Ping! How I learned to stop worrying and love the microwave

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In 2020, Nigella Lawson almost broke the internet just by saying the word “microwave”. The food writer was heating milk for mashed potatoes on her TV series Cook, Eat, Repeat when she commented that she liked to heat the milk in a mee-crow-waa-vay, as if it were some kind of obscure yet deeply sophisticated European food gadget. It was a joke, clearly, but some people didn’t understand this and Nigella was forced to explain that she did actually know how microwave was normally pronounced. By the following year, the clip of Nigella saying “mee-crow-waa-vay” had become so popular it was nominated for a Bafta.

The joke works only because the microwave is generally so undervalued as a kitchen item. It’s hard to think of another household object owned by so many and praised by so few. In 2018, 93% of UK households owned a microwave oven, up from 67% in 1994. Yet when the microwave is spoken of, it is usually in negative terms. We jest of “nuking” or “zapping” food, or we talk disparagingly of “microwave dinners”, as if the technology’s only real use were heating up ready meals. The American food writer Michael Pollan spoke for many when he protested – in his book Cooked – that “the microwave oven is as antisocial as the cook fire is communal”. In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, Pollan commented that, “nobody wants to get too close to a microwave. It gives them the willies because of the mysterious waves jumping around inside.”

But if ever there were a moment to get over our mistrust of those mysterious waves, it is now, at this time of astronomical energy prices and rising food bills. Microwave cooking is one of the most efficient and money-saving ways of getting food on the table. Compared with an electric oven, it has been calculated by Finnish researchers that a microwave saves 75% of the time and 80% of the energy when cooking for one person. The savings are not quite as much when cooking for four, but still pretty huge: by using a microwave, the cooking time is cut by half and the energy by two-thirds.

View image in fullscreen Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Guardian

Yet I know almost no one who turns to the microwave as their preferred mode of cooking. Most people laughed when I asked whether they actually cooked using one, as opposed to just heating up leftovers, defrosting frozen dinners or warming milk or coffee. I recently served vegetable soup cooked in a microwave to two keen twentysomething cooks (easy: microwave 400g prepared vegetables covered on high for four minutes, add stock, seasoning and a bit of butter or oil, cover again and microwave for another four minutes before blitzing and adjusting seasoning) and they both said they had never heard of such a thing, let alone tasted it.

The microwave’s image has not exactly been helped by celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, who said last year that the microwave “sends your fucking brain haywire” (a statement which has absolutely no bearing on reality). On his TV show Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay never missed an opportunity to humiliate chefs who put food in the microwave, and complained on at least one occasion that it made food taste “rancid”. On one episode, he asked a team of chefs whether he had been served anything which wasn’t microwaved, only to explode with rage when they replied “the salad”. Other TV chefs have been less negative. On 30-Minute Meals, Jamie Oliver launched a valiant defence of microwaves as a way to make “wholesome lovely things” such as quick sweet potatoes or steamed fish. But somehow, these pro-microwave messages seem to get drowned out by the anti-microwavers.

I suspect the negative image of microwaves comes down to two things: we fear them, and we don’t know what to cook in them

A 2020 survey of 600 consumers across Europe found that almost all of them used the microwave just for thawing and reheating frozen food. This is such a wasted opportunity. The microwave can be a brilliantly useful device once you learn what it is good at. Chef David Chang – founder of Momofuku in the US – calls the microwave “the single best piece of equipment in a kitchen” in his book Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave). I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say it is a hugely underrated piece of kitchen equipment.

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I was 36 before I got my first microwave, having been brought up by my mother to believe that they were only slightly less alarming than nuclear bombs. In my family, we didn’t see microwaving as cooking at all. “You can tell it’s been microwaved,” my parents would say in disapproving tones if we went to a restaurant and were served a portion of lasagne which was hotter than normal. How could good food ever emerge from a white plastic box? My mother was a faithful Delia Smith fan, and you never saw Delia cooking with a microwave. As recently as 2018, someone wrote to to ask whether it was possible to heat a Christmas pudding in the microwave, and the website’s food editor replied: “Steaming is definitely best. Microwaved puddings are frequently ruined … Delia doesn’t even reheat her leftover pudding in the microwave. She wraps it in foil and heats it in the Aga or the oven.”

In fact, steaming puddings is one of the best uses of the microwave oven, as I discovered when I finally bought one. “Emergency sponge pudding” with either golden syrup or jam at the bottom became my children’s most-requested dessert because once it was mixed, it could be ready in five minutes. As the late food writer Barbara Kafka explained in her 1987 masterpiece Microwave Gourmet, the microwave is an excellent way to cook steamed puddings with their “moist texture somewhere between cake and pudding”. Kafka used the microwave to make a delicately spiced steamed pear pudding flavoured with cinnamon, ginger and cloves, and a steamed chocolate pudding she called “a dessert to dream about”.

I suspect the negative image of microwaves as cooking devices comes down to two basic things. The first is that we fear them, and the second is that we don’t really know what to cook in them. Ever since they were first sold in the 1950s, these “fireless ovens” as they were then called seemed alien and slightly sci-fi in a way that a cooking pot and a wooden spoon do not. Their invention in 1945 was an offshoot of military radar systems. A self-taught engineer called Percy Spencer was working to improve a device called a magnetron – a giant vacuum tube for generating microwaves – when he suddenly noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. In one of the greatest leaps of imagination of 20th-century invention, Spencer wondered whether the magnetron – which during the second world war had been used by the Allies for sending signals to anti-submarine aircraft – could actually be turned into some kind of cooking apparatus.

Early experiments with microwave cooking were mixed, to say the least. Spencer tried cooking a whole egg, only to find that it exploded. Another idea, for which he received a patent in 1949, was to use the microwave to make popcorn. Instead of using separate kernels, he decided to place a whole head of buttered and salted corn in a transparent bag and wait until some of the kernels “fly off the cob as they explode”. It sounds fun but alarming. An even more terrifying idea – for which he received a patent in 1951 – involved putting a whole live lobster in a microwave with a “pencil-like rod” stuck up its tail to prevent it from curling up.

Then again, even if Spencer’s microwave recipe ideas had been more appetising, almost no one would have been able to cook them because the early models of oven were crazily expensive and very big. The original Radarange sold by Raytheon in 1947 was almost 1.8 metres tall and weighed 340kg, with a price tag of $5,000, equivalent to more than $60,000 (£50,000) in today’s money. It was only in 1967 that US manufacturers managed to get the price of a domestic microwave oven below $500. That meant the microwave finally went mass market in the US in the 1970s, and most of Europe soon followed suit. It helped that machines themselves were finally small enough to fit on a kitchen counter and now included the crucial turntable feature for even cooking (an innovation from the Japanese company Sharp). By the mid-70s, sales of microwaves had overtaken gas ovens in the US. The first British restaurant to install a microwave was the Kew Gardens hotel in London, which bought a machine called the Arctic Cooker to great fanfare in the 70s, but by the 80s the microwave was just a normal item in British family kitchens, sitting in a nondescript way alongside other white goods such as kettles and toasters.

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Microwaves had the misfortune to become popular at the same time as convenience foods, so most owners never scratch the surface of their potential

The microwave industry did itself no favours by pretending that these new hi-tech ovens could be used for cooking absolutely everything. Adverts from the 70s and 80s suggested that the device could be used to conjure up entire meals for four, as well as snacks for children, just by pushing a few buttons. An information film for an early Frigidaire microwave boasted about its ability to produce piping hot “tuna boats” (a weird-looking hot sandwich) in only three minutes. “Now, Australia’s cooking with a brand-new energy!” exclaimed a mid-80s advert for Sharp, which depicted women with perms brandishing giant platters of roasted meats which had been cooking in the microwave. “It roasts beautifully in half the time!”

As sales of these magical boxes grew, so did scare stories about them. In the popular imagination, microwaving started to be seen as an unsafe way of cooking. The 1984 movie Gremlins tapped into fears about the technology in a scene where a gremlin is put in a microwave and explodes. For decades, unfounded stories circulated that the microwave would cause cancer or damage male fertility. The basic worry – a completely false one – was that any food emerging from a microwave must somehow be radioactive.

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It is true that the very earliest models sometimes leaked as much as 10mW/cm2 [milliwatts per centimetre squared] of radiation whereas modern models are not allowed to emit more than 1mW/cm2. So long as you are not standing with your nose actually pressed up against the glass, you should be fine. The latest research on microwave exposure tested 11 microwave ovens and found that a person standing as little as 50cm away from one would receive only 1% of the radiation of someone standing 5cm away. Even right up close, the maximum radiation leakage from any of the ovens was measured as half of the radiation level which is internationally recognised as safe.

But either way, it’s much less radiation than you would be exposed to by simply standing near to an open fireplace burning wood (50mW/cm2). So, far from being dangerous, the microwave is one of the safest ways to get food hot.

Perhaps one reason the microwave is mistrusted is that the way it works seems more puzzling than a regular oven. Some people fear microwaves because they can’t explain how they work, but how many of us, if we are honest, could explain in any detail the physics of boiling potatoes in a saucepan on a hob? Those “mysterious waves” jumping around inside the microwave are actually no more sinister than a gas flame or the filament inside a kettle. Microwave radiation may sound scary, but it’s not so different from the electromagnetic radiation coming off all the lightbulbs in your home.

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View image in fullscreen Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Guardian

Microwaved food obeys the same laws of physics as apply to frying an egg or baking a loaf of bread. It still works by the transfer of thermal energy. The difference is that instead of being heated mostly by convection (like the loaf of bread in an oven) or conduction (like the egg in a pan), food in a microwave is heated by electromagnetic radiation. Microwaves get molecules in the food jumping, but they can transfer heat only a relatively short way into the food’s surface, which is one of the reasons why it works best with smaller pieces of food. If you were to put a larger piece of meat in the microwave – but why would you? – you would end up with shoe leather.

Aside from the (unfounded) safety fears, a general feeling that microwaved food could never be delicious contributes to their poor image. It isn’t helped by microwave-specific cookware that has a plasticky, Tupperware vibe and tends to be much less aesthetically appealing than the pots and pans we use on the hob. There are also legitimate worries that small amounts of chemicals from plastics containing BPAs and pthalates can leach into the food, and personally, I stick to ceramic dishes and bowls when microwaving.

However, the real shortcoming of the microwave is not the device itself, but how it is used. It had the misfortune to become popular at the same time as convenience foods. As a result, most microwave owners never scratch the surface of its cooking potential. If they use their microwave at all, it is often for making rubbery scrambled eggs in a Pyrex jug – one of the very worst things you can cook in one, because it’s no easier or faster than scrambling eggs in a pan.

The microwave can melt chocolate without the faff of a double boiler, and steam fish or vegetables in minutes

It’s true that you can’t do everything in a microwave – it won’t give you the lovely brownness or crispness of food sautéed in a pan, and it is useless for most baked goods (mug cakes aside). But no cooking tool can do everything, and the microwave is not given enough credit for the things it can do remarkably well. It can melt chocolate without the faff of a double boiler, and steam fish or vegetables in minutes. Use it to make lentil dal and temper spices. And did I mention rice? It was Kafka’s book which taught me how good the microwave is for cooking rice and other grains, and even, occasionally, for making risotto. A microwave risotto is no quicker than one made on the hob – in Kafka’s recipe it takes two blasts of four minutes followed by two blasts of nine minutes – but on days you are overwhelmed, it does buy you welcome moments to spend on something else. David Chang uses it to make effortless versions of Asian rice porridge or congee, which is a similar idea. Chang points out that the microwave “does a great job at evenly heating up the grains and creating the creamy texture I want”.

And yes, it can also heat stuff up in a very efficient way. So far from being a technology which signals the end of home cooking, the microwave can be the magic helper to get the most out of thrifty batch cooking or gluts of foraged blackberries (I love microwave-warmed frozen berries for breakfast). Homemade food and the microwave should be seen as friends, not enemies. Nigella was right. The microwave is such a marvel, it deserves a new name.

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