Oven Versus Microwave Cooking
Marie T. Smith’s claim to fame, decades after her death, was to be hailed as the author of the world’s saddest cookbook. Her Microwave Cooking for One was recently resurrected from the annals of the 1980s and immortalized in a reddit string and an Internet meme. People bought it for single friends and relatives as a tongue-in-cheek gift.
Tracy Grant, Smith’s daughter, took advantage of this comeback. Embracing the joke, Grant created a website of her mother’s work. What started as a throwback gag about a seemingly defunct way of meal preparation turned into a realization that Smith was, in many ways, just ahead of her time. Smith saw the need to make food planning easier for dual-income families that were living busy lives and jumped on the relatively new technology that was supposed to simplify food preparation.
Grant explains how it all began, “My father was a pilot, he would travel, and she was often home alone, so she started figuring out how to make things for herself. My mother spent 10 years taking all of her favorite recipes for four and reducing them for one person”. This could not have been a simple task, as she couldn’t have just taken a meal and divided it by four. Also, cooking time in microwaves varies from conventional ovens as the former heat up faster, and the ingredients too have to be accounted for very differently. Smith was also mindful that her recipes were healthy, while making use of both fresh and frozen ingredients. The end result was a collection of 300 meals that theoretically anybody with the appliance could cook in their home with little fuss. “The instructions are easy to follow,” Grant says, “I get a lot of feedback from men who love it. I’ve had a lot of widowers write to me over the years and say how much this book has meant to them.” Grant’s own favorite recipe is her mom’s stuffed shrimp which her mother demonstrated on a TV show in the 80s. Its archived video content is now on the website. Grant has also expanded on her mother’s work by creating conversion charts for newer models that have higher wattage.
Smith missed the upsurge of microwave cooking that was to come about three decades later. Now Pinterest boards and food blogs are rife with directions for mug cookies and cakes; quick office meals that can be assembled, then nuked in minutes; and tips for steaming vegetables. There’s even shortcuts to making traditionally time-consuming fare, such as risotto, enchiladas, and pasta. Intimidating tasks, such as poaching eggs, can be a cinch with microwaves. Just put them in a little water and heat for a minute. No more simmering water to just the right level with a touch of vinegar and creating a whirlpool to have egg whites fold properly onto themselves.
Television personality Martha Stewart claims to have used this magic machine while she was in prison where it was the only tool she had access to for cooking. “One of the hurdles the microwave had to overcome was the professional cook,” she expands. “But (Stewart) learned the value.” Now her website has a special section touting quick and delicious cuisine, such as curried chicken and lemon-horseradish sole, made in microwaves.
Food stylist, Dina Cheney jumped on this trend a few years ago and wrote the Mug Meals cookbook in 2015. “I’m a mom, I have two kids in elementary school, and I work. I’m busy and interested in health,” she expounds. “You can cook very quickly, and it’s also a very healthy way to cook with no added fat.” While there are certainly limitations— especially when it comes to items like bread—there are also a surprising number of items that take well to a microwave. Cheney has found that tofu works well, and eggs are always a favorite.
Mug desserts—where all the ingredients are measured into an easily portable coffee mug and warmed for just a few minutes—are also a big hit, even though their consistency can be different from something made in the oven. “A mug cake is almost like a steamed pudding. It’s going to be a little more airy and light and frothy,” Cheney describes. But, standard cakes and other desserts usually take a good amount of time, and they’re not usually made for just one person. “It’s good for portion control,” Cheney says. “If you make a whole cake, you can just keep cutting slices.” Microwave home-bakers can whip up only a single serving of a warm, chocolate chip cookie in less than 15 minutes when a craving hits. Cheney’s most prevalent use for the microwave, though, is for vegetables.
Catherine Adams Hutt, PhD, registered dietitian, and certified food scientist, points out that vegetables are a great use for the appliance because of the way the machines are set up to work. “It’s a very different cooking method than conduction or convention heat [cooking],” she elaborates. “It’s not direct heat as in an oven. You’re heating water molecules and creating energy from the inside of the food out.”
Homemade mac & cheese
The way it does the job is the reason why people turn their noses up at food made or warmed up in the apparatus. Unlike putting something on the stove, where food is heated outside in, food made in a microwave will never have a browning or Maillard reaction. Food is warmed completely evenly. There are certainly limitations – especially when it comes to items like bread. Because water molecules are targeted, it’s a great option for steaming vegetables. In fact, it retains more nutrients. Since it takes less steaming time, it’s a quick and healthy option for making broccoli, asparagus, or carrots. Even artichokes work well. Potatoes, though, are a different story. While many are happy nuking them, direct heat in the conventional oven produces the Maillard chemical reaction, which brings together sugars and amino acids that give browned foods a more appealing flavor. “It sweetens the product and gives it that crunch,” Hutt elucidates.
There’s also been a prevalent fear of side effects since the appliance was introduced for home use 50 years ago. Timothy Jorgensen, Director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program at Georgetown University, has written a book on the topic called Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, seeking to explain and dispel myths about the energy waves. “There have been a number of studies over the years to see if microwave cooking produces any toxic chemicals,” he explains. “Those have been negative.” Of course, the appropriate cookware has to be used, and plastics that aren’t deemed safe should be avoided. In explaining general skepticism to it, Jorgensen says, “People are fearful of anything they can’t see, and radiation falls into that category. People also tend to be more fearful of things that are manmade as opposed to things that are natural”. While he’s not a chef, he concedes that the microwave is not a substitute for either baking or grilling, because it doesn’t char meat on the outside, while keeping the juices all sealed in, like fire does.
This method of cooking shouldn’t however be given the short shrift for seemingly out-of-the-box uses. One online recipe lays out meatloaf made with raw ground beef, milk, ketchup, oats, and onion soup mix, cooked for 3 minutes in a mug. Smith’s oeuvre includes sloppy Joes, hamburgers, lamb chops, and even the much-feared (because it may end up too dry) chicken. Cheney has experimented with plenty of soups and even grain-based salads that call for ingredients such as brown rice. Her book includes Moroccan pumpkin and chickpea stew for lunch and a shepherd’s pie or Chinese chicken with noodles for dinner. Her kids love the different types of oatmeal and pizza that calls for throwing together ciabatta bread and marinara. She’s also toasted nuts, made macaroni and cheese (not out of a box), and melted chocolate in the microwave. “It’s really good at keeping ingredients moist,” she continues. In the summer, it keeps the kitchen from getting too warm, and it’s a nice alternative to a frozen dinner that may be unbalanced and high in sodium. Plus, these machines are energy-efficient compared to ovens and stoves because they have shorter cooking times.
Microwave cooking is better than fast food and its advocates think of it as a great tool to get kids to learn their way around the kitchen and get used to the idea of helping with meal preparation. It’s also a wonderful resource for a college student who may not have access to a stove in a dorm, or a frequent traveler who doesn’t want to be stuck with constant room service or restaurant options. In short, it saves time and where everyone in the household is scurrying in a different direction, it’s also conducive to healthy gastronomy.
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations. She is a current graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.