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Is It Safe to Eat Takeout If You Microwave the Shit Out of It?

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It’s not the worst idea, but also, please don’t destroy steak

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Sweet-and-sour chicken at Mamahuhu Patricia Chang

Welcome to Ask Eater, a column from Eater SF where the site’s editors answer specific or baffling restaurant requests from readers and friends. Have a question for us? Submit your question in this form.

Dear Eater SF,

I know many restaurants are still offering takeout and delivery during this time. I want to support local businesses, and I don’t really want to cook every night, but I also know that the virus can be transmitted via surfaces. Is it safe if you take the food out of the containers, and put it in your own bowls and plates? Does it make any difference if you microwave it for a few minutes?


Anxious Zapper

Dear Anxious Zapper,

I was very surprised to hear this exact same question echoed by several smart friends. As a citizen of San Francisco, I hear you. We desperately want to support our local food businesses right now, and it’s worrisome to reconcile that with the health and safety recommendations we need to take seriously. I’m no virologist, and this is not medical advice — but as a pro cook, I’m also truly horrified at the prospect of anyone microwaving steak. Long before the time of the coronavirus, I can’t tell you the number of times I have overheard my boyfriend nuking his food until it pops and screams, and begged him to stop, for the love of leftover chicken curry.

According to the CDC, the virus primarily spreads from person to person, through close contact (within six feet) or when someone coughs or sneezes. It’s possible to pick up the virus by touching a surface, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes, but it’s not the main way the virus spreads. In terms of those takeout containers, it’s not clear how long the virus can survive on surfaces, and depending on the surface, it could be anywhere from a few hours to a few days. As far as the food itself, and whether it might have been prepared by a person who is infected, there is currently no evidence to support the transmission of the virus through food, according to both the CDC and the FDA. Eater National gave some smart recs for how to order and request contactless delivery. You definitely want to transfer the food to your own plates and bowls, throw away the containers, and wash your hands, and it sounds like you’re already on it.

Does microwaving it after all that make any difference? Well, microwaves can kill bacteria, just like any other cooking method, as long the food reaches the proper temperature. In general, the USDA recommends cooking most foods to 145°F, and poultry to 165°F. The catch: If the entire dish does not get sufficiently hot — which can happen with microwaves — pathogens, if they are present, can continue to live in cold spots, which could potentially make you sick.

As for viruses, while there is much still unknown about SARS-Cov-2 (the virus’s official name), food nerd team captain Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats is suggesting that you hit 149°F for at least a few minutes based on an old SARS study, assuming that the novel coronavirus will behave similarly to other pathogens.

In short: It could help to blast food for a few minutes in the microwave, but if you really want to fully avoid the risk, don’t order takeout and delivery.

I would like to emphasize that microwaves, because of how they work, create hotspots, which is both an uneven attack and a deeply unpleasant eating experience. So if you’re going to go straight to the microwave, don’t forget to flip and stir. And you can try other cooking methods! Simmer soups and stews on the stove, and slide pizza into the oven. It’s worth investing in a trusty kitchen thermometer (this one’s my chef’s favorite), and checking a few spots. Or if you’re like my most compulsive friend, the heart of every burger and meatball.