Americans are at last embracing the appliance that has been sitting in the kitchen for decades, the one everybody loved to ignore: the microwave oven.
In the 43 years since Raytheon Co. introduced the first consumer model, microwaves—and the people who use them—have stubbornly resisted improvement. But the coming years could be transformational. Rather than pull back in a down economy, manufacturers are moving ahead with innovations at the high end, aiming to restore some glamour to microwave cooking. “You have to find some way to innovate,” says Jason Hughes, associate director of product planning and development at Sharp Electronics, a unit of Sharp Corp., in Japan. “When the economy is down, this is when retailers start looking for innovation.”
The History of the Microwave
Although commonplace in today’s kitchens, the microwave was once innovative and considered a godsend by some. Below is a brief history of the microwave.
Percy Spencer of Raytheon Co. discovers microwave heating after finding that microwave energy had melted a candy bar in his pocket.
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Raytheon produces its first microwave oven. It costs between $2,000 and $3,000, and is intended for commercial use.
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Companies are developing countertop microwaves, like this Litton model, above.
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Microwaves start to become widespread. Primary buyers are men, who purchase them as gifts for their wives.
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Orville Redenbacher introduces its first room-temperature microwavable popcorn.
Barbara Kafka’s “Microwave Gourmet,” a cookbook for those who want to do more than heat leftovers and make popcorn with their microwaves, hits shelves.
Heinz introduces the Beanzawave. It is 7.4 inches tall and is said to be the world’s smallest microwave.
Source: Bob Schiffman, a microwave-industry consultant, and the companies
But how to improve a product whose entire purpose is to be simple? Oven makers right now are betting on steam. Sharp has a $1,000 microwave that uses steam to cook more thoroughly, keep food moist without adding fat and help heat penetrate better (consumers fill a water reservoir attached to the oven). Whirlpool Corp. offers steam in a combination microwave-ventilation hood, starting at $349. It’s a space saver because it goes over a gas or electric range.
Steam microwaves are aimed at people who are in the market for an oven with special features, but not necessarily a microwave. “For anyone looking for a steam oven, it’s much cheaper than the other options,” Mr. Hughes says. Conventional steam ovens cost upward of $2,000. “Consumers almost unanimously have a positive outlook on steam,” perceiving it as a cleaner and healthier way to cook, Mr. Hughes says.
“Even a small error can cause a big difference,” says Jeyam Subbiah, an assistant professor in the department of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Mr. Subbiah is leading a team of researchers, who are using fiber-optic sensors and thermal-imaging cameras to measure temperatures of products as they cook in the microwave. Food heats more evenly if the container is placed on the edge of the turntable instead of the center, Mr. Subbiah says. He suggests stirring food midway through the cooking cycle.
The Fine Print of Food
Don’t try to microwave a raw egg. The center may boil, causing it to explode.
Water for Tea or Coffee
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When boiling water in the microwave, be careful of ‘superheating’—when liquid doesn’t appear to be boiling but can erupt when taken out of the oven. Wait at least 30 seconds before taking it out, or don’t heat it up quite as long.
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Follow package instructions carefully, including any standing time, to ensure complete cooking.
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Avoid softening ice cream repeatedly because it will ruin the dessert’s quality. If you must soften ice cream in the microwave, use the thaw or defrost setting.
Leftover Pasta or Rice
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Take it out in the middle of the cooking cycle, mix it and reheat it to help ensure even cooking. Cover with a microwavable plastic lid.
Cook immediately after defrosting in a microwave. When preparing frozen dishes that contain chicken, heat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the salmonella incident, a working group of the American Frozen Food Institute issued label guidelines for makers of frozen microwavable products. One of their recommendations: Labels should specify cooking times for several different oven wattages (higher wattage ovens need less time to cook).
But food thermometers and oven wattages are the last thing most people want to deal with when nuking a frozen dinner after a long day at work. Wattages, which range from 600 to 1,400, typically aren’t printed on the appliances. They are listed in owners manuals—which few consumers keep handy. In an effort to educate microwave owners, the Frozen Food Institute has started a Web site, microwaveovenfacts.com, where consumers can search for wattages by model number from major appliance makers.
Some people don’t realize their microwaves come with sensor technology that automatically cooks food until it reaches a safe temperature. Rather than guessing how many minutes it will take to bake a potato, for example, a consumer simply has to press the button that says “potato.” On microwaves from companies including LG Electronics Inc. and Whirlpool, the sensor determines when the food has finished cooking by measuring the humidity in the oven.
Microwave Science JV LLC, of Los Angeles, is trying a different way to make microwaving easier. Two years ago, it launched “TrueCookPlus” technology that automatically heats packaged foods to the optimal temperature, taking into account an oven’s wattage, age and other variables. Consumers find the code printed on a food package and enter it into their microwave panel.
LG and Sears Holdings Corp.’s Kenmore brand have each come out with a microwave model using the technology priced at $139; Kenmore plans to expand the line.
What’s for Supper? Check the Freezer
The catch: Not many foods are currently carrying the code. Pop Secret popcorn and Betty Crocker Warm Delights microwavable cakes have the code on packages, and Pinnacle Foods Group, of Mountain Lake, N.J., says it plans to add it to Celeste frozen pizzas. For most other products, consumers must visit a Web site (http://truecookplus.com) to find the code.
“The general consumer is not an expert in microwave cooking,” says Bob Schaffel, president and CEO of Microwave Science. “What we do is eliminate all the guesswork.”
Write to Anjali Athavaley at firstname.lastname@example.org