It doesn’t take long for the inside of a microwave to go from sparkling clean to a grimy mess if you don’t cover your food when you cook it. For many people, their method of choice is placing a paper towel over their food to prevent stains and splattering.
In most cases, this is totally safe, as long as you’re following best-practice guidelines, including using microwave-safe paper towels and limiting cooking time. If you were unaware that such guidance existed, you’re not alone. Here’s what to know about microwaving using paper towels, including the two-minute rule.
Can paper towels catch on fire in the microwave?
Anyone who has inadvertently microwaved food in a metal container, then saw sparks fly, or takeout packaging catch on fire, probably only made that mistake once. (Yes, technically there are certain ways to safely microwave aluminum foil, but we’re not getting into that today.)
According to manufacturers like Whirlpool and General Electric, as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it’s possible for paper towels to ignite in the microwave, too. When this happens, it’s usually caused by either long cooking times, using the wrong type of paper towel, or both.
How to safely microwave food with paper towels
There are certain precautions you can take that significantly reduce the risk of fire when microwaving food with paper towels. These include:
Using the two-minute rule
Microwave paper-towel-covered food at two minute intervals, rather entering a longer cooking time and then walking away. According to Whirlpool, this allows you to “check both the food and the paper more frequently” and mitigate the risk of fire.
Only using microwave-safe paper towels
Most paper towels are safe to use in the microwave, but General Electric recommends reading their packaging before using them, to be sure yours fall into that category.
Generally speaking, plain white non-recycled paper towels tend to be the safest. Here’s why:
- The dyes used in printed paper towels may contain chemicals that could ignite when microwaved, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends opting for ones that are plain white and microwave-safe.
- Recycled paper towels may contain minute metal flecks. “When a microwave oven is operating, the interaction between microwaves and the metal can cause sparks and even flames,” NIH guidance explains.
- Paper towels containing nylon or nylon filaments may also ignite, GE notes.
Use paper towels in a single layer
Cover your food with a single layer of paper towels: Folding or stacking them can increase the risk of fire.
Don’t use other types of paper
According to the USDA , you can’t simply swap one paper product for another when using a microwave. This includes brown paper bags or wrapping, and newspapers—all of which should be avoided.