We’ve all been there: You’ve pulled out last night’s delicious chili leftovers, scooped them into a bowl, and put them in the microwave for what you hope will be a 90-second journey to a hot, delicious meal.
Beep! Beep! The microwave cheerily sings out a victory anthem; your food is ready.
You reach for the bowl… and scald the first three layers of skin off your hands in the process. The dish isn’t just hot; it’s as though you just plucked Beelzebub’s dinner plate straight from the fires of hell.
Fighting back tears, you wrap a cloth around the bowl and place it on the table, your hunger only made more intense by the tingling sensation left where your fingertips used to be.
Not even third degree burns can ruin what you’re sure will be the best second-helping of chili you’ve ever had in your life. Excitedly, you dig in a spoon and take a bite – only to find that the food is just as cold as when you first put it in.
What kind of cruel joke is this?
As you spit out icicles of beef and beans, you debate finding a baseball bat to take vengeance on the infernal hate machine sitting on your counter.
Stop! The Problem Probably Isn’t Your Microwave.
To answer the question of why microwaves sometimes heat the dish and not the food, it helps to have a very basic understanding how a microwave oven works.
When you merrily punch in the numbers and hit “Start”, everything in your microwave oven is bombarded with electromagnetic waves. These waves will bounce off, pass through, or be absorbed by whatever is inside the oven.
Bouncing off or passing through an object won’t heat it up, but when the microwaves are absorbed, the molecules absorbing them get more excited than a Bieber fan with front row seats. This agitation creates heat, and this heat is what warms up your food.
The electromagnetic waves used in a microwave are special because they are released at a frequency that is absorbed by water, sugar, and fat molecules, but which leaves other molecules alone.
Ideally, that means your dish shouldn’t be affected by the microwaves at all. However, the same process that heats up your food can also cause your dinner plate to transform into a disc of molten lava.
Your Dishes Are Likely the Culprit!
We all know not to throw metal into a microwave (unless you want to be treated to the most expensive, destructive, and terrifying homegrown lightning show EVER), but what you may not know is that some dishes are unsafe to use in microwave ovens because they contain or absorb molecules that get all hot and bothered by microwaves.
If the dish is absorbing all the microwaves, your food stays cold while the dish gets hotter. This is especially problematic when your food is inside a bowl, cup, or closed dish because the dish will act like a greedy shield, preventing the microwaves from reaching the food.
It’s not just an annoying problem – microwaving unsafe dishes can cause them to crack and break, sometimes violently! There’s nothing that will ruin your day quite like seeing your favorite bowl shatter into a thousand tragic pieces.
What Kinds of Dishes Should Be Avoided?
In general, unless a dish is labeled as microwave-friendly, you’re best to avoid it. Unfortunately, not all dishes are properly labeled. If you want to test whether or not your dish is safe:
- Fill a cup you know is microwave-friendly with water.
- Place the cup in the microwave along with the dish you’d like to test.
- Run the microwave for 30 seconds.
- STAND BACK! This baby could blow at any moment! (Just kidding. These tests are safe, but please use caution and common sense and do not bring water to a boil.)
- If the dish feels quite hot but the cup does not, that dish is not safe to use.
- If you plan to repeat the test, allow the water to cool before placing it back in the microwave.
Some of the more common dishes that cause problems include:
- Unglazed ceramics. These are notorious for absorbing water from the food you’re trying to cook.
- Decorative or high-glaze bowls. While most glazes are safe for use in a microwave, highly decorative or artisan bowls may use glazes that contain water molecules. Always test to be certain – and if you’re not sure, simply do not use the dish.
- Fine china. Often, china has a metal brim or has designs painted in materials that won’t play nice with microwaves.
- Things to never microwave: Dishes containing metal, including aluminum foil and those with metal trim. In addition, Styrofoam, certain types of plastic containers, and plastic bags or brown paper bags should not be microwaved due to possible meltdowns and fire or smoke issues.
The bottom line is this: If your dish is heating up and your food isn’t, don’t use that dish. Your fingertips and un-cracked dinnerware will thank you.
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