The microwave oven is a curious and contentious kitchen device. On the one hand, it shows up in nearly every American kitchen, as ubiquitous as the stove or oven. On the other hand, mention the microwave and many cooks will curl their lip in disdain. What about you? Where does the microwave fit in your cooking? Read more below for some expert thoughts and opinions!
It is interesting to me how strongly some people feel about the microwave oven. For instance, here's a reader comment on a past post: "The best use of your microwave is to slowly kill yourself. That thing is deadly and should not be used at all." Another reader went on at length about how seeds won't sprout in water that has been microwaved. This is actually an urban myth (see the Snopes rebuttal here), but the reader was vehement.
Why is it that microwaves are held in such disregard, when compared to other forms of cooking? Gas and electric stoves, convection ovens, induction cooktops and yes, sous vide machines, don't get the hate that microwaves do.
I have two hunches. One, the microwave is a newer technology, and so comes in for a sort of reverse snobbery. Older forms of cooking (charcoal, flame) must be better, right? Two, I think that microwaves are conflated with the culture of fast, easy, processed meals. "Microwave dinners" — throw a cardboard tray in the microwave, slit the plastic, and you'll be sitting in front of the TV with a meal in no time. The microwave enables this culture of fast food, and so it must be the culprit.
But neither of these are quite fair. Many experts and chefs adore the microwave, and anti-microwave health claims just don't have data to back them up. In fact, the microwave can be a healthier way of cooking altogether. Here's Harold McGee, food scientist and microwave advocate:
Microwave energy can instantly penetrate food to a depth of about an inch, instead of slowly working its way in from the surface by conduction. If the food is less than an inch thick, it's essentially cooking all at once. That rapid heating generally means that the food retains more of its vitamins than it does when it's boiled, steamed or baked. - The New York Times , 2008
Read that whole article from McGee, in fact. It's an excellent overview of how a microwave oven works, and how to use it to its best advantage. Microwaves are a good way to cook some vegetables and foods without using any fat at all. It's fantastic for cooking vegetables, says Barbara Kafka, author of Microwave Gourmet and quoted in this article by Mark Bittman:
"Their color is better, their flavor is better, you have no water dripping, and there are studies that show they retain more vitamins." - The New York Times, 2008
We've found other uses for the microwave, too, like making low-fat potato chips, drying herbs, poaching eggs, toasting nuts, cooking polenta, making a quick bowl of mac and cheese, and proofing bread dough. See these and more here:
• 10 Uses for Your Microwave That May Surprise You
What's the point of all this? No, I'm not a shill for a microwave manufacturer. In fact, I don't use my microwave as often as I'd like. I do understand that microwaves take up a lot of space in small kitchens — this is perhaps their greatest drawback. I've thought of pitching mine a few times, just to regain that corner of countertop.
But I really deplore the reflexive rejection of a tool for unexamined reasons, reasons without real data to back them up. (How's that for a high-handed statement?!) Seriously — many of us are stuck with built-in microwaves, and others of us simply will never give up their leftover-reheating power. So if we have them, let's learn to use 'em! Make them work harder for their little spot on the counter. Maybe then the microwave can be a tool in our arsenal of ways to cook real food, real meals, and help us to keep up with the busy pace of our days and evenings. A microwave can do more than cook TV dinners.
If you do use your microwave oven on a regular basis, what's your favorite use for it?
• Warming Food and...? How Do You Use Your Microwave?
• How to Re-Heat Leftovers in the Microwave
• Musical Microwave: Replacing Beeps with a Beat
(Image: Faith Durand)