Cheap heats: microwave cooking tips to save you time and money | Food

Microwaves have long been associated with drab 1980s cooking, unsightly additions to home kitchens and unhealthy ready meals. But with energy costs soaring, they are sparking increasing interest for their ability to cook food efficiently – and cheaply.

Recent research by the energy company Utilita suggests that microwaves are the cheapest way to cook, costing only 8p a day to use, or £30 annually, compared with 33p a day to run a gas cooker, adding up to £120 over 12 months, based on an estimated daily use of 43 minutes.

So what are the best dishes to make in a microwave?


Vacuum-sealed packs of asparagus
Vacuum-sealed vegetables can be cooked in the bag using a microwave. Photograph: Reinis Bigacs/Alamy

Microwaving vegetables in a vacuum pack is one of the healthiest ways to eat them as well as the best way to ensure they cook evenly, according to the chef Jonny Marsh (@chef_jonnymarsh), who has worked with Panasonic as well as being a personal chef to Premier League footballers.

To prepare meals, he recommends purchasing a roll of vacuum packs (available on Amazon) and setting all your raw vegetables – for instance sliced carrots, broccoli or green beans – out for the week.

If you remove all the air the prepared vegetables will keep in the fridge for a week, and you can pull a pack out every time you have a meal. Put the un-pierced bag into the microwave, and one minute 30 seconds later your meal is done.

“I’m pretty lazy, I’ve done this for years,” he says, adding that pre-packed veg is especially welcome after a long shift.

If you cannot get a hold of vacuum packs, you can also microwave vegetables in a bowl with a little water.

Jacket potatoes, one of the most popular microwave meals, take just 10 minutes to cook in a microwave compared with 90 minutes in an oven. Just pierce them with a fork first and add toppings afterwards.

Meat, fish and eggs

Fish cooks “extremely well” in a microwave, according to the author of Microwave Mug Meals, Theo Michaels (@theocooks). If you cover it with clingfilm or a plate, fish will steam itself, emerging “soft, succulent and cooked in literally a couple of minutes”, he says.

Meat is a little more challenging. Microwaves are generally best for steaming; making anything crispy or caramelised – for instance browning meat – doesn’t really work, though Michaels’ top tip is to add a spoonful of Marmite to recapture lost flavour.

Alternatively, cook meals in a sauce or stock to poach the meat. This might include chunks of chicken in passata or coconut with spices.

Michaels also cooks a Vietnamese phở this way – cooking dried noodles in boiling water in a mug, adding garlic and ginger, cooking for one minute, then chicken stock, sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, beansprouts and veg and microwaving for another minute. He then places thinly sliced steak over the top and lets it cook in the residual heat. The stock and meat can be swapped to vegetarian alternatives.

A bowl of phở, a Vietnamese dish comprising rice noodles, beef and fresh herbs
Vietnamese phở can be prepared using a microwave to cook the rice noodles and soup before adding thin strips of beef to steam in the residual heat. Photograph: Nguyen Dinh Luan/Alamy

He also has a surprisingly effective recipe for microwave cottage pie. It involves cooking diced potatoes in a microwaveable bowl with a splash of water, mashing them with milk and butter, then cooking the onions and garlic separately before adding beef mince, flour, tomato puree, thyme, Marmite and more water. He microwaves the mixture for seven minutes (fluffing in between), stirring in gravy granules and then spooning the mash on top and serving with microwaved peas.

Scrambled eggs are a favourite, says Michaels. Just make sure to remove them from the microwave before they are fully cooked to prevent them going rubbery. He recommends adding a teaspoon of mayonnaise at the end to make them creamier.

And finally … cake

A microwave chocolate brownie in a mug
A microwave chocolate brownie in a mug. Photograph: Brent Hofacker/Alamy

You might now be wondering “what can’t microwaves do?” but the answer would not be cake.

You can make a decent sponge in the microwave, with the same ingredients as the oven version – albeit different measurements. Recipes vary, though all emphasise the need for a microwave-safe bowl – a metal cake tin could, of course, cause a fire.

This Guardian recipe recommends that you avoid milk (it stops it becoming soggy), and that you keep it rich with butter and eggs, and use strong flavours.

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