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Proper microwave oven use may appear obvious on the surface. But there are a few things you should know about the right way to use a microwave oven in order to ensure safe, great-tasting meals and snacks every time.
Frozen foods can cook less evenly in the microwave than in conventional ovens, sometimes resulting in cold spots. It is important to carefully follow the cooking instructions on product labels, making sure to observe stirring steps and standing times if indicated. The “standing time” is actually an important part of the process, as your food may continue to cook once it comes out of the microwave. It’s not just so you don’t burn your mouth!
If you have an older model microwave or one with a lower wattage than the cooking instructions recommend, you may have to adjust the cooking time in order to reach the necessary temperature before serving. It is best to use a food thermometer to check your frozen foods to make sure a safe temperature has been reached throughout.
For frozen and refrigerated foods that do not have cooking instructions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following cooking temperatures.
|PRODUCT||TYPE||INTERNAL TEMP (°F)|
|Beef & Veal||Ground||160|
|Steak and roasts – medium||160|
|Steak and roasts – rare||145|
|Chicken & Turkey||Breasts||165|
|Ground, stuffing and casseroles||165|
|Whole bird, legs, thighs and wings||165|
|Fish & Shellfish||Any type||145|
|Steak and roasts – medium||160|
|Steak and roasts – rare||145|
|Pork||Chops, fresh (raw) ham, ground, ribs and roasts||160|
|Fully cooked ham (to reheat)||140|
Using a microwave oven to prepare frozen vegetables isn’t just convenient – it can be even better for you than cooking vegetables on the stovetop. When you cover vegetables with water and boil them, or fry them in oil, the vitamins and minerals can leach into the cooking liquid. Water-soluble vitamins like vitamins B and C and folic acid are especially vulnerable.
By microwaving your frozen vegetables with just a splash of water, you minimize the opportunity for the vitamins and minerals to leach out. And because the freezing process itself actually “locks in” nutrients otherwise lost during storage and transport, frozen vegetables prepared in the microwave are a sure bet for healthy and delicious eating.
It is important to note that frozen vegetables do need to be cooked according to the instructions on the label. Some popular recipes, articles and websites call for adding partially frozen or thawed vegetables directly to dips, salads and other recipes without cooking them. However, frozen vegetables are not intended to be consumed without cooking, as they may contain bacteria that are killed when cooked properly and thoroughly.
The best tasting frozen foods are the ones that have been handled and stored properly from the field to your fork. Frozen foods can sometimes travel long distances from where they were prepared to your grocer’s freezer. Along the way, they have been transported by refrigerated trucks and rail cars that use high-tech equipment and strict monitoring to ensure perfectly maintained frozen cargo.
When you purchase frozen foods, it is important that you transport them as quickly as possible from the store to your home freezer. Like refrigerated trucks, it can be helpful if you keep a cooler or insulated bag in your car to ensure frozen products don’t thaw on the ride home. This can be especially helpful during warm summer months.
Your home freezer should be set to 0°F (-18°C) to ensure the safety and quality of frozen foods. Products that have been thawed and refrozen can form unwanted frost or ice crystals and may be at risk of bacterial growth. And while frozen foods will be safe to eat indefinitely when stored at 0°F, it’s best to consume them before the expiration or “use by” date on the package, as minor fluctuations in your freezer’s temperature can cause a decrease in product quality over time.
If you lose electricity in your home, keep your freezer door closed as much as possible. A full freezer will keep an adequate temperature for about 48 hours if the door remains closed.
Eating freshly-caught fish straight from the docks isn’t a luxury many consumers have. Fortunately, advancements in freezing technology allow us to enjoy seafood and shellfish caught in other parts of the country and from around the world. Today, most fresh catches are frozen immediately onboard the fishing vessel and shipped in very low temperatures to preserve that “just caught” fresh taste.
When choosing frozen seafood and shellfish, you should look for packages that aren’t open, torn or otherwise damaged. Choose packages that are low in your grocer’s freezer, as the cooler air tends to settle toward the bottom. And if you can see the product through the package, check to make sure no frost or ice crystals have formed, which could be an indication the product has been thawed and refrozen.
The safest way to thaw frozen seafood is to place it in the refrigerator overnight. However, if you must use frozen seafood before it has a chance to thaw on its own, you can seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in cold water to bring the temperature up before use. You may also use the “defrost” setting on your microwave to thaw frozen fish to an icy but pliable state, but it must be cooked immediately thereafter.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has oversight responsibility for the safety of many of the foods we enjoy. The agency considers some prepared foods to be “ready-to-eat” and others “ready-to-cook.”
Ready-to-eat foods are just that: foods that can be eaten right out of the refrigerator, like cheese, deli meats and dairy products, for example. When stored properly, these foods carry a very low risk of containing potentially harmful bacteria. Proper storage includes keeping the refrigerator at 40°F (4°C) or below, using ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible and regular cleaning of your refrigerator.
As their name suggests, ready-to-cook foods must be cooked according to package instructions or labels that tell you to cook or bake them. Most frozen foods are “ready-to-cook” foods.
The freezing process does not actually kill all bacteria; some can live at freezing temperatures. Even frozen foods that were partially cooked by the producer may not have been cooked at temperatures high enough or long enough to kill all the bacteria that might have been present. So it is important for your safety that you prepare ready-to-cook frozen foods according to their cooking instructions.
The FDA website is a helpful source of additional information about food safety.