At the 'beep,' it's time to look again at microwaves

Once upon a time, there was a magical new kitchen appliance called the microwave oven. Buy one, we were told, for it will dramatically change the way we cook. A turkey, roasted in minutes, instead of hours. Muffins in a flash. Soups, stews, puddings, just name it!

Turns out, this was a fairy tale.


A decade after microwaves beeped their way into the American kitchen amid much fanfare and intense consumer curiosity, they have accomplished but one of their marketers' goals.

Just about everybody owns one.


The rest of the scenario is not as rosy.

Microwave ovens, we know from both scientific surveys and casual conversations, have transformed only the way America pops corn. And reheats leftovers.

We own about 120 million microwave ovens -- making them a fixture in 90 percent of our kitchens -- but, according to a recent study by Campbell Soup, we use them for specific and familiar tasks. Popcorn. Leftovers. Frozen meals.

"Microwaves, people are buying a lot," confirms Ariana Kumpis, who owns the Cookshop and Ariana's Cooking School in South Miami, Fla., "but they think of it as using to heat up food and they don't want to go any deeper."

What happened?

* First, the people who invented and sold microwaves to us weren't realistic about what the ovens could and couldn't do well.

* Second, micro-cooking required learning a new set of complicated rules for using the ovens, and there were no simple formulas for converting conventional recipes to micro-recipes.

* Third, there were big -- and to most cooks, unacceptable -- differences in the way microwaves cooked many foods, especially baked goods.


* Finally, microwaves weren't much of a time saver in many cases. And, like the pressure cooker, micro-cooking separates cooks from the smells, the sounds and the sensations that make cooking fun.

Not the turkey

"Microwaves were sold to us incorrectly," says Marcia Copeland, director of the Betty Crocker Food and Publications Center at General Mills in Minneapolis, noting that the original ads showed a huge roast turkey. "Not many of us are going to risk doing our holiday turkey in an appliance we don't have a lot of confidence in yet."

It would have been smarter for manufacturers to show us something we had less emotional investment in than the Thanksgiving turkey, which was chosen because of the dramatic difference in cooking times between microwave and conventional oven roasting.

"From the very beginning," says Ms. Copeland, "we set up expectations that were not realistic."

Says cookbook author Barbara Kafka, who wrote "The Microwave Gourmet" and "The Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook" and writes the "Busy Woman Cooks" column on microwaving for Family Circle magazine: "People cook many things in a microwave that don't belong there, so they don't get good results."


If you look through a microwave cookbook, whether 10 years old or current, you'll find page after page of instructions that make cookery sound about as complicated as rocket science and call for lots of fidgeting with food.

Turned into food fidgets

* Use "microwave-safe" cookware. Ditto for plastic wrap. Don't forget to fold back a "vent" to let steam escape.

* Rotate the dish midway through cooking. Stop, uncover and stir. Recover. Place thick parts of food toward the outer rim.

* It takes longer to cook four ears of corn than one, but how much longer?

* Don't use metal cookware or dishes with gold rims. But you can use pieces of foil to shield foods from over-cooking. (Does that make sense?)


* Never operate an empty microwave. Why? I don't know.

* Use pot holders to remove food. No kidding.

* Don't put the poodle in the microwave. (Just kidding.)

* Always pierce foods with skins (potatoes, sausage, egg yolks, squash) so steam doesn't build up and make them explode.

Somehow, it just seems like more trouble than the time-saving is worth.

People have been reluctant to accept the fact that foods cooked in microwaves wouldn't look or taste, in some cases, like their oven-cooked counterparts.


Says Ms. Copeland of Betty Crocker's experiences in marketing micro-baking mixes: "Consumers are simply not accepting the quality differences." And we don't want to bother with coatings, toppings and so forth to improve the results.

As it happens, there's a scientific reason for the differences. Two researchers at the University of California at Davis have discovered foods cooked to the same degree of doneness in both a microwave and conventional oven undergoes different chemical changes.

A conventional oven gives off dry heat and cooks from the surface down, resulting in brown and crisp surfaces; the process produces chemical compounds that give caramel, nutty and meaty flavors. Micro-cooked food delivers fewer of the pleasing compounds and more of the compounds that produce unpleasant, fishy, burned or pungent flavors.

On the other hand, research at Cornell University has shown that some foods retain more nutrients when microwaved than when boiled, baked, steamed or grilled. And that same lack of browning that leads people away from microcooked meats results in higher levels of protein than in baked, broiled or grilled meats.

Ironically, a few of the things that microwaves cook as well as or better than conventional methods don't cook much faster. Risotto, for instance, still takes about a half-hour, but you don't have to stand over the pot and stir the micro-cooked version.

Still, in our quest for convenience without sacrificing taste, we're opting for the microwave.


"What we're discovering is that in casseroles and products like our specialty potatoes, the quality is very close to what people would receive if they did it conventionally," Ms. Copeland says. There's not much time savings, and the au gratin potatoes, for instance, don't get browned on top, but many customers seem to find the results close enough.

Frozen dinners are another popular microwave choice; in this case, the time savings are considerable. A dinner that might take 30 minutes to warm in a conventional oven can be microcooked in about 3.

An auxiliary appliance

It seems pretty clear that, for most of us, microwave ovens have become auxiliary kitchen appliances, akin to the toaster or food processor. We use the microwave to perform parts of recipes -- melting butter, softening cream cheese.

Only a few magazines include microwave recipes these days; Better Homes & Gardens does, and so does Woman's Day. But the vast majority of recipes are for conventional cooking.

The gigantic, $500 microwaves of years past have given way to smaller, cheaper ovens. Dottie Griffith, food editor of the Dallas Morning News, reasons: "They've gotten so cheap now that you don't feel guilty about just using it for melting chocolate. Notice they're getting simpler, instead of more involved."


The probes and programs of a few years ago are disappearing. "Basically what people really wanted is what they're getting now," Ms. Griffith says, "a cheap machine that works simply."