Microwaving food is so simple that the temptation to put it in, hit start and walk away is often irresistible. But the result can be meals that are either overcooked or unevenly heated.
Just as you would adjust the temperature on your oven or your hob, adjusting the microwave power settings can make all the difference to the finished dish. This is because some foods are more suited to a low and slow approach, rather than a relentless blast of high power. Others can be cooked using a mix of high and low power, such as rice, where the high power can bring the water to a boil, then a lower setting can simmer the grains to fluffy perfection.
Confusingly, not all microwave settings are presented in the same way: some will list power levels by wattage; some by defrost, low, medium and high; others by numbered power levels. However, each will show their maximum power (for example, 900W) so you should be able to work out where their settings sit with the guide below. Alternatively, if you’re lucky enough to have presets on your model, check the instructions to find out the range of foods for which they work best.
Related: Best microwaves
1. Very low: 100W and below
The lowest microwave settings are ideal for keeping food warm and gentle defrosting of large items, such as chicken or a turkey weighing less than 2.25kg. For the best defrosting results, allow 5-9 minutes per 450g, remove all packaging (since this can retain heat, which starts to cook the meat) and separate into portions where possible, with the thickest parts of the bird facing outwards.
Once the time has elapsed, the turkey should still feel cold and have a few remaining ice crystals. Allow these to defrost naturally, since additional microwave defrosting will tend to dry out the meat. If any parts are still slightly frozen, rinse under cold water and pat dry with kitchen roll.
This very low setting can also be used to soften ice cream (30 seconds to a minute depending on how hard it is) or proof bread dough if you don’t have a suitable warm spot for it. To do so, cover the bowl of dough with greased cling film, and put the bowl into a shallow dish of warm water. Set for 10-14 minutes on the low setting until the dough has doubled in size. For a second rise, pop it in a non-metal pan, cover with greased cling film and set on low for 5 minutes. Then, let it stand in the microwave until the dough has finished rising.
2. Low: 100-400W
These power levels are still low enough to defrost and soften items, such as ice cream, butter, chocolate and cheese, but you can also use them for simmering rice, pasta and dumplings and low-and-slow cooking. Foods that can be cooked on this low heat include egg custard (using high to heat the milk but a lower power to set the custard), chilli, stews and sauces. It’s also possible to bake a fruit cake using this low setting; it’s perfect for making sure the high fat, high sugar mixture won’t overheat and burn. Try cooking it for 60-80 minutes.
3. Medium: 400-500W
Medium power levels are best for gentle cooking, simmering and baking, for dishes that can’t be stirred and foods that contain dairy. They’re also suitable for dense foods that would require a longer time when cooked in the oven or braising on the hob, such as beef dishes or casseroles.
This setting ensures that meat will be tender without drying out. Try cooking beef on high power for 5 minutes, then 50-60 minutes on medium. Medium is ideal for pork or ham, too, since higher power causes the meat to become tough.
You can also microwave soft-cooked eggs cracked into a container – allow about 50 seconds cooking and 30 seconds standing time for a single egg.
4. Medium high: 500-800W
This is a great power level to use if foods you’ve previously cooked on high have come out looking a bit frazzled or hot on the outside with a cooler centre. It’s a good one to default to for reheating leftovers or cooking dense foods, such as meatloaf or roasting joints of meat.
For joints, use a rack to raise the meat up – if your microwave came with one – and cover loosely with baking parchment to minimise splatters. For a 2.25kg joint, try 20-30 minutes, flip it over and repeat. Check the temperature inside with a meat thermometer to ensure it’s cooked in the centre.
You can also use this power level for baking sponge cake, with less risk of it drying out.
5. High: 800-1000W
The fast cooking from a high wattage is best suited to reheating anything with a high water content, such as soups, canned food and hot drinks. However, bear in mind that cooking is very quick – it’s easy to overheat liquids, resulting in them suddenly boiling over. A good way to minimise this is to stir before putting in the microwave, stir halfway through, and allow to stand once the time has elapsed.
High power is also suitable for cooking ground meat, pasta, lentils, poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables.
It’s also the ideal setting for cooking jacket potatoes. To get the best results, you can break from the usual rules of microwave cooking and place the potato directly on the turntable. For a medium-sized potato, prick the skin to prevent it bursting, microwave for around 5 minutes, turn halfway through, and continue to cook for 5 more minutes. Then let it stand for a few minutes to let the heat carry on penetrating to the centre before cutting it open and releasing the steam.