next to each other on a microwave-safe plate.

 In a small bowl, combine soy sauce and sesame oil; set aside. Divide ginger coins and white part of scallions between the two bags. Pour half the wine (¾ teaspoon) into each bag. Microwave until fish becomes opaque and flakes easily, 3½-5 minutes in an 800-watt oven. (Cooking times will vary depending on the kind of fish used and the power of the oven; for ovens over 800 watts, lower the power level accordingly.)

3. Transfer each fillet to a warm serving plate and drizzle each with half of the soy sauce mixture. Garnish with scallion greens and julienned ginger. In a small pan, heat peanut oil until sizzling. Drizzle the hot oil over each fillet and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home, by Nathan Myhrvold