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The Solo Cook’s Secret Weapon: The Microwave

Use your microwave for more than just leftovers.

Published July 17, 2020.

Indulging in the delight of dining alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you're one of the 36 million Americans who live alone or one of the countless others who cook for themselves for other reasons, you'll love our cookbook Cooking for One, which has more than 160 perfectly portioned recipes, along with approachable tips that will help you become a smarter, more confident, and less wasteful cook.

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Camila Chaparro

Microwaves are standard fixtures in most kitchens, but let’s be honest: are you getting the most out of yours?  During recipe development for our cookbook Cooking for One, we found ourselves continuously turning to our microwave to streamline recipes, speed up cooking times, and overall make our lives a little easier.

Maybe you use your microwave to reheat some leftovers, pop some popcorn, or at the very most melt some butter. But when you’re cooking for one, every time-saving, corner-cutting tip is welcome. And microwaves certainly fit the bill: They’re perfectly sized for single portions, they eliminate the need to turn on larger appliances like your stove or oven, and they can even be used to preserve or repurpose leftover ingredients that might otherwise go to waste. Here are some of our favorite cooking tasks to make your microwave earn its keep.

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Make Crunchy Toppings

Sometimes all your meal needs to feel complete is a sprinkle of something crunchy. But who wants to fire up the oven or get out a skillet to toast a measly handful of nuts? While you may not associate “crunchy” with microwaved food, the microwave is actually a really great appliance for making a single-serving amount of crispy toppings. It’s perfect for toasting a small amount of food (like nuts or coconut) and can even be used to fry things like shallots or leeks in tiny batches to make gourmet finishing elements without the hassle of heating up a pot of oil.

Bloom Spices

To intensify the flavor of spices in vinaigrettes, cold sauces, or dips, and to prevent spices from tasting “dusty” in marinades, we like to “bloom” ground spices by cooking them in fat first. Typically we’d do this on the stove, but when you’re making such a small amount of dressing or sauce, why go through the trouble? Instead, simply microwave oil and spices in a medium bowl until bubbly and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Then you can build your dressing directly in that bowl (bonus points for less cleanup).

Make Quick-Pickled Vegetables

Cooking for yourself often means you’re left with some sad half-used vegetables at the end of the week. Instead of tossing that half a red onion, one lonely radish, few scraggly carrots, or half head of cabbage, use them to make pickles in your microwave. Pickled vegetables are a great way to give a new life to vegetable odds and ends, bringing bright zinginess, color, and crunch to rice bowls, tacos, salads, and more. They’ll also last in your fridge for about a week, extending the life of those veggies even further.

Here’s how to make quick-pickled vegetables using your microwave:

  1. Microwave 1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar and ½ teaspoon salt until hot and beginning to bubble at edges, 1 to 2 minutes. 
  2. Stir mixture until sugar dissolves, then add sliced or ribboned cucumbers, carrots or radishes, shredded cabbage, or sliced red onion (enough to submerge in brine) and stir to combine. 
  3. Let mixture sit, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes then use slotted spoon to serve.

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Jumpstart (or speed up) cooking of starchy vegetables

If the idea of waiting an hour for one potato to bake in the oven has you moving on to a different dinner option, put your microwave to work and cut the time in half: while your oven heats to 450 degrees, microwave one russet potato (poke holes in it with a fork first!) until slightly soft, 6 to 12 minutes, then pop it in the oven to finish cooking for another 20 minutes. Squash (particularly petite acorn squash, conveniently single sized) is another generally long-cooking vegetable that cooks well (and quickly) in the microwave (see Acorn Squash with Brown Sugar). 

Dehydrate herbs and citrus zest

Herbs are one of the trickiest ingredients for the solo cook—even if you only need a sprig or two for a recipe, it’s hard to buy them in small quantities and they usually go bad before you can use them all. Instead of hanging them to dry, try dehydrating them in your microwave to use later. Similarly, if you don’t have a need for citrus zest, but do need juice, peel the zest first, dry it in the microwave and save it for later to add citrusy aromas to tea, pan sauces, custards, or cooking water for grains. 

  • To dry herbs in the microwave: Place hardy herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano) in single layer between 2 paper towels on microwave turntable. Microwave on high power for 1 to 3 minutes, until leaves turn brittle and fall easily from stem.
  • To dehydrate citrus zest in the microwave: Use a vegetable peeler to remove strips of citrus zest, avoiding the bitter pith. Place strips on a paper towel–lined plate. Microwave on high power for 2 to 3 minutes, let cool, then store in airtight container.

Make Snacks and Desserts

Have some extra ingredients you need to use up? Use your microwave to make a smorgasbord of snacks. Turn leftover kale into kale chips, the end of your hunk of cheese into cheese crisps, and toast up some nuts and toss them with spices like curry powder, ras al hanout, or smoked paprika.

Looking for something sweet? You’re in luck. In Cooking for One, we’ve got a whole array of microwaved desserts, whether we’re using it to melt chocolate for our Chocolate–Peanut Butter Truffles, or make a fruit crisps without turning on the oven.

Want more info on cooking for one? Check out this collection of time-saving tips and other helpful resources, and our Cooking for One cookbook.

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