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How to survive without a microwave

You don't really need a microwave. Here's how you can cook, reheat food and more without one.

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My oldest daughter currently lives in an apartment with a tiny kitchen and no room for a microwaves. Most people would balk at the idea of not having a microwave since they've become fixtures in pretty much every Western kitchen.

But if your kitchen, dorm, office, RV or anywhere else you make food doesn't have a microwave, or you just plain hate them, you'll be just fine. It's easy to reheat foods and cook up meals without nuking. 

Why microwaving isn't always the best option

Some of the biggest reasons people purchase microwaves is because they think they need them to defrost foods or to quickly heat up leftovers or quick snacks. While the microwave may be fast, it's not so great when it comes to quality.

Defrosting

Defrosting in the microwave doesn't always produce the best results. For example, poultry defrosted in a microwave can come out rubbery. Red meats can change in texture, as well.

The better option is to leave the meat in the fridge overnight to defrost. If you're defrosting a lot of meat, refrigerate it 24 hours for every pound (16 ounces) of meat. This will mean planning your meals ahead of time, but your dishes will taste so much better.

Another option that's quicker, but still preserves the food's quality, is cold water thawing. The USDA recommends putting the meat in a sealed zipper bag, then submerging it in a sink or bowl full of cold tap water. Small packages of meat (no more than one pound) should thaw in under an hour, while 3 to 4 pounds of meat may take up to 2 to 3 hours. Remember to change the water every 30 minutes.

I've used this method when I forgot to defrost the turkey on Thanksgiving. It takes about 30 minutes per pound to completely defrost, but it's far better than a rubbery microwave-thawed turkey.

Quick cooking

The biggest problem with cooking quick food items in the microwave is that it can't brown. This can make frozen foods, like pizza pockets or breakfast sandwiches, limp or soggy. 

A much better option is to pop the item in a toaster oven or your full-sized oven. Crisp foods will come out crisp and soft foods, like frozen breakfast sandwiches, won't end up a goopy mess.

What about popcorn, you ask? Cook it on the stove! All you need is a pan with a lid, some oil and popcorn kernels. Heat the oil in your pan, and once hot, add the kernels. As they start to pop, shake the pan often to prevent burning.

Reheating

Then there's reheating. Reheating in the microwave can make foods dry, because it heats food rapidly which allows any water molecules in your dish to vaporize. The best way to warm foods is by heating them the same way they were cooked.

For example, if you're heating up dumplings from your Chinese takeout, steam them for a few minutes on the stove. 

To steam on the stove or hot plate, put the food in a metal colander or steaming basket. Add a few inches of water to a pot that's large enough to fit the colander or basket completely inside. Place your colander with food inside the pot, being sure the food isn't sitting in the water. Cover your pot, turn on the heat and allow the water to come to a simmer. Let it steam for a few minutes, or until heated through.

Most other foods you'd normally heat up in the microwave will taste better if reheated in an oven (or toaster oven) or on the stove. Casseroles, roast or fried chicken, fries, and pizza should go in an oven set to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius). Leftover pasta or fried rice can be reheated over medium heat for a few minutes in a skillet on the stove.

Cooking for one

If you live in a dorm or tiny apartment without a microwave or an oven, you can still get quick meals without resorting to fast food. With a bit of ingenuity you can cook meals for yourself using two small appliances that can fit in any size kitchen.

Waffle iron

The waffle iron is the culinary pinnacle of small appliances for people with very little room, at least in my opinion. It can cook all types of yummy treats in a matter of minutes. Granted, everything will be somewhat flattened, but it'll still taste good.

tater-tots-with-egg

These giant tots are topped with an egg. Mmm...

Sharon Profis/CNET

One of my favorite waffle iron recipes is the giant tater tot. Place eight to 10 slightly thawed tots on a greased waffle iron and smash the two sides of the appliance together. Lock it for two to three cycles (a cycle is when the ready light turns on and then turns off). Then, use a fork to remove the tot from the waffle iron. It will be crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Here are some more of CNET's favorite waffle iron recipes.

Coffee Maker

Basic coffee makers are super affordable and much more versatile than they appear. The simplicity of a basic coffee maker's design allows you cook a multitude of items.

coffee-machine-hot-dog

It took a while, but my hotdog got nice and warm.

Alina Bradford/CNET

Clean out the pot after your morning brew and fill the tank with water, as if you were going to make coffee again. Just don't add the coffee. The water in the tank will heat up and make its way into the carafe. Once the hot water is ready, use it to make foods like ramen, cup of soup or boxed macaroni and cheese like you normally would.

You can also steam vegetables in a coffee maker. Grab a filter and fill it with whatever vegetables you want to steam. You'll want to cut up thicker vegetables like carrots or squash. Put the filter in the coffee maker where it usually goes. The filter compartment must be closed for this to work. Then, let the coffee maker run like it's making coffee. When it's done, you'll have steamed veggies.

The coffee maker can also toast. Take the pot off the heating plate and cover the plate with a square of aluminum foil. Bam! You have a griddle for one. Use your little griddle to toast sandwiches, heat hotdogs, make tiny pancakes, crisp toaster waffles, or even fry bacon.

Now remember, the heating plate won't get as hot as a stove, so it will take longer to heat stuff up. For example, it took me about 5 minutes to heat up a hot dog.

Other small appliances that cook and reheat

If you're in the "I hate microwaves" crowd, there are plenty of other countertop appliances that can reheat or cook food. We've touched on a few, but here's a little more information to help you choose:

  • Electric kettles, like the Cuisinart PerfecTemp Cordless Electric Kettle can be used to heat up water for tea, coffee, ramen and other foods. Make sure to look for one that has a warming feature to keep water hot for when you need it.
  • Toaster ovens can heat up just about anything a conventional oven can. CNET recommends the Panasonic FlashXpress Toaster Oven.
  • Instant Pot is the cooking sensation that can do almost anything. It can steam foods, cook rice, make yogurt, slow cook and pressure cook. I personally use an Instant Pot Duo that I adore. Here's a complete guide on how to use an Instant Pot and its capabilities.
  • Rice cookers are a must if you cook a lot of rice. Every batch turns out perfectly and you don't need to babysit it. Here's how rice cookers work.  
  • Sous vide is a lot like slow cooking, except you put your food in a sealed bag and place it in a water bath. The water is heated and circulated by an immersion circulator like the easy-to-use Anova Precision Cooker. What's great about cooking sous vide is that technically you don't need a stove or oven (though it helps for finishing off certain recipes, like searing a steak). You can cook your food entirely with the immersion circulator. Here's your complete guide to the science of sous vide cooking.
  • Slow cookers let you make entire meals without much effort. They can cook while you're at work or running errands and, if used properly, the food will come out perfectly. CNET's choice for best slow cooker is the Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget.