Updated on 01.20.12

Don’t Use the Stove when the Microwave Will Do (20/365)

Trent Hamm

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. For the specific task microwaves excel at, they’re much more efficient than stove tops and ovens. The basic stats on energy use prove this to be the case.

However, the savings are relatively small. Per comparable use (one hour in the oven versus fifteen minutes on the stovetop or in the microwave), you’re saving on the order of 1 to 1.5 kW by using the microwave – a savings of about $0.20 per hour of stovetop use, in other words.

In truth, though, the savings are bigger than that. Let’s dig in a little deeper.

Don't Use the Stove when the Microwave Will Do (20/365)

The one task that microwaves really excel at is bringing water to a boil. They can do this much faster than virtually anything else in your home (except for perhaps a magnetic induction stove top, which is an incredibly expensive investment).

I can bring a few cups of water to boil in our microwave in about two minutes. On our stovetop, it takes about eight to ten minutes to bring a similar amount to a boil. That’s a savings of six to eight minutes in the middle of meal preparation, which can make a quick meal really fast and a slower meal faster. It can get our family to the dinner table earlier and allows us to have more quality family time after supper. That’s a real value for us.

Simply put, for every cup boiled in the microwave, it takes me about four minutes less time to do it than on the stovetop. It also saves approximately $0.03 doing it that way.

This simple step is something that saves both time and money. Let’s say I’m going to boil some pasta on the stovetop. I get out a large microwave-safe bowl, fill it with a significant amount of water, and microwave it. The time to bring it to a boil or near-boil in the microwave is far lower than on the stovetop, so I’m actually boiling my pasta much faster by bringing the water to boil in the microwave. I’m also saving $0.05 or so by doing it this way.

The same idea is true in almost any recipe that requires a hot or boiling liquid. It’s far more efficient to simply get cold water out of a tap or cold liquid from the refrigerator and boil it in the microwave than to use the stove top or oven.

Typically, I don’t fully cook things in the microwave. Because they excel so well at one specific thing – raising liquids to a boil – they’re often poor at other things, such as properly cooking a dish of food.

Thus, my usual technique is to bring the liquid to a boil in the microwave, then just transfer it to whatever I’m cooking in on the stove top or the oven.

It’s a simple little thing, really. It’s never going to make you rich, but it does save a few cents. More importantly, it saves something else – a bit of time. Simple changes that save both time and money are valuable ones.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Julie says:

    There was segment done on one of those Dateline/20/20 type shows years ago. People were being injured because water boiling in the microwave does not necessary produce bubbles. If someone stuck a spoon in the water, it would explode in their face due to the water being superheated.

    Oh, my comment went into moderation because I posted a link. Google dangers of boiling in the microwave for several sources

  2. Gretchen says:

    Minus the cost of the microwave.

  3. AnnJo says:

    Where I live, from roughly the end of October to the beginning of April, ALL of the “excess” energy of using the stove-top or oven versus a microwave is applied to helping heat the house. Therefore, none of it is wasted.

    In my kitchen, countertop space is valuable property, and for me, a microwave just doesn’t bring enough value considering how much space it takes. I took mine in to my office several years ago, where it is used regularly to cook the frozen entrees some people bring for lunch. I can’t say I’ve missed it at all.

  4. Nadine says:

    So, I followed Julie’s instructions (from #1, at 2:13) and Googled for the dangers. I specifically checked snopes.com. They basically say that, yes, under near perfect conditions, the water can explode. Then they tell us not to worry, and just in case we can’t follow that advice, give few easy ways to prevent such an event.

    Even the FDA didn’t seem alarmed, but also posted ways to avoid exploding water.

    I may start heating water this way, just for those few minutes of after dinner time.

  5. lurker carl says:

    The microwave is a convenience. Great for reheating leftovers, making a cup of tea, defrosting, popcorn – all in a jiffy without much mess to clean up. And most microwaves cost considerably less than Trent’s casserole dish.

  6. Jules says:

    ? If it’s just boiling water, I flick on the electric kettle. It’s a few extra pennies, but our microwave is really high up and I don’t feel like getting scalded.

  7. valleycat1 says:

    We don’t own a microwave. All we used our old one for was heating water for tea, or for steaming veggies, so when it died, we didn’t replace it. Like Jules #6, we have an electric kettle. More counter space. It boils a LOT of water in just 2 minutes or less, and we don’t have to turn off other appliances on the same circuit to run it, as we did our microwave. We live in an older house not wired for a bunch of appliances.

    Nadine, I have been scalded with overheated water in a microwave when visiting friends. It seems to be more likely to happen if the water isn’t well aerated and you heat it too long, which is easy to do when using an unfamiliar microwave.

  8. moom says:

    We use an electric kettle for boiling water. I don’t know why they aren’t popular in the US. But you can order one from Amazon…

  9. Bren says:

    I, too, was wondering why Trent wouldn’t just use an electric kettle for boiling water. Are those not common in the US?

  10. Michelle says:

    I could go for this if there were things the microwave could do that were the same or better than my stove, but seeing all it seems to do it boil water, I’ll continue to keep my kitchen microwave-free.

  11. LIz says:

    Two years ago my husband and I received a microwave as a wedding gift. It’s still in the box because it’s just not important to us to take up valuable counter space (there’s barely room for the 2-person countertop grill when we’re using it) with something I wouldn’t use to boil water. I’m very particular about hot tea and chocolate, and I’ve never had a good cup of tea with water heated–it’s not really boiling as far as the thermometer I used a few times shows–in the microwave. But I love my electric kettle Can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have one, frankly.

  12. Johanna says:

    With all your love for your leftovers and your deep freezer, I’m surprised you didn’t focus on reheating and defrosting. That’s 99% of what I use my microwave for.

  13. Maureen says:

    I just use an electric kettle for boiling water. I couldn’t imagine not having a kettle. I would only heart water in the microwave if my kettle didn’t work.

    I use a microwave for reheating soups or leftovers, popping corn, or thawing frozen food.

  14. Canadian says:

    Why not just use an electric kettle instead? They’re meant for boiling water…

  15. Becky says:

    I find my microwave to be a valuable tool everyday. I use it for heating leftovers, plus actual meal preparation – things like cooking vegetables and rice while the meat is on the stove or in the oven.

    I use it for defrosting bread, sometimes meat, and other things from the freezer.

    I find it saves me a lot of time (compared to heating leftovers on the stove or in the oven), plus presumably saves some energy and therefore money.

    I paid $50 for it at Wal-Mart, it’s small, doesn’t take up too much space, doesn’t have a ton of features I wouldn’t use anyhow, and has certainly paid for itself since I bought it 3 years ago (to replace a huge microwave we had for close to 20 years).

  16. Bren says:

    I just did some research and came up with the conclusion that kettles really must be quite uncommon in the US. In Europe as well as in Australia, everyone owns a kettle. Seriously, it’s THE basic kitchen appliance. You don’t just use it to boil water for tea or coffee, you also boil water in it for pasta, vegetables, anything that you need boiling water for, really.

    And if you’re a tea or coffee connoisseur, you have a kettle that has different settings for different temperatures, everything from green tea to black tea. Google ‘breville BKE820’ for an example, if you’re interested.

  17. elyn says:

    I’m in the electric teakettle camp for boiling water (and I live in the US…) We have an awesome Cuisinart one that I bought 10 years ago. It boils water pretty darn fast.

    Boiling water in the microwave for pasta? This just seems like a needless extra step, even if it takes less time. While the water is coming to a boil on the stove, I’m pretty busy prepping and doing whatever odd things that need doing in the kitchen. I’ve never really wished my pasta water would come to a boil faster. This seems like optimizing for optimizing’s sake, really.

    I didn’t have a microwave for about 10 years, but now we use it for a lot of things, just never for boiling water. We use it to defrost all the homemade foods we’ve frozen: beans, pizza sauce, baby food, etc. As mentioned in the comments- the microwave is excellent for reheating leftovers. We also use it to steam tortillas, soften butter, heat butter to melt chocolate in for brownies, cook our toddler’s mini-servings of food, and so on. We have a tiny kitchen, so we bought an over-the-stove microwave, so it also gets used as a hood fan and a light for the stovetop.

  18. Kacie says:

    I’m an American and the electric kettle is new to me. Never heard of them until the comments section.

    For pasta, do you just heat the water in the kettle and then transfer it to your stovetop? Why? Does it save gobs of time this way?

    I’d like to hear more about the benefits.

    Also, no one mentioned that microwaving food can kill nutrition in it.

  19. Brittany says:

    …nutrition is alive?

  20. Lindsey says:

    In my opinion, microwaving changes the way food tastes. While I still use it now, I would love to get to a point in my live when I don’t have one anymore.

    Also, some studies have shown that microwaving alters the food and can make it harmful to your health. Take that with a grain of salt, as pretty much all studies are biased and proved/disproved far too often.

  21. Bren says:

    Hi Kacie,

    Yes, for pasta, just boil a kettle full of water, pour it into the pot you want to cook the pasta in, turn on the stovetop and the water will come back to the boil in just a few seconds. Then you can add your pasta.

    An electric kettle looks like a jug with a lid, so it’s really easy to just pour the water out into a saucepan, teapot, or whatever else you want boiling water for.

    They really save a lot of time (and most probably money) compared to the stove top, and they also turn themselves off (and beep) when the water has boiled. I think mine takes 1 minute to boil a liter of water. Some have a “keep warm” setting for after the water has boiled.

  22. Peggy says:

    Agree with other posters re electric kettles. Our boys recently moved to the US after living all their lives til now overseas. In every place we’ve lived we’ve had an electric kettle.

    We also have a microwave, but usually it’s positioned on the wall, not on the counter. I would never consider heating water in it for things like pasta for fear the container might slip and result in a bad scald.

    One of the first things our boys bought after moving into our house was an electric kettle! It can be found at Amazon and imagine shops like Walmart carry them.

    Overseas, ours cost under $20 and seem to last forever. We are big tea drinkers and boil water for at least five cups and two pots every day. The kettle can boil two liters of water in less than two minutes.

  23. Janis says:

    I’m also in the electric tea kettle camp (in the US). Ours will bring more than a quart of water to a proper boil faster than 1 or two cups will boil in our 10 year old microwave oven. Not only that, but as Liz (#11) says, I don’t get a good tasting cup of tea with water heated in the microwave. The kettle also helps keep me supplied with lots of boiling water when I am canning produce on the stove top.

    Our stove setup is a little unusual in that it is the only appliance in our house that uses propane. We live in a rural area and the minimum annual contract with the propane company is just over $50 – most of that is the delivery fee. So we almost can’t use the stove too much because the minimum fee is owed whether we use the propane or not. In winter, I use the oven quite often for casseroles, granola, and other baked goods, and we welcome the additional heat source.

    That said, we still use our microwave multiple times a day to reheat leftovers, soften stale bread, and to steam veggies. For those who decry the microwave’s effect on nutrition, if I recall correctly, Cooks Illustrated found that the quick cooking time in a microwave did a better job of preserving nutrients than cooking veggies in a pan on the stove.

  24. Karen says:

    I like my microwave, but not for boiling water. The electric teakettle is my most used appliance. When my first one finally stopped working, I immediately replaced it because we missed it so much. It boils water faster than the microwave. It’s commonly available in stores in the US. I got mine at Amazon, but I’ve seen them at Costco and other stores.

  25. Jane says:

    I also am in love with my electric kettle. Before I even read this, I was just saying to my husband that it was my favorite kitchen appliance. I have a cordless one that I bought 10 years ago, and it is still going strong. We boil the pasta water in there as well.

    I can’t imagine the microwave can boil water faster than a kettle, and it would be more dangerous to pour it in your pot or mug, since kettle is specifically designed for this.

    So, can anyone point to proof that microwaves actually harm the nutritional value of food? I have always found this claim to be pretty dubious.

    Oh, and no one has mentioned that they cause cancer. I also find that hard to believe.

  26. Gretchen says:

    Oh, I’m not saying microwaves are expensive (and I use mine to reheat food all the time).

    I’m just pointing out if you are talking about saving money, you can’t (as usual) take out part of the money spending equation.

  27. David says:

    Nutrition is not “alive” in the sense that people or plants are “alive”, but vitamins, flavonoids and the like are organic compounds. Nowadays, this term just means “things with a fair amount of carbon in them”, but until fairly recently “organic” chemistry was broadly considered the study of living things while “inorganic” chemistry concerned itself chiefly with non-living things.

    Various studies have more or less completely failed to determine whether or not microwaving actually destroys nutrients any more than any other cooking method does. That is: some studies say that it does, some that it doesn’t. But this is how science works, which is doubtless why it attracts more men than women since the former prefer not to know what is really going on, otherwise they could not pontificate about what might be. Probably, what destroys nutrients is simply the heat involved in cooking and the fact that they dissolve.

    A good way to use a microwave to cook some vegetables is not to use any water at all. For broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and the like, just rinse them in cold water, dry them with kitchen towel, put them in a microwave-safe container and zap them at full power for about three minutes. (This idea stolen from Robert Wolke, author of “What Einstein Told His Cook”, a jolly good read.)

  28. valleycat1 says:

    For those of you unfamiliar with electric kettles, they are easy to find in any big-box store or hardware store that sells small appliances. They’re usually next to coffeepots. The kettle rests on a base that plugs in, so the kettle itself isn’t plugged into the wall & is portable.

    We’ve found that popping corn on the stovetop is just as fast as microwaving & you don’t have to time it quite so exactly to avoid burning it. Plus you don’t have the lingering smell.

  29. jim says:

    I have an electric kettle. I tested it myself to measure the electric use versus our microwave. I have a kill-a-watt meter so I can measure the *actual* electric usage. The electric kettle used about 2.5 times as much electricity as the microwave to boil a single cup of water. THe kettle would be worse if you boil more water than needed (which is probably pretty common to do).

    I certainly like the kettle but it is not as efficient as a microwave.

  30. jim says:

    Gretchen, Yes to be complete you’d have to consider the cost of the microwave. But then to be complete you’d also have to consider the cost of the stove too, though right? I think Trent is reasonably simplifying it here since the vast majority (>90%) of households have microwaves and stoves.

  31. Johanna says:

    @jim: The difference is that most homes come with stoves already in them, but not with microwaves. At least, that’s been my experience.

    @David: Please quit it with the sexist comments. Yes, even if you’re trying to be self-deprecating, it’s still sexist.

  32. SwingCheese says:

    @Janis – I’ve also heard that using a microwave does slightly less damage to food than other cooking methods. Something to do with the amount of time the food is exposed to heat (though I’d imagine the temperature would factor in, too). And, as another US dweller, I had not paid any attention to the electric kettle. It sounds interesting, and as I can microwave a cup of water for 3 minutes and not have it come to boiling, it sounds like something I would be interested in buying.

    Or perhaps I’ll sit back and pontificate on its benefits, rather than actually looking into it. I *am* a woman, after all :)

  33. jim says:

    90+% of people have microwaves so at this point its a sunk cost either way for the vast majority. Every house I”ve looked at lately while house shopping has a built in microwave. In any case, I’m not sure what amortizing the lifetime cost of a microwave over 1 use would amount to.

    If you don’t own a microwave then this post is fairly obviously not as relevant for you.

  34. Janis says:

    @SwingCheese: Ha! I like how you think.

    Last night, I Googled “nutrition microwaved vegetables”. One of the top results was “The Claim: Microwave Ovens Kill Nutrients in Food” (clearly, even the NYT recognizes a figure of speech when it sees one). From that article:

    “Since microwave ovens often use less heat than conventional methods and involve shorter cooking times, they generally have the least destructive effects. The most heat-sensitive nutrients are water-soluble vitamins, like folic acid and vitamins B and C, which are common in vegetables.

    “In studies at Cornell University, scientists looked at the effects of cooking on water-soluble vitamins in vegetables and found that spinach retained nearly all its folate when cooked in a microwave, but lost about 77 percent when cooked on a stove. They also found that bacon cooked by microwave has significantly lower levels of cancer-causing nitrosamines than conventionally cooked bacon.

    “When it comes to vegetables, adding water can greatly accelerate the loss of nutrients. One study published in The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 2003 found that broccoli cooked by microwave — and immersed in water — loses about 74 percent to 97 percent of its antioxidants. When steamed or cooked without water, the broccoli retained most of its nutrients.

    “THE BOTTOM LINE Microwave ovens generally do not destroy nutrients in food.”

    In addition to Cornell, Harvard and others have conducted similar studies with similar results – easily found via search engine.

  35. Evita says:

    My concern here is safety. Boiling a large quantity of water in the microwave for pasta means handling a large, heavy vessel of scalding liquid and transferring it to a pot, and then bringing the hot pot to the stove. While avoiding kiddies and pets on the floor.
    Not sure I want the risk.
    Pouring off the pasta water into the sink is enough!

  36. Pearl says:

    I use a hot water kettle, electric, to boil water for tea, instant cereal, etc–also takes very little time and saves energy and $$ instead of using my rental apartment’s incredibly old stove. I’ve ditched the stove/microwave microwave combination, replacing it with the kettle, a convection toaster oven, and the stovetop burners, when necessary.

  37. Courtney20 says:

    I was a biology lab technician in collage and can personally attest to a microwave’s ability to superheat liquids, haven gotten 2nd degree burns *through a potholder* while taking a bottle of prepared agar out of a microwave. (It hasn’t stopped me from using microwaves though.)

  38. Courtney20 says:

    ^ Homophone fail :-(

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