Can you microwave paper?

If I was ever asked to name an appliance that has taken over our lives (and kitchens) then I would gladly name the Microwave.

Think about it, it gives us the benefit of convenience. Just pop things in, press a bunch of buttons, and presto… dinner is done.

But all that convenience comes with a bunch of rules, mostly involving what you can and cannot put in it.

So when you asked if microwaving paper is a possibility, I’ll have to admit my first reaction was “Why would anyone want to microwave paper? ”

Sorry, but my brain is fried (I think I’ve been spending too much time in front of the microwave), it was only later when I put two and two together and connected the dots that I realized that paper isn’t just the sheets of writing paper, but our food also comes wrapped in paper, stored in paper bags, served in paper plates/cups, etc. 

So yeah, paper is quite the integral part when it comes to our food, and with good reason, it’s eco-friendly. 

This brings us back to our original question …..

Can you microwave paper?

Well, that depends on the type of paper.

Not all paper products are created alike.

Those not created for use specifically in the microwave like writing paper, wax-lined cups, or foil-lined boxes can catch fire and potentially release toxic fumes in your kitchen.

Or if you’re talking about baking or parchment paper, which is specifically created to withstand high temperatures. 

Then in that case, yes you can microwave baking/parchment paper.

How do I know if my food’s paper packaging is microwave safe?

Manufacturers will usually mention whether their products are safe to use in the microwave or not on the packaging they come in.

Take the case of microwave popcorn, the paper bags may look similar to brown paper bags in feel and texture, but they aren’t the same. They’re made out of a specialized material of paper. 

It means it is better able to absorb the heat and radio waves that a microwave produces without catching fire.

Normal paper bags don’t have this capability. 

Also since the label on the product will say “Microwave popcorn” that is a clear indication that they’re good to go in the microwave.

What about paper plates? Can I Microwave them?

Normally I used to go for the safest or let’s say the oldest route when I needed to reheat my food, i.e. a glass/ceramic microwave-safe plate.

But I was curious (if I was a cat, curiosity would have killed me by now). So I set out to try this for myself (so you don’t have to)

I imagined myself at a party where I had to reheat a pizza, on a paper plate (Don’t ask why the host served cold pizza, that’s a story for another day).

Will it turn out to be “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” or the “Matrix (pizza) Resurrections ”?

I tried 3 different scenarios:

  1. Microwaving a pizza on a paper plate (as any normal sane person would do)
  2. Microwaving an empty paper plate.
  3. Microwaving a scrunched up paper plate (a way to show my anger perhaps, at the host for serving us cold pizza)

Here’s what the results from my experiment showed:

  • Microwaving the pizza on a paper plate for around 1 minute turned out to be fine (for both the pizza and paper plate)
  • Microwaving an empty paper plate for 5 minutes started to burn a hole in the plate.
  • Microwaving a scrunched up empty paper plate for 5 minutes will set the plate on fire way before the timer was up (I had to stop the microwave midway and douse the flames with water )

So my takeaway from this experiment is:

  • Microwaving food on a paper plate is ok.

The food will prevent the plate from reaching an abnormally high temperature and catching fire (most of the heat is absorbed by the food instead of the paper plate).

  • While it may be safe when used with food, don’t go around putting empty paper plates in your microwave kids.

What about paper towels, can I use them in the microwave?

Paper towels can come in handy when you have nothing else to cover your food with while microwaving.

It can also be used to prevent saucy foods like soups etc. from splattering and creating a mess in your microwave. 

But will it catch fire or not, that is the question. 

To uncover this mystery, I repeated the above experiment but with a paper towel this time.

Here is what I discovered:

  • A paper towel will work fine when spread out flat over a bowl of food.
  • Don’t wrap, fold or scrunch it over food, because heat can accumulate between the folds and start to burn the paper towel.
  • Paper towels can be safely used in the microwave for longer times, compared to paper plates.

A few important things that I came across while researching for my experiment included:

  • Make sure to read the manufacturer’s guidelines to determine whether it’s safe.
  • Never use recycled paper towels in the microwave, because they may contain tiny pieces of metal that can cause a fire in the microwave.

Is there any possibility of safely microwaving regular paper?

So I’m imagining you are stuck in a situation (zombie apocalypse during office hours perhaps) where you can’t find any microwave-safe glass or paper plates for your food and you decide to cover your food with ordinary writing paper.

Will it work?

Surprisingly, I found several users on Quora that claimed to have used ordinary paper in the microwave (God knows for whatever reasons) but there’s a caveat. 

Most of them used wet/moist paper.

For example, there was this one particular lady who was a crafter and needed to dry her tea-stained paper rather quickly. She did so using her microwave. 

Keeping her microwave on the lowest power setting, she ran her microwave in short bursts, for 5 seconds at a time to dry her paper out. 

While it did work, the paper was still slightly burnt out from some edges. It most probably had dried out faster than the rest of the paper.

The key takeaway from here is, while it’s something I would not recommend doing if you however do wish to try your hand at it:

  • Go low and slow, in short interval bursts. 
  • Don’t leave the microwave unattended if you ever wish to attempt this at all.

Does this mean microwaving paper is a no-go? 

For some yes, but for others, no not necessarily. It all depends on the technique and what kind of paper you use.

Referring to the experiment I did with paper towels and paper plates, I discovered that:

  • Paper when folded or scrunched up tends to burn.
  • Sometimes the microwaving time is also a factor in deciding whether it will burn or not.

However, as a general rule of thumb, remember that any kind of coated paper shouldn’t be used in the microwave. This would include:

  • Paper with foil or plastic coatings
  • Wax lined paper cups 
  • Newspapers

This is because when heated, these kinds of paper may melt their coatings into your food which obviously can become a serious health hazard.

Always choose to use glass or microwave-safe plastic for heating. Or if stuck in a pinch and that isn’t available, a paper towel spread out under and over your food is going to be your best bet.  

But again make sure the paper towel isn’t printed because the food might come into contact with the ink when heated.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, using paper in the microwave can be a safe choice, provided you choose the right kind of paper when reheating food.

There are other better options out there, like glass and microwave-safe plastic, that I would recommend using over paper.

If however, you find yourself in a situation where these options aren’t available for you easily then only consider using paper with a lot of caution, as all paper products aren’t created equal, and don’t leave the microwave unattended while it’s running.

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