'Cook it Safe' campaign corrects microwave mistakes

Consumer Reports News: September 02, 2011 08:08 AM

Only 61 percent of Americans follow the directions on the package when cooking prepared foods and far fewer, 19 percent, use a food thermometer to check the temperature. To correct these bad habits, a number of federal and food safety agencies have banded together to launch the Cook it Safe campaign. Representatives of the frozen food and home appliance industries have joined in to lend their expertise.

"Frozen or refrigerated convenience foods are popular items in many Americans' homes, but there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to cooking these foods," said Al Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Some of them can be microwaved, but others can't."

Not all frozen convenience foods are ready-to-eat and some contain raw ingredients that must be fully cooked rather that just reheated. It's important to use the cooking appliance specified on the package when heating your food be it a conventional oven, a convection oven, a toaster oven or a microwave.

If you are microwaving your food, heed the special instructions because they are there for a reason—to ensure even cooking. Covering the food traps in the moisture and raises the temperature. Stirring prevents cold spots where bacteria can survive. And letting the food stand after it's removed from the microwave allows it to continue cooking. Remember that even microwaves equipped with a turntable can cook unevenly so it's best to test the temperature with a food thermometer.

The higher the wattage of a microwave, the faster it will cook. If a microwave's wattage is lower than that required in the instructions, the food will take longer to reach a safe internal temperature. According to Consumer Reports microwave buying advice, midsized and large microwaves are typically rated at 850 to 1,650 watts; compact ovens, at about 600 to 800 watts. If you don't know the wattage of your microwave you can conduct the following test:

Measure one cup of plain tap water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add lots of ice cubes, and stir until the water is ice cold. Remove the ice cubes and excess until only one cup is left. Put the cup in the microwave and set it on high for four minutes. Watch the water through the window to see when it boils.

  • If water boils in less than 2 minutes, it is a very high wattage microwave of 1000 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 2½ minutes, it is a high wattage microwave of about 800 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 3 minutes, it is an average wattage microwave of 650 to 700 watts or more.
  • If water boils in more than 3 minutes or not by 4 minutes, it is a slow microwave of 300 to 500 watts.

Heating evenness is one of the factors we consider when testing microwaves. Fewer than 10 of the dozens of over-the-counter and countertop microwaves we tested scored excellent on the evenness test, which underscores the advice from Cook it Safe. Fortunately, many of the microwaves we tested were very good at cooking evenness and posted good scores overall.

Mary H.J. Farrell

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