Natural History of the Kitchen: The Microwave

first microwave oven

An early commercial microwave oven. Photograph: Keith Lamb

Welcome to a new column from EMD's Stephanie Butler: The Natural History of the Kitchen. Each week, Stephanie will explore the background of an appliance or gadget that helps make cooking what it is today. First up: The Microwave

It's the journeyman of the kitchen, the appliance loved by soccer moms and stoners alike. It warms your coffee, cooks your Spaghettio's, and explodes your Peeps. Yes, kids, it's the humble microwave, and it's the focus of this, the inaugural Natural History Of The Kitchen feature.

Microwave: The Early Years

microwaveThe microwave's origins as a cooking device date back to the 1940s. Legend says that a self-taught engineer named Percy Spencer working for the technology firm Raytheon came up with the idea of using radio waves to heat food when he walked by a large radio wave machine and felt the candy bar in his pocket start to melt. It's a nice story, but only partially true. With the end of WWII in sight, Raytheon execs realized that their highly profitable radar business would have to be retooled for the private market. Spencer had long considered the heating possibilities of the radar; engineers were often seen stopping by the huge bank of waves to warm their hands. (Right: an early home microwave. Photograph via Pocket Gadget.)

Spencer took a small team of Raytheon engineers and began building prototype machines. These were jerry-rigged out of garbage bins and radar tubes, and were soon covered in exploded eggs and half popped corn. Spencer knew the device had potential, but he saw its limits as more and more foods were tested. The machine heated unevenly, and crisping and browning effects were nearly impossible to achieve. These problems are still a fact of microwave cooking today, but companies have found a way around it through the foil "crisping sleeves" packaged with some microwavable pastries like Hot Pockets. The foil reacts to the microwaves by becoming very hot very quickly, which then creates a "crispy" crust similar to what you'd get out of a regular oven.

Evolution of a Machine

radarangeThe first microwave was as different from our current counter top models as UNIVAC is from the iPad. The 1947 Radarange was a whopping six feet tall, weighed nearly 750 pounds, and required its own 220 volt electrical line and a dedicated water line for the cooling tube. It sold for $2000, or nearly $22,000 today. Not yet an appliance for the home cook, Raytheon marketed the behemoth appliance to high-volume, quick service restaurants. Busy diners, ocean liners and hospitals all purchased their own Radaranges, cooking hamburgers and sheet cakes in less than 30 seconds. (Left: the first Radarange. Photograph via Ralph Grabowski.)

Radarange's price and size meant that the market for these machines was limited, and they failed to make a profit throughout the 40s and 50s. Counter top models were introduced in 1967, at a still-steep price tag of $495. To add to marketing problems, according to who you believed, the machines could cause impotency, blindness, and radiation poisoning. Once prices came down and Americans realized widespread sterility hadn't happened, the microwave oven took off. Food luminaries from Julia Child to James Beard rewrote recipes around it. Joan Collins even starred in an amazing television commercial for "the Sanyo food thing" at the height of her Dynasty days.

Joan Collins for Sanyo Microwaves

Barbara Kafka's Steamed Chocolate Pudding

Perhaps it's best to end with a recipe by one of the microwave's greatest enthusiasts. Cookbook author Barbara Kafka literally wrote the book on microwave cooking with her 1987 work Microwave Gourmet (buy it). Kafka swears by the appliance, especially for cooking vegetables and steamed puddings. Here's a modified recipe for her Steamed Chocolate Pudding, published in the New York Times in 2008. It's half cake, half mousse, but all very good reason to give the lowly microwave a second look.

  • 8 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces, plus 2 tablespoons, softened
  • 8 ounces semisweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 eggs
  • Ice cream or sweetened whipped cream for serving, optional.

1. Use softened butter to grease a 4-cup bowl. Grind chocolate in a food processor, then add cold butter and sugar; process until combined. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth.

2. Pour into bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and cook on high for 4 to 5 minutes, or until just set. Remove, pierce plastic with tip of a sharp knife, and cover with a heavy plate; let rest for 10 minutes.

3. Unmold onto a serving plate and serve warm or cold, with ice cream or whipped cream if desired.

Further reading

Stephanie Butler

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7 Comments

Comment Feed

  1. Miss Decipher

    early microwave oven on early nuclear powered passenger/cargo ship:

    http://nonplused.org/panos/savannah/html/05_galley.html

  2. bud

    I wonder about the state of the art for microwave ovens about five years or more before they first started to become popular and affordable,during the early to mid seventies. The Huntsville Alabama Space and Rocket Center used them in their snack bar, and they may have been some of the older larger units that took up a bout a refrigerators footprints, lining the walls like washing machines, with very frightening warnings posted regarding pacemakers.

  3. Moira

    Welcome back, Stephanie! I really enjoyed this article, and I like inclusion of Further Reading.

  4. Stephen

    What a wonderful article! I use the microwave frequently and wouldn't know what to do without it (even though my more culinary-inclined friends sometimes make fun of me for it). I do sometimes wonder what effects irradiated food has on the body (and cell phones for that matter), but it's still a useful invention.

  5. Roscoe

    What about the health risks of the Microwave? There are some pretty convincing arguments against using it... obviously it's not a natural way of heating food. A quick google search for microwave health risks turned up quite a bit, but I wonder if you have any further research to append to your article?
    We've tried to limit our use, and are debating getting rid of ours alltogether.
    Great article too, thanks!

  6. Amy

    I wonder about the state of the art for microwave ovens about five years or more before they first started to become popular and affordable,during the early to mid seventies. The Huntsville Alabama Space and Rocket Center used them in their snack bar, and they may have been some of the older larger units that took up a bout a refrigerators footprints, lining the walls like washing machines, with very frightening warnings posted regarding pacemakers.

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