How many times have you been at a hotel, ski condo, or beach house and discovered that the microwave instructions for that deep dish pizza or pot pie include a grid with cooking times tied to wattage?


And you have not a clue what this particular oven’s wattage is, because you’ve never seen it before. It’s a problem I’ve experienced many times, in many places.

Most of my business travel has involved flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, and often to the South, and then taking a rental car from a regional airport to someplace even smaller.  Almost always — given the time change — they’ve already rolled up all the restaurants by the time I am hungry.

This leaves few other options but finding a 24-hour convenience store and seeing what’s available in the frozen food cooler, then taking some selection back to the hotel. But then comes the question — what’s the wattage for the microwave oven in my room?

Microwaving food is tricky. If you do not use the proper amount of power for the exact time required, you could end up not killing bacteria that slipped through. In other words, you could be dead for eating microwaved food.  

Overcook your food, and it’s stiff as board and tastes like shoe leather.  Eat that, and you’ll just feel lousy for a day or two.

I’ve disassembled many a hotel microwave trying to find out the exact power.  When I don’t find it on the door or inside (and I never have), it’s natural for me to start taking it apart looking for a wiring diagram or something in the back or whatever (did not find it there either).

Getting one torn apart is usually when I start calling around for help to find the answer. But if you try this, be careful. Be very careful. “This about a pot pie?” they’ll ask. Asking about the power of some electrical device just seems to bring out negative thoughts in authority figures.

There was a time when I’d try asking the desk clerk. Now at my favorite hotel chain, they  forward such calls to some center that responds to “incidents.”  I think they set it up after a couple of their big hotels in the Mideast were blown up by terrorists.

Anyway, this is how I’ve learned that asking about the power you can get out of your microwave is not always a wise thing to do.  When you rent a ski condo or beach house, you usually get a lot of information when you pick up the key, so it’s hard to remember to ask about the microwave.

And they never tell you.   

You always get the last words of advice, however: “If there is an emergency, call the fire department.”  I’d be the first to say a food safety concern is important, but if you think I am going to call a volunteer fire department in the middle the night in the Rockies about my ignorance over a microwave, you’ve not been paying attention.

Which brings me to the good news.

As it often does before major holidays, our friends at USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) just put out another primer on safe cooking.  It rightly assumes more of us are cooking away over these long holiday weekends.

To my delight in “Cook It Safe” released Sept. 1, FSIS provides a solution to America’s problem — a way to determine the wattage of a microwave without getting arrested as a suspected terrorist.

After giving out the usual false leads about where to look on a microwave, FSIS provides this great little test:

“You can also test the time it takes your microwave to boil water in order to estimate the wattage:”

Measure one cup of plain tap water in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add lots of ice cubes, and stir until the water is ice cold. Discard ice cubes and pour out excess water leaving only one cup remaining. Set the microwave on high for four minutes, and watch the water through the window to see when it boils. 

  • If water boils in less than 2 minutes, it is a very high wattage microwave of 1000 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 2½ minutes, it is a high wattage microwave of about 800 watts or more.
  • If water boils in 3 minutes, it is an average wattage microwave of 650 to 700 watts or more.
  • If water boils in more than 3 minutes or not by 4 minutes, it is a slow microwave of 300 to 500 watts.

“For high wattage microwaves, use the minimum recommended cooking time on the package instructions; use the maximum cooking time for slow microwaves. The minimum cooking time may need to be reduced for very high wattages. When the microwave signals the end of cooking, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food.”

Thanks FSIS! Do you have an AP for that?

P.S.  When you call down to the front desk for a measuring cup, don’t tell them you are running a power test on the microwave.  They don’t need to know.