It’s shockingly easy to clean a microwave. And it’s going to seem even more shocking if the last time you attempted to clean six-month-old, dried-on spaghetti sauce was by scrubbing at it with a damp paper towel for a few minutes before giving up. We’re going to teach you how to clean a microwave using steam. It’s the equivalent of a good soak for the inside of your microwave — but takes less than five minutes and you don’t actually have to fill it up with water.
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How to Clean a Microwave
A microwave-safe bowl
A sponge or Dobie Pad
A lemon or some white vinegar
Step 1: Dust out any crumbs
Just like you’d sweep the floor before mopping it, use your sponge to whisk out any crumbs and loose leftovers from your microwave.
Step 2: Give your microwave a steam bath
Steam. It’s what makes microwave cleaning so effortless. And satisfying.
Create a cleaning solution by filling a microwave-safe bowl three-quarters full with water. Add in a hefty glug of white vinegar and/or the juice from half a lemon — if you’re using lemon, go ahead and throw in the pulverized lemon remains, too. While it only takes water to create steam, we like adding in vinegar or lemon to deodorize any hint of last week’s lamb vindaloo.
Microwave the bowl on high for about three minutes, or enough time for the cleaning solution to start boiling. Boiling = steam.
Leave the microwave door closed after it beeps for a few more minutes so the steam has time to really penetrate any crusty gunk. Remove the bowl — carefully! It’s hot! — and, if your microwave has one, take out the turntable and carousel as well. You’ll wash that separately in a second.
Step 3: Wipe it down
This is the fun part. All the greasy residue, sauce splatter, and popcorn butter coating the inside of your microwave will just…wipe away.
Wet your sponge and have at it, rinsing it often if it gets too grimy. Don’t forget the inside of the door!
If there’s a particularly pesky stain that doesn’t slip away with a quick wipe, nuke your bowl of cleaning solution for another three minutes and give it another go. Using the scrubber side of your sponge or putting a little extra elbow grease behind your Dobie Pad will help as well. You may be tempted to use something like steel wool on tough microwave stains, but that’s why we recommend a Dobie Pads — they don’t scratch up plastic surfaces the way steel wool will.
Pro Tip: Use plain water to wipe down the rubber seal around your microwave door. Vinegar and lemon are acidic, and if left sitting on synthetic rubber for extended periods of time, can cause it to pit the surface and weaken the seal. If you get vinegar or lemon on the seal, no worries. Just go over the rubber one more time with clean water.
Step 4: Wash the turntable
Run the turntable and carousel under warm water and wash them with a little bit of dish soap, just like you would a dinner plate. If your microwave turntable is dishwasher safe, go ahead and pop it in on your next load.
When it’s dry, place it back in the microwave.
Step 5: Give the exterior a once over
Wring out your sponge and give the exterior of the microwave — including the key pad — a quick wipe down. If things are particularly finger-printy, a glass cleaner like Windex will give it a just-polished finish.
Why Food Explodes in the Microwave
The technology that makes microwaves such a convenient way to reheat leftovers is the exact same technology that makes such a mess.
When you heat something on the stove or in the oven, you’re heating it from the outside in. But with microwaves, water molecules within the food absorb energy and start to vibrate and bump around, creating friction — aka heat — which transfers throughout the food.
Martin Bucknavage, as associate in the Department of Food Science at Penn State, explains it like this:
“During microwaving, most of the energy is absorbed just below the surface of the food. Heat is then transferred both inward and outward, and several different properties will determine the effectiveness of the heating process. Differences in product moisture and density, thickness of the crust or skin, and the amount of fat, sugar or salt in a food can affect the uniformity of heating by changing how much energy is absorbed and how well the heat is transferred within a food.”
Think of a jar of tomato sauce you want to heat up. You take off the lid and pop it in the microwave on high for three minutes. Pretty quickly, the water molecules right under the surface start vibrating, creating heat that transfers in all directions. The heat that is transferring down to the bottom of the jar has a long way to go. But the heat moving up toward the open mouth of the jar is practically there already.
So where does exploding splatter come from? Because tomato sauce is more viscous than, say, water, heat has a harder time moving. Concentrated heat forms larger and larger steam bubbles that eventually pop — if they are right at the surface, that pop creates a mini explosion. And those steam bubbles will continue to form (and explode) until the buzzer goes off.
4 Tips to Keep Your Microwave Clean
Turn down the power. Nadia Arumugam from Slate’s Food Explainer writes that the more intense the power, the faster the water molecules vibrate, and the more steam is created. For explosion-prone foods like viscous soup and oily butter, turning your microwave down to, say, 40 percent power will reduce the frequency of explosions, “as it will take more time for the required amount of force to build up to initiate an eruption.”
Stir often. Dispersing those super-charged water molecules that live right at the surface throughout the rest of your food means both fewer splatters and less time in the microwave.
Cover it up. Silicone covers like these piggy ones and this lilypad one can be tossed in the dishwasher or wiped down with a soapy sponge. They’re cute (and make great stocking stuffers…) but a paper towel works just as well.
Use container with ridges. Way back in 1990, the LA Times reported on a study conducted by the Institute of Food Technologist that focused on food explosions in microwaves (we’re not kidding). It found that when there’s a cooking container with ridges or other rough surfaces, “bubbles can form more easily and in greater numbers. And lots of small bubbles distribute heat more evenly, while a few large bubbles are more likely to send soup flying.” (This is why packaged microwavable foods don’t come in perfectly smooth, square containers.)
Step 1: Wipe out any loose crumbs
Step 2: Fill a microwave-safe bowl with water, with a healthy splash of vinegar and/or the juice of a lemon
Step 3: Nuke in on High for three minutes, then let sit for two more
Step 4: Wipe out the insides
Step 5: Wash the turntable and carousel separately with warm water and dish soap