January 19, 2012

Microwaved Tilapia

Max asked me one day whether I had any recipes for microwaved meat. It was a surprising question. In general, meat is awful in the microwave, no matter how you cook it. Our recipe in MC for microwaved jerky works around a common problem of microwave cooking, its tendency to dry out meat, by turning it into a useful technique.

But when I started thinking about the question, I remembered that my mom was always telling me about this six-minute microwaved tilapia recipe, which mimics a traditional Chinese steamed fish dish. When I finally tried it, I remember thinking: wow, it’s just as good as in a restaurant. It’s tender, moist; not dry or chewy at all. So I pulled the recipe together for Max, and it turned out to be wonderful for what he wanted. As soon as I got my mom a copy of Modernist Cuisine, I flipped right to that page and showed her the recipe, where it says “Adapted from Mrs. Zhu.” She just beamed.

Johnny Zhu, Development Chef

Recipe Tags

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Microwaved Tilapia Microwave ovens bathe food in 2.45 GHz microwaves, a form of electromagnetic radiation whose frequency is between that of radio waves and that of infrared light. The magnetron pumps microwaves into the oven chamber through a thin metal duct called a waveguide. When the microwaves hit the food, they heat it by causing water and oil molecules to vibrate rapidly. Ginger and scallions are a classic asian flavor combination Black Cod

Tips & Substitutions

  • You can make this dish with a multitude of fish varieties. In the video above, for example, we have substituted black cod for the tilapia. Cooking times vary a bit depending on which kind of fish you use, however. We cooked the black cod for 3 min at 600 W. Flatter fishes, such as sole, take only a couple of minutes to cook, whereas thicker fillets, such as halibut, need 3–4 min, and a whole fish containing bones, like the tilapia, takes at least 6 min.
  • The cooking time also depends greatly on the power level of the microwave oven. Check the user manual or look at the electrical specification plate on your oven to find out how much power it draws on high. Then use the power level control as needed to cook the fish at 600 W. A 1200-watt oven, for example, should be set to a power level of 50% (or 5 on a scale of 1–10).
  • We base our calculations for cooking time variations on 6 oz portions. Bigger portions may take longer to cook.
  • Make sure that your dish is microwave-safe. Most containers won't actually get hot in the microwave because they don't contain water, oil, or other molecules that absorb microwave energy. Ceramic dishes that contain metal, however, do heat up in the microwave—perhaps enough to break.
  • When cooking a whole fish, it is best to use the largest round plate that will fit in your microwave. You don't want the head or tail hanging off the side, which can make a mess and let out steam if the plastic wrap is not secure.
  • Use a high-quality plastic wrap that won't melt in the microwave.
  • Inexpensive PVC-based cling film poses health hazards; use polyethylene-based films, available at any grocery store, instead.
  • It is important that no steam escapes during microwaving, so make sure that the plastic wrap is tight.
  • Be careful when you remove the plastic wrap. A spurt of steam can burn you.
  • Discard the large pieces of ginger when you take the fish out of the microwave. Then add fresh, julienned ginger. To julienne the ginger, slice a piece of peeled ginger on a mandoline. Then stack the slices, and chop them into thin pieces.
  • Pour hot oil over the green scallions just before serving. The oil should be hot enough to sizzle when it hits the scallions. That way the oil captures the aromatics of the ginger and scallions, and it distributes them over the fish.
  • Try serving the fish with our Microwaved Bok Choy (see page 3·313).
Using the microwave allows you to prepare in mere minutes a dish that very closely resembles the classic steamed fish found in Asian cooking.


  1. Charles October 22, 2012 Reply

    I tried this last night with flounder. It was very good but too salty. Any suggestions for decreasing the saltiness of the recipe? Should I dilute the soy sauce with water?

  2. Howard November 18, 2012 Reply


    Perhaps you can try a soy sauce that is labeled “for seafood”. For example:


    These tend to be sweeter and not quite as salty.

  3. Paul December 24, 2012 Reply

    Hmm trying to cook fish in the microwave would be new for me, but this looks simple enough. Tilapia is something I keep around a lot for my Mexican food.

  4. Martin May 6, 2013 Reply

    Is this recipe simply a substitute for the classic steamed recipe, or does microwaving actually improve upon the texture or flavors of the fish? Seems to me that steaming wouldn’t take much longer.

    • Johnny Zhu May 8, 2013 Reply

      It’s faster in the microwave (6 minutes vs. 20 min or more for steaming), without any loss of quality.

      • Martin May 8, 2013 Reply

        Thanks! I’m guessing you cook at 600W in response to the size and conductivity of what you’re cooking, so that it gets evenly cooked. Does this mean that the reduced power level is less important for your example of the smaller black, cod compared to the larger, full tilapia fish in the recipe? (Part of why I ask is because I’ve lost my microwave manual and don’t know the power of my microwave, hehe)

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