Microwaves are essential to all kitchens, from thawing meat for elegant meal prep to reheating those divine breadsticks you always get to go when leaving Olive Garden. If your family is like mine, when returning home from evening activities, there’s a race from the door to the refrigerator to determine who gets to heat their food first.
But how clean is the inside of your microwave really? Some individuals wipe their microwaves down after each use. Others wait until the month-old volcanic eruption of marinara sauce hardens into solid igneous rock to finally clean.
Are microwaves a bacteria breeding ground?
The truth is, the science is muddled in determining whether burnt bits of food in the microwave pose a hazard to your everyday cooking routine. Ben Chapman, food safety specialist and professor at North Carolina State University, reports that microwaves suck water out of old food pieces, eliminating the opportunity for bacteria to multiply. However, a Fox News article provides commentary on a study that found E. coli inside of swabbed microwave.
The general consensus is that food splatters inside a microwave pose the biggest threat. This isn’t surprising when you consider how, when thawing raw meat in the microwave, juices from the meat can splatter. Food splatters can cause cross-contamination if you don’t clean the microwave afterward.
Also, consider this: when food splatters on the inside of the microwave, before it has been zapped free of moisture or cleaned up, the food falls into the temperature danger zone. There, bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels, presenting another hazard if the splatters touch food you later put in the microwave.
Doesn’t a microwave kill bacteria?
Even when properly refrigerated or frozen, small amounts of bacteria will accumulate on food. Microwaves can heat food enough to eliminate this bacteria. However, if food has remained in the temperature danger zone for long enough (as may be the case with food splatters), certain bacteria can grow that produce toxins that aren’t destroyed by heat.
As a side note here, it’s important to make that frozen foods are heated to the proper temperature throughout. Microwaves tend to only partially cook food unless it’s been properly stirred or rotated. If food isn’t heated to the proper temperature, or isn’t cooked all the way through, bacteria may not be completely killed.
How to clean a microwave
Let’s move on to the good news. You can avoid all threats of cross-contamination simply by cleaning and sanitizing your microwave.
First, get into the habit of wiping down your microwave after each use. Use a clean cloth or sponge and warm water to wipe out the microwave. Pay special attention to removing food splatters.
However, I’m just as guilty as you of not always doing this. Sometimes we let food become crusted to the microwave to the point that we’d surely need a pickaxe to break it.
Use lemon or vinegar to break up hardened food splatters
If there are hardened food particles in your microwave, mix up a simple solution of water and lemon, or water and vinegar to help break them up.
Good Housekeeping recommends mixing in a microwaveable bowl 1 cup of water with several tablespoons of vinegar or lemon, lime, or orange juice. Place this mixture in the microwave, and heat on high for several minutes.
Microwaving this concoction creates a mist that softens the most stubborn food bits. Afterward, you can wipe the inside of the microwave with a clean cloth or sponge and warm water, and the particles should come right up.
Finish by sanitizing
It’s a good idea to finish cleaning your microwave by sanitizing the inside with a light detergent. Just make sure to wipe up all cleaning material with warm water to avoid contaminating the food you microwave after cleaning!
For more food safety tips, check out our food handler training!
— Calvin Clark