What Power a Paper Towel Holds in the Microwave!
February 17, 2011 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Why does the addition of a layer of paper towel make such a big difference when microwaving certain foods?

Try to microwave a naked hot dog on a plate, and you'll not be satisfied with the result. Wrap a hot dog in a paper towel and voila! Perfectly nuked dog.

I bought frozen sausage biscuits and the instructions said to wrap in paper towel, which I did, with perfect results. I tried without paper towel much to my disappointment.

This is not me imagining things as I'd much rather not waste paper towel, and so I ask ye brilliant hive mind: what is the science behind said paper towel?
posted by curiositykilledthelemur to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: During microwave cooking the food gives off lots of steam, losing moisture.

Paper towel minimizes air flow away from the food, so the steam that comes out initially saturates the air around the hot dog, instead of being evenly distributed around the whole microwave chamber. Thus your food loses less moisture (water less likely to flow from food to already saturated air) and is surrounded by high moisture air where I'm guessing the heat distribution is more even.
posted by oblio_one at 10:06 AM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's the same principle as steaming vegetables in a covered pot: you don't lose the liquid in the food.
posted by something something at 10:10 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: If you'd rather not waste the paper towel, you can get the same effect from covering your food with a tea towel (light linen or cotton cloth). Just make sure to wash it often.
posted by phunniemee at 10:24 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I microwave stuff in microwave safe container Tupperware type things. I put the lid on top but not flush so the corners are exposed. It gives the same effect without wasting paper towels.

And yeah, it's from holding in steam and heat.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:29 AM on February 17, 2011

Have you tried using one of those plastic microwave lids? They don't wrap around the food like a paper towel does, but they definitely hold the steam in closer and the food tends to get heated more evenly, as well as protecting your microwave from splatters.
posted by wondermouse at 10:30 AM on February 17, 2011

Response by poster: fascinating! ms. lemur won't go for the plastic but the tea towel is a great idea!
posted by curiositykilledthelemur at 10:36 AM on February 17, 2011

Microwave radiation actually cooks to a more uniform depth as compared to either conduction (e.g. frying) or convection (baking), but still suffers what is charmingly referred to as the "skin effect". What this means is that the energy produced by your microwave has a tendency to flow more at the literal skin of your breakfast sausages and less at the frozen core. By wrapping your sausages, you accomplish two effects: the skin of the sausage is no longer the out-most surface of the sausage+paper towel conductor (so it doesn't burn), and the heat generated by the excited molecules within the sausage are insulated and less of the heat escapes (so the inside doesn't remain frozen).

Protip: put a teensy bit of water on the paper towel wrapping next time. This will shield the sausage outside even more.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hopefully I'm not hijacking the question, but can people recommend some plastic microwave covers? It's not needed for stuff like Tupperware that comes with their own lids, but if I'm nuking something in a bowl it'd be nice to have something that'll prevent splatters. I see some things on Amazon, but the reviews are very mixed.
posted by kmz at 10:46 AM on February 17, 2011

For things like pasta and rice you can put a little water in the bowl or on the plate when reheating and it keeps it from drying out. Similar idea. Easier than covering it to keep the moisture in, IMHO.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:56 AM on February 17, 2011

kmz, I have these, which are ridged on the bottom so some steam escapes and things don't super-heat or the lid doesn't get suctioned down to the top of the bowl or whatever. The set comes in four sizes, two that are coffee-cup sized, one that fits my standard soup bowls, and one that's plate-sized. They prevent spatter and hold in most of the steam.

I'm not super-thrilled about them being plastic but ... well, life is full of compromises and it's not like I'm otherwise entirely plastic-free.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 AM on February 17, 2011

I'm a bit icked out by the tea-towel proposition, as I imagine it's sure to have remnants of laundry detergent.
posted by Dragonness at 11:12 AM on February 17, 2011

If your clean laundry still has deterg. in it, you're using too much detergent. It doesn't take as much as the manufacturer says to get your clothes clean.

I use waxed paper, or, more often, put food in a ceramic bowl, cover with a plate, and nuke. I cover bowls with a plate when I put them in the fridge, too. My plates are glass, but I did the same when I had ceramic dishes. I'd use a paper towel for sausages, to absorb grease.
posted by theora55 at 11:27 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For things like veggie burgers, I often put them on a plate, then invert a bowl on top of it. Same concept, less wasteful, no plastic.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 11:32 AM on February 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

These work well, and fit perfectly on a Corelle dinner plate to make an stackable, vented but steamy compartment for food. Plastic, but possibly easier to handle than an inverted bowel or plate. Works with other plates too, of course.
posted by easilyamused at 12:46 PM on February 17, 2011

If you have access to an IKEA, you can find great microwave covers there ... they are large enough to fit over a dinner plate, with a few holes for venting but still tight enough to keep the steam inside. We call them "microwave hats" at my house.
posted by mccxxiii at 1:51 PM on February 17, 2011

I like the lids because, while they are plastic, they don't actually touch the food. I don't like microwaving things in plastic or while being touched by plastic (I don't use plastic wrap in the microwave if it's touching the food), but plastic being used as a cover doesn't seem bad to me. I've used $2 ones that they sell at CVS and found them satisfactory for most purposes.
posted by wondermouse at 4:17 PM on February 17, 2011

If your clean laundry still has deterg. in it, you're using too much detergent. It doesn't take as much as the manufacturer says to get your clothes clean.

I use less than a tablespoon of Charlie's Soap on a large load, but with the minuscule amount of water HE washers use now, I don't trust it even after a double rinse. It's fine for clothes, but for food, just not sure...
posted by Dragonness at 7:24 PM on February 17, 2011

Dragoness, that makes the hot dogs taste absolutely terrible!
posted by Xoebe at 1:51 PM on February 18, 2011

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