As I was scoring my monthly RoFo chicken fix the other day, I overheard someone in line discussing the “microwaved corn” video that’s been making the rounds, in which YouTuber Carl Blemming shows how to cook an ear of corn in the microwave without shucking it first. The woman in line discussing the video declared, “uhh, cancer corn? NO THANKS.” She was buying cigarettes at the time, mind you. American Spirits, but still.
Anyway, although the term “microwave” can be used to describe a very broad range of radiation frequencies, the so-called microwaves used for heating—in the common household appliance, at least—are non-ionizing, which means simply that they don’t carry enough energy to impart any physical change to the atoms they pass through. It’s this sort of damage that leads to radiation burns, sickness, and yes, cancer, and is caused by higher-energy, ionizing radiation. Not microwave-oven radiation. About the word radiation itself: It helps to remember that our very existence is possible only because of exposure to massive amounts of radiation, e.g. heat and light, from the sun. A good thing to remember about microwave ovens is that they work primarily by energizing (and thus heating) water molecules. This property can be exploited to perform some neat, otherwise-pain-in-the-ass tasks with the oft-maligned appliance.
I’ve actually been nuking corn forever, usually shucked and wrapped in plastic. Corn is high-moisture and needs only surface cooking, thus making it perfect for microwaving. The aforementioned video adds a very useful twist: By leaving the corn unshucked, the water within also seems to create a layer of steam that separates the inner husk and silk from the cob. After cooking on high for a couple of minutes (depends on your oven, but something like two minutes for one ear, adding 30 seconds for each additional ear), remove the ear and cut the bottom end (where the stalk is/was) off, a little past where the cob starts to widen into its full diameter. Then grab the ear by the top end (where the silk often protrudes) and with a little shake or nudge, the cooked cob should slide right out, husk- and silk-free. It works beautifully well.
Blanching in general
What happens to an ear of corn in the microwave can also be applied to other vegetables, notably tomatoes. If you’ve ever had to blanch tomatoes in order to peel them, you know it’s a hassle, mainly because you’re dealing with a big pot of boiling water and large, heavy, slippery orbs. Microwaving them works just as well; after a minute or two on high the skins will slide right off. Same goes for peaches, plums, and even garlic cloves, which after just a few seconds should be very easy to peel.
Commercial dehydration employs microwaving on a large scale, but the principle of heating and mostly eradicating water remains the same, meaning that you can easily make potato chips in the microwave. You just slice a potato into 1/16-inch slices, spread the slices into a single layer on a paper towel, and cook them on high until they start to look dry. Then flip them over and continue until crunchy. Because of the thinness of the potato slices, the water steams away quickly as the potato cooks, leaving behind a rigid, and thus crunchy, starch matrix. This is exactly what deep-frying does, except there’s oil to both create space-creating bubbles and fill in some of the spaces left behind by the escaping water, which adds pleasant texture. Spraying the chips with some oil helps to simulate that. The only drawback is that you can only cook as many slices as you can fit into your microwave at once, which, for those used to crushing a “family-sized” bag in one sitting, ain’t much.
Another way to utilize a microwave’s dehydrating properties is with fresh herbs. If you find that you’ve bought an entire bunch of cilantro for a recipe that only calls for two sprigs (happens all the time to me), just wash, rinse, and lay the herbs on a paper towel and nuke until dry. Most herbs will be pretty brittle at this point, so you can either very carefully bag and freeze them or just crumble them into a container for use as a dry seasoning.