Microwave mug recipes that prove no-fuss cooking for one can actually be great
The idea of a "fast and fabulous" microwave mug recipe is irresistible: There's little waiting or washing up, you don't heat up the kitchen, and the mug is the perfect size when you're cooking for one. It's also an easy way to eat more homemade and less takeout without spending a lot of extra time. But up until recently, almost every mug recipe I tried was a letdown. The reason: Microwave ovens typically cook by steaming -- energy waves heat up the water in foods and steam them from the inside out. And steaming doesn't develop much flavor.
I decided to try to think outside (or would it be inside?) the box and figure out how to make something better. It took an "aha" moment and lots of follow-up experimentation, but I eventually came up with some quick breakfast, lunch, supper and dessert mugs (including individual berry cobblers) that passed my taste tests.
Here's the how-to behind tastier mug recipes: Microwave ovens cannot only steam food, but in some situations can toast, fry and even caramelize. And that makes all the difference. All sorts of dry or low-moisture ingredients -- flour, sugar, nuts, uncooked rice, onions, celery, bacon and many more -- can go from raw-tasting to mellow, aromatic and even crisp with a minute or two of "micro-toasting" or "micro-frying." Just as slow-cooker recipes turn out better when you add a searing or sauteing step, microwaves produce better food when you do a little bit more than just dump in the ingredients and walk away until you hear that ping.
With this in mind, I tried revamping traditional microwave recipes to include more toasting and frying. The first candidate was a healthful brown rice, corn and bean salsa bowl that had previously flunked my flavor test. Instead of microwaving everything together as usual, I first sizzled the uncooked rice and chopped onion in a little oil for 1 minute. This one change transformed the dish from yawn to yum. I tried the same approach with a berry cobbler, zapping the flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon mixture until fragrant and toasty, then folding it into the berries and finishing the cooking. Again, eureka!: an individual, crispy-topped cobbler in the same league as ones that need an hour in the oven.
For a potato soup, I "zap fried" the bacon and celery until browned and crisp before mixing them into the broth. I also quickly "baked" the potato and mashed it with butter and salt to boost its taste. Likewise, for a fruit-and-yogurt breakfast mug, I briefly "baked" the fruit and honey, which melded their flavors and instantly released the juices needed for making the sauce.
Now for some caveats and tips. All four of these recipes were tested in a standard 1250-watt microwave oven. If yours has a lower wattage, dishes may need more zapping time; if it's more powerful, they will probably require less. Pay attention to the size of the cooking bowls and mugs called for. Otherwise, ingredients may boil over or take longer to cook than they should. Also, because these recipes aren't just being reheated but are cooked, containers tend to get really hot. Be sure to use potholders or mitts just as you would with conventional oven fare.
If you're now yearning for one of these mugs in a hurry, you know what it takes: just a little zapping, stirring and pinging.
• Nancy Baggett is an author of nearly 20 cookbooks, including "The Art of Cooking With Lavender."