Microwave Cooking’s Sordid History

"I was recently skimming my mom's cookbook collection, and I found a few interesting books (mostly published by microwave companies) from the late 1970s about 'microwave cooking,'" says anakalia. "I was shocked at what they suggested cooking in the microwave—everything from scallops in white wine sauce to bouillabaisse to entire Cornish hens (with aluminum foil wrapped around certain parts (!!) to keep them from burning). I'm curious to know—was this 'trend' only the result of microwave companies peddling their products, or did people *really* try to cook things like clams and lobsters in the microwaves back then? Did any of it work?"

"What I suspect happened was that a lot of people tried a few of the recipes, realized that either it produced food that wasn't that good, or wasn't that much easier and faster than using a pot or the oven, and their microwave usage subsided to near modern levels," says tastesgoodwhatisit. "For time scale, I'd guess mid to late '80s, by which time having a microwave was pretty standard."

"Scientifically, microwaves cook by heating liquid water (the frequency of the radiation is just to the edge of one of the water lines)," says tastesgoodwhatisit. "So microwaving works best when the effect you want is closest to steaming or boiling, and the liquid is well distributed through the food. So something like steaming green beans in the microwave will give you a good, fast result. It's bad for anything where you want the food to be browned, caramelized, or crispy, because you don't get the application of heat directly to the surface. It's also a problem where the water is distributed unevenly, as you'll get some parts heating up faster than others."

Discuss: History of microwave-cooking?

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