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History of microwave-cooking?

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." 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? I always assumed people today use their microwaves primarily for defrosting items/reheating food because microwaves don't "cook" food that well... but am I mistaken? When did this microwave cooking-everything trend die down?

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  1. I think about 90% of it was the advent of a new cooking technology, and the companies trying to make up exciting new ways to use it.

    What I suspect happened what 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. 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). 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, carmelized, 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.

    2 Replies
    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

      I was a radar systems engineer, maintaining two of the four radar lines across Canada and the north, in the 50's. The description of how they cook is a bit off. It's not that the radiation is near a "water line". Rather, the radiation will be absorbed by, and therefore heat, any conductive portions of the food -- which happen to be water that has even a trace of impurities in it. Do NOT, for example, try to melt rendered bacon fat in it. Butter melts unevenly -- to put it mildly -- because the first few micro-encapsulations of the water that is present melt form a puddle and that puddle has a higher microwave absorption cross section than the micro-encapsulations in the remaining solid. But most foods are mostly water all the way through.

      BTW, the belief that microwaves penetrate deeply immediately so foods cook all the way through with constant uniformity is false. They are absorbed as they penetrate, and the outer layers get the first share. Just that items such as beans and broccoli are small enough that the difference doesn't matter. Never tried a large vegetable, would be curious how cold the center of a large squash would be when the surface had just reached steaming hot.

      Regarding stray radiation: I -- and thousands of others -- have worked in the dome of a rotating search radar dish radiating peak power levels of half a million watts -- at 0.2% duty factor, but that's still 1,000 watts average -- and didn't even get warm. Of course, that's a huge dish so the power is spread, even though I was only a few feet from its perimeter. But by way of demo, we once threw a piece of steel wool directly in front of the feed horn (the dish was stationary) and there, in the concentrated radiation, it burst into flame!

      Other than the natural change in the absorbing object from it being cooked, microwaves present no health threat. The idea that cell phone radiation -- similar frequencies, but radiation level in milliwatts -- is harmful is absolutely ludicrous.

      But back to topic: The microwave is perfect for anything needing to be steamed. Inside a plastic bag with a few drops of water, for example, broccoli comes out better than from a conventional steamer, less color, flavor, or nutrient loss. I get mixed results from my combination convection/microwave unit, probably because I've not experimented enough to find the right balance of cycles.

      1. re: NeverLift

        NL: thanks and love the idea of tossing steel wool in to the dish, somebody was a Boy Scout fire bug once.

        but I have to say in 1973 there was a conventional oven in my classroom (huh?) and some kid for show n tell had his mom drag in their microwave (thing was the size of a dog crate made for a hefty Lab) to do a blueberry muffin bake-off. the MW version was moister. (but who knows, maybe the kid's dad worked at an appliance store)

        and many years later at art school a classmate taught us through example tossing a chunk of wood to see what happens will ruin the oven and worse, the results aren't interesting. (she had domestic fire issues)

    2. Yeah, we *did* try to do actual cooking in the microwave. How many of us old fogeys have a microwave probe rattling around in a kitchen drawer somewhere (raises hand)? (the probe went into roasts and whole birds; the other end plugged into a socket in the wall of the microwave and *supposedly* monitored the temperature to ensure it was properly cooked...the reality was considerably less sure)

      The first microwaves were frigging *enormous* and *expensive*, so people were also trying to get actual use out of something that represented that much of an investment in counter space and cash. There was a huge market for years in "microwave carts" -- the things were too stinking big to put on your regular countertop, so you'd buy a special piece of furniture just to store it on. (my mom's microwave STILL sits on a cart in her dining room, even though she's long since moved to a small micro)

      For years, there were all kinds of crazy dishes JUST for microwave use, and all kinds of bizarre recipes where you'd brown it on the stovetop first, then put it in the micro. Then came a mini-craze of a funky kind of paper that you wrapped your food in that would caramelize/brown the outside of whatever you were cooking. None of it ever took hold.

      Eventually we realized that the microwave is pretty crap at cooking and pretty good for reheating leftovers, boiling water, and making popcorn, and we quit trying to make it do something it really isn't all that good at doing....I'd say by the late 80s and early 90s most people had quit cooking with their microwave.

      (and I'm trying not to gag at how old your post makes me feel)

      12 Replies
      1. re: sunshine842

        I had to look hard to find a microwave cart. Our kitchen has so little counter space that if we put a microwave on it, there's no room to cook. And we've got it double stacked - microwave on the bottom, toaster oven on top.

        1. re: sunshine842

          A friend's Mom had a combo microwave/convection oven and it was a wonder! She did use it to cook, bake, you name it, and the results were delicious! Made by Amana for years, hers lasted 25 years and she finally had to replace it. She had one hell of a time hunting one down but finally found one somewhere on the Mainland and had it shipped to her. I think the company was the only one that made a combination like that, and I'd never heard of convection ovens before, either. I suspect they've gone out of business.

          1. re: sunshine842

            I hate to tell you this, but I'm an old fogey (59) I had an Amana Radarange with a touch pad. I had 3 microwave cookbooks. One was by a famous female chef. I cooked pot roasts, smothered chicken, an Easter Ham, many side dishes etc. in my microwave. If you took your time, you can cook in your microwave. I do more than make popcorn or reheat leftovers in my microwave.

            1. re: raywil3

              are you referring to the barbara kafka microwave cooking book?

              1. re: raywil3

                I was in high school when we got our first Amana Radar Range but it had dials that you turned, not touchpads. As I recall, they cost between $500 and $700 back then. My father had an advertising promotion in which he was giving away cut, wrapped, and frozen pork (I grew up in a big pork production area). Meanwhile, he knew a guy with an advertising promotion in the city in which they were giving away microwave ovens. My dad traded a half a hog (about $200) for a microwave.

                About the same time, late '70s, we got a microwave in the lunchroom at a place where I worked in high school. In 2008 I was in my hometown, stopped where I used to work and that big, old Amana was still in the lunchroom and was still working.

                My mother once put a whole spaghetti squash in the big Amana and set it for high for ten minutes. She had cooked squash like this before with success however this time, she forgot to poke holes in the skin. I don't know how long it took before it exploded, but it did. There was spaghetti squash stuck to the walls, ceiling, and cupboards of the kitchen. The door blew open, the hinges were on the bottom of the door instead of the side, and cracked the formica.

                I just thought of a question. Are all microwave oven doors right-handed? That means you open them with your left hand because the plate/cup/whatever is in your right hand. Are there any microwaves out there that open left to right?

                1. re: John E.

                  huh. the whole left handed microwave thing has me wondering. I've never SEEN a microwave that opened to the right. You'd think that would be something you could order, or something. I can't imagine them being on the floor in a store, but maybe in a catalog or something?

                  1. re: kubasd23

                    Open with left hand, insert/remove food with right, control panel on right - all sorta makes sense.

              2. re: sunshine842

                I held off on getting my first microwave until 1983 -- although my mother and then mother-in-law both had them and used them often to cook full dinners. My first one (Magic Chef) came with a probe and I actually turned out a pretty decent small roast beef a few times using brown-in bags and the probe. I still use ours everyday (we have both a regular Sanyo and a combo convection/micro that my husband bought for the convection so he could do frozen pizzas in it...) to cook veggies, rice, heat soups and gravies, reheat dinners, and -- don't laugh till you try it -- fish in white wine and butter sauce, which is fantastic!

              3. A friend had a Radarange at her house which was the very first microwave I ever encountered (must have been early 70's and their Radarange was probably several years old then) It was huge and had a solid (windowless) door. Her mom had some microwave skills but we mainly used it for hot dogs. I don't recall it being especially fast but it was cool to use a heatless oven.

                14 Replies
                1. re: ferret

                  I remember renting a summer house about 25 years ago with a group of friends and it had an old Radarange in the kitchen, an antique even then. Made great nachos, though (which is about the only thing other than potatoes I ever cook from scratch in a microwave).

                  1. re: BobB

                    When we want baked potatoes and I don't have a full hour to do them in the oven, I start them in the micro and get them between 1/2 and 3/4 cooked, then transfer them to a 500 degree oven for the remaining 15-20 minutes. They come out great!

                    I'd forgotten how good microwave nachos can be...thanks for the memory!

                    1. re: MaineCook

                      I do a similar thing when grilling - I parcook potatoes in the microwave, then slice them 1/2" thick, toss with olive oil and salt, and finish them on the grill. Never thought of doing that with the oven though - thanks for the tip!

                      1. re: BobB

                        You can also parcook French fries in it - I do it for game chips too.

                          1. re: MaineCook

                            you were joking Maine... but I really did have to google it, and still had to sift thru pages of poker chip descriptions, histories, and advertisements.

                            1. re: KaimukiMan

                              I just looked it up myself (but, yes, I was joking) and now I hope buttertart will share his/her recipe for them...they sound yummy! How about it, buttertart??

                              1. re: MaineCook

                                Potato chips by another name. You just peel and slice potatoes very thinly (a snap with a Benriner or other handheld mandoline), rinse them in water, cook them in batches in the mw say about 1 min, then deep fry them. They're called that because they were traditionally served with game (my husband is always after me to make them if we have duck or goose).

                  2. re: ferret

                    Those Radaranges must have cost a fortune! Microwaves were quite expensive (and still big) even when I got my first one, in 1987. The cooking ideas were probably intended as inducement for people to buy them, since they could use them for more than what I certainly use mine for (as the world's largest electronic timer, although I do boil water, melt stuff, and cook the very occasional veg from time to time in them).

                    Best use recently discovered: poppadums 1 min on high - fully cooked and all puffed up.

                    1. re: buttertart

                      I believe my former inlaws paid around $600 for their Amana Radarange, although it may have been as much as $1000 (which seems to stick in my head) back in the late 1970s. That was a big chunk of change to match the equally big chunk of countertop appliance it paid for! And you could barely see what was inside it through all the protective shielding!

                      1. re: buttertart

                        My BF in college in the mid 70s got one from his parents...I recall that he said it had cost $750

                        He was a food-as-fuel engineer, so was happy to nuke eggs or whatever. It was perfect for him.

                        He was so indifferent about his food that I had to bring my own salt and pepper to his house!

                      2. re: ferret

                        I attended the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, graduated in 1962. We did some of the original experiments with the Amanda Radarange (as it was called then) to determine what could be successfully cooked in it, and if it had any uses in a commercial kitchen. Two of the uses I remember were baking potatoes when you had run out of the ones prepared for the evening, and to precook your fried chicken before actually frying it so that it was done before it was burnt.

                        1. re: jfcronin

                          The problem with "baking" potatoes in a microwave is that they don't bake, they steam. Texture is all wrong, they come out wet. Similar result from baking potatoes foil wrapped: Ugh!

                      3. Barbara Kafka wrote 2 volumes on microwave cooking in the 1980s.
                        http://www.bkafka.com/Books/microwave...
                        This is still one of the best sources on the topic.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: paulj

                          I agree! She even has a microwave deep-frying method that actually works.

                        2. This brings back a lot of memories. My family got our first microwave around 83-84 & my mother went bananas buying all sorts of microwave cookbooks & trying out recipes. It was her baby that thing. While I don't recall what she made or if it was good--she was such an amazing cook I can only remember one bad meal that's off topic. BUT I do remember a very funny story-

                          It so happened my friend up the street was a horror fanatic who had all sorts of masks and gory rubber toys. It also happened to be Passover and we had a lot of leftovers. Well, he had this rubber rat that looked like his guts were hanging out & a lightbulb lit up in my head., I borrowed the rat after school, took it home and promptly stuffed it with a big pile of chopped liver. Then I placed the rat in the microwave, closed it and waited for her to get home.

                          It wasn't too long after she came home that she started cooking dinner and I waited in anticipation of her reaction in the next room. Soon enough I heard her scream loudly from the kitchen! "What is this! Oh my god, oh my god" and I ran into over to microwave to feign concern, and damn if I just cracked up immediately. Luckily she had a good sense of humor! May she rest in peace.

                          Also on the topic of microwaves, I remember when Orville Redenbachers first came out, I am not 100% certain and too lazy to google, but I am pretty sure that it was the first microwavable popcorn.

                          In college I had one that was heavy as a television! I also recall lots of people freaking out about them causing cancer, that you shouldn't stand near one. Mine's on top of my fridge, but I still do that in the breakroom at work.

                          Now I just use mine for tv dinners (I never say "frozen dinners",)reheating, defrosting, and a stuff like instant grits & oatmeal.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: RaleighRocker

                            Ooooh, yeah...totally forgot how great grits come out when microwaved! Even the long cooking type.

                            1. re: MaineCook

                              I don't normally use the microwave for grits or polenta, but Kafka has a good recipe for sweet polenta - marbled with cooked berries. Obviously the dish could be made on the stove top, but she effectively demonstrates that the microwave works for puddings like this. She also has a great chocolate pudding recipe.