Don’t feel like planning ahead to reheat yesterday’s chicken and veggies in the oven? Can’t stand the thought of having to wash a pot for warming your soup or cooking oatmeal? With a microwave you don’t have to. The device exists to make things more convenient. And yet, when you have to waste time scouring the inside of your hotbox because your food blew up—again—they’re anything but.
Sure, you could be one of those people who ignores the mess and lets the crusty, old food build up like snow in a polar vortex. (It’s just gonna happen again, so what’s the point?) But instead of wiping down messes for the umpteenth time, why not prevent the disgusting explosions in the first place?
Why Foods Explode in the Microwave
Microwaves function differently than other heat-inducing appliances: Ovens and stovetops heat food from the outside in, but microwaves warm everything at the same time, Penn State experts say. The electromagnetic waves cause the water molecules to gyrate back and forth, like middle schoolers at a dance. All that motion generates friction, which generates heat. (The waves, FYI, do emit small amounts of radiation. But there’s no evidence proving that there’s enough radiation to actually hurt you. So go ahead and nuke.)
Things can start to go awry when that heat penetrates food with a high water content. With notorious exploders, “Water starts to turn into steam, which could get trapped and form a bubble,” explains Institute of Food Technologists Student Association president-elect Matt Teegarden. That bubble eventually ends up bursting, and you end up with @%#! all over your microwave.
How to Stop the Splatter
Microwaving burst-prone foods is all about keeping that wild water under control. The best way to do that? It depends on the item in question.
White and sweet potatoes both have a thick skin that traps steam. But making lots of little holes in the surface with a fork would allow that steam to escape easily, Teegarden says. I tried it with a sweet potato, and I heard a lot of scary hissing. “That’s the sound of the water getting hot and turning into water vapor,” Teegarden told me.
The verdict: Despite the horrifying noises, this worked like a charm. And it was a lot faster than baking the potato for an hour an the oven.
With its steam-trapping shell, trying to hard-boil an egg is practically begging for an explosion. The most obvious way to prevent steam from building up is by pricking a hole in the eggshell with a pin. But that didn’t do much good for me: The egg still kablammed. Making a larger hole just caused the egg white to start leaking out. Some people say to cook the egg at 50 percent power, but the only way that my microwave rolls is full-throttle. So I decided to get rid of the shell altogether and make scrambled eggs instead. Stopping to stir the eggs every 30 seconds or so helped me achieve a fluffy, curd-like texture, rather than a mass of uniform egg.
The verdict: In my non-fancy microwave, it was impossible to make a hard-boiled egg. So I got rid of the steam build-up problem altogether by making scrambled eggs instead. It was easy.
A spaghetti squash is a lot like a potato, just with thicker skin... skin that’s too thick to prick with a fork. To deal with this, most recipes for microwaved spaghetti squash say to slice the squash in half horizontally and place the squash cut-side down on a microwave-safe plate. That allows enough steam to escape without totally drying out the squash flesh.
The verdict: This worked! The squash didn’t blow up, and the inside cooked up tender and moist. (Tip: Don't forget the microwave-safe plate like we did in the above GIF.)
I came across a couple of odd methods that were supposed to keep big bubbles from forming in my oatmeal. Adding copious amounts of butter was supposed to make the oatmeal more slippery and less gel-like. Resting chopsticks on top of the bowl was supposed to break up bubbles before they got too big. Thankfully, there were also simpler options: Teegarden said I could stir the oatmeal frequently to promote more even heat distribution and stop bubbles from forming in the first place. Using a big bowl was supposed to reduce the likelihood of spillovers.
The verdict: The part of the buttery oatmeal that didn’t end up all over the microwave (about half?) was rich and delicious. Chopstick oatmeal was just plain messy. Stirring the oatmeal often in a big bowl worked, but I had to be vigilant. If I walked away for more than 30 seconds, I risked returning to a bubble on the verge of bursting.
Tomato sauce and oatmeal explode for pretty much the same reasons. So I figured that I could keep my tomato sauce tidy the same way as my morning porridge: Use a big bowl and stir the sauce frequently. And if that didn’t work? “The best thing might be to get one of those splatter shields,” he told me.
The verdict: As predicted, using a big bowl and stirring every 30 seconds got the job done. Yes!
The Bottom Line
You can end the cycle of endless microwave explosions by stopping steam from building up in your food. And maybe getting a splatter shield for extra insurance.