Five years ago, my microwave suddenly stopped working — the clock went dead and no beeping sounded when I pressed on any of its buttons. At first I thought I'd maybe tripped a breaker, which happened frequently in my old apartment building. But when I went to check the circuit breaker panel in the basement, I found nothing out of order.
Everything was fine, except for the fact that my microwave had just died on me.
Like many other 20-somethings I knew, I relied on my microwave to prepare many of my meals. I always had. I grew up in a single-parent home with a mother who juggled 60-hour weeks and raising her daughters alone. She baked lasagnas and shepherd's pies on the weekends and froze portion-sized leftovers for us to eat later. My younger sister and I would often heat them up for dinner during the week while our mother was stuck in traffic on her way home. I got used to nuking a plate of food in the microwave and calling it a meal — a habit that only grew stronger in college.
Until it died, my microwave had been essential to my life in the kitchen. I relied on it so much so that it was detrimental to my cooking skills when I was younger. I'd burnt rice on several occasions, so began stocking my pantry with microwavable pouches of rice that would "cook" in 90 seconds. My freezer was full of frozen meals, all of which I prepared by hitting a few numbers followed by the start button. And most of the vegetables I consumed came from steamer bags that I popped right into the microwave.
These kitchen shortcuts are not bad things, but I found that they hindered my growth as a cook.
As I hauled my useless microwave down to the curb on trash night, I pondered what I'd replace it with. Should I splurge on a fancier model, one that might outlast my apartment lease? Or would any basic one suffice?
Then I had a novel idea: What if I tried living without one for a while? I knew people who had survived without a microwave, and figured maybe I could, too. I didn't have the money to spend on a new appliance at the time anyway.
At first, I encountered a few roadblocks. How was I supposed to reheat leftovers? What about the dozen frozen trays of paneer tikka masala I had just hauled home from Trader Joe's earlier that week — how was I supposed to prepare those? How does one make popcorn without hitting the popcorn button on a microwave?
But as weeks went on, I missed my microwave less and less and found my urge to use one wane more and more. My cooking improved, and I learned that reheating leftovers over medium heat in a frying pan or in the oven was simple enough. I learned how to make rice without burning the pan. I made stovetop popcorn for the first time, and then again for the second and third time.
I noticed a small difference in my grocery bills, too. I was no longer paying extra for the convenience that comes with many microwave-friendly groceries. Instead of paying $1.79 for an 8.8-ounce microwaveable pouch of rice, I paid $0.99 for a 16-ounce bag of rice and boiled it myself — getting almost twice the amount for nearly half the price. I pulled the stainless steel steamer out from the depths of my cabinets and started steaming fresh vegetables. Instead of paying $2.99 for a 12-ounce bag of green beans that you microwave right in the bag, I now buy the same amount of beans for $1.99 a pound and steam them myself.
I don't buy frozen dinners anymore, and have learned to cook dozens of recipes I'd never tried to tackle before. I haven't attempted paneer tikka masala yet, but I do have a channa masala recipe that I regularly make.
I'd originally worried that letting go of my microwave would limit what I would be able to prepare at home, but not having it around as a crutch has only made me a better cook. It's made me a wiser shopper and budgeter, and helped me find confidence in the kitchen. I don't miss having a microwave one bit.