When I was still a little girl, microwaves were the Next Big Thing. My mother dutifully microwaved pallid muffins, gray-brown meatloaf, rubbery custards, and shriveled baked potatoes. Then the novelty wore off; now she uses her radar range primarily to reheat leftover food, just as the rest of us microwave owners.
Turns out it’s best to think of a microwave not as a start-to-finish cooking device, but a versatile tool to knock out specific tasks. Quite likely you have one of these bulky boxes occupying way too much of your counter space. Why not take advantage if it? Because your microwave is many appliances rolled into one.
Take a quart of whole or 2% milk (preferably raw or organic, but who am I to say?) and pour it into a glass measuring cup with at least a quart capacity. Microwave it in 2-minute increments, until the milk reaches 180 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Let it cool to 110 degrees, then stir in two tablespoons of plain yogurt (make sure it contains active cultures). Cover the glass measuring cup with plastic wrap, snuggle a clean, dry dish towel over the whole works, and pop it back into the microwave to let it sit, undisturbed, for about 8 hours. Voila! Yogurt.
If you buy those sturdy yellow pop-up sponges, you know they are the best. THE BEST. You also know they are not cheap. I extend the use of mine by nuking them when they start to smell funky. Get the funky sponge wet, wring it out so it’s not dripping but not dry, and pour a few tablespoons of white vinegar into its center. Then microwave it on high for about a minute and a half. Let it sit in the microwave for another minute. Your kitchen will smell like hot cheap vinegar, yes, but your sponge will have a new life. Also, the food gunk in your microwave will have softened. Use your revived sponge to wipe that food gunk up while it’s primed. (Note: This method is controversial, because the jury is still out about its effectiveness. Whatever the case, it is an excellent way to get a microwave clean.)
The microwave is perfect for tempering smaller amounts of chocolate (and let’s be honest, when do you plan on tempering six pounds of chocolate at your house?). Tempering chocolate involves three factors: time, temperature, and agitation. The microwave method is great because it forces you to fully respect the time and agitation aspects. These instructions from Food52 will get you tempered chocolate, but don’t pay attention to their photo of the chef’s knife on the chocolate-strewn cutting board—it’s much easier to chop chocolate with a serrated knife, because the serrations bite down into the chocolate and keep it from slipping.
The ambient wintertime temperature of my kitchen is about 60 degrees F. When I make bread dough, it can take over a day to rise. And I don’t always have time to knock around waiting for it. That’s when you rig up a proofing box. Heat 8 to 16 ounces of water in a glass measuring cup on high power until the water is boiling. Put your covered bowl of kneaded dough in the microwave and shut the door. The warm, steamy sauna you just created will nurture your dough. Peek at it every so often and reap the rewards of expedited yeast incubation.
You can shrivel up fresh herbs in seconds (okay, maybe a minute). Once I was testing recipes and ran out of dried sage, and this saved me a trip to the grocery store. It works best with leafy herbs like tarragon, parsley, and, yes, sage. Wrap fresh herbs in a paper towel and microwave them at 50% power for a minute, and then additional 30-second bursts, if needed. Stand right there during this whole thing, because you can wind up with a strong smell similar to the stench of a different kind of burning herb if you carry it too far. Don’t trust me? Look at Organic Gardening’s instructions for reassurance.
Indian cooking authority Julie Sahni wrote a whole dang microwave Indian cookbook. Her method for basmati rice yields fluffy, restaurant-worthy results. And that reminds me, I need to get a copy of Sahni’s Moghul Microwave. Maybe I’ll find a lead on a new non-popcorn application for my microwave.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor.