And not a mug cake in sight. 

Gillie Houston
Updated: March 25, 2019
Photo: Kelsey Hansen; Prop Styling: Kashara Johnson; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners

While ideally we’d all be able to set hours aside every day to roast, bake, fry, or grill satisfying homemade meals, sometimes time constraints and limited kitchen space call upon the trusty microwave to get the job done. Although the microwave might be primarily seen as a tool for quickly heating up leftovers or bags of popcorn, this versatile appliance can be used in a number of surprising ways to get lunch or dinner on the table faster. 

Whether you’re working with extremely limited appliances or simply want to shave some serious time off of your daily meal prep, these easy-to-follow ideas will help you get the job done in no time. Note that while the cooking times for each recipe may differ slightly depending on the wattage of your microwave, these instructions can act as guidelines and inspiration for unlocking the true potential of the ultimate countertop appliance. 

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Spaghetti Squash 

Despite its recent rise in popularity, spaghetti squash still has a bit of a reputation for being a difficult and time consuming vegetable to cook. Luckily, the microwave can shave a significant chunk of time off of your spaghetti squash cooking process. Simply pierce the squash all over with a sharp knife (to allow steam to escape the vegetable) and microwave on high for 10-15 minutes until the outer flesh feels slightly soft and pliable. Let the squash rest for 5-10 minutes before carefully slicing the squash in half and scooping out any seeds before shredding. You can also opt to cut and clean the squash before microwaving. Just slice the spaghetti squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, place the halves flesh side down in a microwave proof dish filled with ½ inch water, and microwave for 10-15 minutes until the flesh is easily shredded. Once cooked and shredded, top with the store-bought or pre-made sauce of your choice for a speedy, nutritional meal. 

Salmon 

This quick method will make for a fast, healthy lunch or dinner without lots of clean up. Start by patting dry a salmon fillet and brushing it with a thin layer of olive oil before placing the fish skin-side down in a microwave safe dish. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and optionally layer lemon slices and the herb of your choosing over the salmon. Cover the dish tightly in plastic wrap and microwave for 3-4 minutes, until the fish is cooked all the way through. 

Scrambled Eggs

One of the best things about cooking this protein-packed food in the microwave is that you can make your eggs as simple or spruced up as you’d like, with minimal cleanup. To make basic scrambled eggs, beat your eggs in a microwave-safe bowl or mug and add a dash of salt and pepper. Microwave on high for 45 seconds, stir, and microwave for an additional 45 seconds. Once you’ve got the basic steps down, get create with your eggs by adding ingredients like cubed ham, spinach, diced peppers, and more to your egg mixture before cooking. If you prefer cheese on your eggs, sprinkle it on before the second round of microwaving. 

Poached Eggs

While this microwave egg cooking method is more risky than scrambled eggs, when implemented correctly it will blow your mind. Start by placing a microwave-safe bowl of piping hot water combined with ½ teaspoon of white vinegar in the center of the microwave. Gently crack an egg into the water and immediately begin microwaving on high for 2-3 minutes until the whites have solidified. The circular motion of the microwave will keep your egg together as it cooks, resulting in a poached egg without a dirty pan. 

Mac and Cheese

Although any Italian grandmother would balk at the idea of cooking pasta in a microwave, that doesn’t mean it’s not a solid time and space saving solution for the rest of us. To create a bowl of homemade mac and cheese in the microwave, combine ½ cup elbow macaroni with 1 cup water and a pinch of salt, and microwave for 2-3 minutes. Then, mix in a few tablespoons of milk, ¼ cup (or more!) of cheese, and salt and pepper to taste before microwaving an additional 30 seconds. You’ll never consider using Kraft Easy Mac again. 

Enchiladas

This classic dish can be prepped and cooked in under 15 minutes with the help of a microwave and store-bought or pre-made enchilada sauce. Begin by adding a thin layer of enchilada sauce to the bottom of a microwave-safe casserole dish. Dip your flour tortillas in enchilada sauce before filling them with the ingredients of your choice—such as cheese or a pre-cooked and shredded meat combined with enchilada sauce—and rolling. Place each filled tortilla seam side down in the dish until full, cover with another thin layer of enchilada sauce, and sprinkle with shredded cheese. Microwave on high for 6-8 minutes, until heated all the way through. 

Quesadillas

Why stop at enchiladas when it comes to creating a microwave-friendly Mexican feast? To create your quesadilla, simply layer a flour tortilla with the cheese, pre-cooked meat, sauce, and cooked vegetables of your choice, and cover with another flour tortilla. If you want to go above and beyond, pre-microwave your flour tortillas for about a minute until slightly crisp, which will increase the ultimate crunch factor of your quesadilla. Once it’s assembled, microwave your quesadilla for 30 seconds to 1 minute, slice, and serve.

“Fried” Rice

This classic dish typically requires plenty of work and cleanup to pull off; however, the microwave can help significantly simplify the process. Combine ½ cup of white rice with 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of sesame oil in a microwave proof bowl, cover, and cook on high for 7 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed. Then, add the frozen vegetables of your choice—such as carrots and peas—to the rice, and beat 1 egg in a separate microwave-safe mug. Microwave both for 1 minute before adding the scrambled egg to the rice mixture. 

Risotto 

If you prefer your rice served Italian-style, try preparing a bowl of risotto using only the microwave. Begin by gathering the ingredients for any standard risotto recipe—a.k.a. Arborio rice, olive oil, garlic, onion, and broth. Cook your diced onions in some butter in a microwave-proof bowl before adding your garlic, rice, and broth. Cover loosely and microwave on medium power for 2 minutes, stir, and add additional broth if necessary before cooking for an additional 2 minutes. Continue this process a few times until your risotto has reached your preferred texture. Once your risotto is fully cooked, you can dress it up with a unique combination of ingredients, like butternut and sage or kale and bacon.   

“Roasted” Garlic

While roasted whole garlic’s rich flavor can’t be beat, this quick fix recipe will mimic the texture of roasted garlic in far less time. Begin by slicing off the top of the garlic so that all of the cloves are visible. Place in a microwave-safe dish, pour a thin layer of olive oil over the garlic, and top with salt and pepper if desired. Add a few tablespoons of water to the bottom of the dish, cover, and microwave on medium power for a few minutes. Check the tenderness of the garlic cloves with a fork and continue cooking in 2 minute increments until they’ve reached your prefered texture. 

Granola 

Most granola recipes can be recreated using the microwave alone. Improvise your own ingredients, or follow the ingredient list of the recipe of your choice, and begin by combining your butter, sugar or sweetener, spices, and a few tablespoons of water in a bowl, microwaving them on high for 5-7 minutes until piping hot. Then, add in your oats, nuts, and other ingredients (with the exception of dried fruits) and microwave for about 5 minutes, stirring midway through. Add dried fruit, if desired, and spread the hot granola out onto a cookie sheet to cool completely before storing in an airtight container. 

Baked Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes

When there’s no oven in sight, it’s easy to recreate this healthy, filling dish using only the power of the microwave. Scrub your potato thoroughly, dry, and pierce with a fork all over. Then, rub the potato with a thin layer of olive oil and top with a dash of salt. Microwave for 7-10 minutes on high, flipping over once halfway through, until the potato feels tender to the touch. From there, the toppings are totally up to you, from a simple pat of butter to a full spread of sour cream, cheese, and chives. 

Potato Chips 

When you’re craving a crunchy, salty snack but don’t feel like running out to the store to buy a full bag, microwavable potato chips are the ultimate solution. Start by slicing your potato into the thinnest possible pieces—preferably using a mandolin—and toss in 1 tablespoon of olive oil per potato. Spread your chips in a single layer on a parchment paper covered microwave safe plate, salt generously, and cook on high for about 5 minutes, until your chips are crispy. 

Toasted Nuts

This expedited toasted nuts recipe is as easy as spreading the nuts of your choice in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate and heating for 1 minute at a time, stirring the nuts around between each zap. Depending on the quantity of nuts, you’ll perform this 4-5 times until the nuts are toasted to your preference. 

Peanut Brittle 

When there are no burners in sight, it’s easy to make a satisfying batch of homemade peanut brittle using just the microwave as a heat source. Use a traditional peanut brittle recipe as a reference, combining the sugar and syrup in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaving for 5 minutes. Then, add the butter, vanilla, and peanuts and microwave for an additional 2 minutes before stirring in a teaspoon of baking soda and spreading in a thin layer on a parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Allow to cool for a minimum of 1 hour before breaking into bite-sized pieces. 

Monkey Bread 

To recreate this crowd-friendly sweet snack in the microwave, you’ll need a microwave-proof silicone bundt pan and a couple of store-bought cans of biscuit dough. Assemble your monkey bread like a standard recipe, breaking the dough into bite-sized pieces, coating in melted butter and sugar, and layering in the pan. Then, microwave on high for 5-7 minutes until cooked through and allow to cool for a few minutes before turning over onto a plate to serve.