Paper products can catch fire in the microwave. Unfortunately, I know this from experience. One time, I had to carry a smoking microwave outside because I tried to make popcorn in a brown paper bag. Oops... That said, paper towels are safe to microwave, aren’t they?
Paper towels are generally considered safe to microwave. The USDA recommends using plain white paper towels rather than printed ones. Also, you should avoid folding, crumpling, or layering the paper towels. Using a damp paper towel provides additional benefits by rehydrating your food.
Below, I’ll lay out the 6 things you should know if you’re planning to microwave with paper towels! I’ll also share lists from the USDA on which other materials can and cannot be microwaved.
6 Things to Know Before You Microwave Paper Towels
Alright, are you ready to become a paper towel genius? Let’s dive in…
1. Plain White Paper Towels Are Safest.
It’s safest to microwave plain white paper towels, rather than ones with printed designs. The USDA makes this clear in their guide to Cooking with Microwave Ovens.
After they say that “most” paper towels are safe to microwave, they specify:
“For optimal safety use white, unprinted materials.” (source)
Another issue with ink is that it can potentially bleed into/onto your food. You don’t really want to be eating ink, do you?
2. Flat, Unfolded Paper Towels Are Safest.
It’s safest to lay out your paper towel flat in the microwave. This applies whether you’re putting the paper towel under your food or above your food. It’s safest not to fold, scrunch, or crumple the paper towel.
The reason is that the heat doesn’t dissipate as easily from a scrunched up paper towel. The video below actually shows a fascinating case study of this. He microwaves a flat paper towel with no problem—but then he tries a crumpled paper towel, and it catches fire.
3. You May Want to Dampen the Paper Towel.
From a safety perspective, there is no real need to moisten a paper towel to use it in the microwave. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt. As far as fire prevention goes, it’s common sense that wet things are more resistant to catching fire.
But there’s a couple other reasons to dampen your paper towel, too:
- In some cases, wrapping your food in a damp paper towel can help prevent it from drying out. I would personally recommend doing this with stuff like bread products (rolls, tortillas, pizza, sandwiches, etc). But a moist paper towel draped over a bowl of leftovers can also help make sure it doesn’t dry out. The water turns into steam and finds its way into the food.
- Sometimes a dry paper towel will blow around in the “wind” of the microwave’s fan. If you moisten the paper towel, then you can drape it over the top of the container or over the top of the food, and it will stay in place better.
4. Recycled Paper Towels May Be Less Safe.
The exact composition of recycled paper towels is less consistent and more likely to contain materials that are unsafe to microwave. Whether it be tiny bits of plastic, metal, or something else, there’s more possibility for melting, sparking, and ultimately fire.
So if you’ve chosen recycled paper towels for your kitchen, consider using something else to cover your food in the microwave. See suggestions below.
5. One Paper Towel Is Enough… Don’t Overdo It.
Although one paper towel is considered microwave safe, that doesn’t mean you can safely microwave a whole stack of them. I’ve read some anecdotal reports that if you layer 10+ paper towels in the microwave, the heat cannot escape as easily, and they will catch on fire.
So stick with just one, or if you must, two paper towels. If you need something more heavy duty than that, I’d just use a paper plate or other microwave-safe dishes, rather than layering many paper towels.
6. If You Want to Be Certain, Then Do This.
Even though most paper towels are going to be fine in the microwave, you might feel overwhelmed with all the exceptions listed above. If so, there’s a simple fix: Check the package of your specific paper towels.
Look for the words “micro,” “microwave,” microwaveable,” micro-safe,” “microwave safe,” “safe in the microwave,” or similar. Alternatively, you may see a logo of a box with waves (a microwave) to signify that it’s safe.
What Else Can I Use to Cover My Food in the Microwave?
Paper towels are not the only thing you can use to cover your food and prevent splatters. Personally, I stopped using them a while ago. Why, you ask?
Well, I found that my paper towels kept dipping down into my bowl of soup… and the paper towel got all wet and messy. So I switched to covering my soup with more solid stuff: Paper plates, Tupperware lids, or normal microwave-safe plates.
Here are some other materials that are deemed safe by the USDA when it comes to microwaving:
- Anything clearly labeled as “Microwave Safe.”
- Most paper plates (plain and white).
- Most napkins (plain and white).
- Glass-ceramic (like Corning Ware).
- Heat-proof glass (like Pyrex).
- Wax paper or parchment paper.
- Heavy plastic wrap (vent it to release steam, and don’t let the wrap touch the food).
- Oven cooking bags.
- Heat-susceptor packaging.
Things You Should Not Microwave
The following materials should not be microwaved. Again, this list is adapted from the USDA’s official guide to Cooking with Microwave Ovens. So this is not just “lore”—this is a government resource telling us to avoid these:
- Brown paper grocery bags (I can confirm this one from experience).
- Chinese take-out containers with metal handles (but you can remove the handles to make it safe).
- Plastic containers not approved for cooking: Yogurt and cottage cheese containers, etc. (Chemicals can bleed into your food.)
- Metal pans.
- Foam-insulated cups, plates, bowls, or trays.
- China that has a metallic trim or paint.
- Metal twist ties from packages (like from a bread bag).
- Food wrapped entirely in tin foil.
- Any container or packaging that has already warped or melted once during heating.
4 Ways to Use Paper Towels in the Microwave
In case you’re all hyped up to use paper towels in the microwave now, I’ll end this post with four legit ways to use them to great effect:
- 1. Lay paper towels flat over your food to prevent splatters and “spitting” to dirty the inside of your microwave.
- 2. Lay paper towels under the food you’re microwaving. Sometimes, this can allow you to forego dirtying a plate. Other times, it’s simply a nice way to catch any drips or spills.
- 3. Wrap or cover your food with a moist paper towel. This is of benefit when you’re microwaving bread products or other leftovers that you don’t want to dry out.
- 4. Leave a paper towel on the glass turntable in your microwave all the time. This will make your microwave more pleasant to use, as your bowls, glasses, and plates will no longer make such a loud “clank” sound when set down into your microwave.
Just remember to keep your paper towels flat—not crumpled too much—and follow the other guidelines above for maximum safety, too.
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