Extension and Ag Research News


Prairie Fare: Microwave ovens have long history in kitchens

Keep food safety in mind when using a microwave oven to cook or reheat foods.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, food and nutrition specialist
NDSU Extension

I recall when we got a microwave oven in our home when I was a teenager. It took up quite a lot of counter space. It was a big, complicated-looking appliance.

My parents were a bit leery of this appliance at first. I am not sure why they got it in the first place. Maybe they won it as a prize.

Although reading appliance manuals is not my favorite thing to do, I managed to figure out how to use the microwave oven. The earlier microwave ovens were less intuitive than today’s models.

As I recall, we only used the microwave oven to reheat foods and melt butter.

The history of the microwave oven goes back to the mid-1940s. Percy Spencer was an employee at the Raytheon company when he accidentally discovered that microwaves might play a role in cooking food. He later patented his invention.

He was doing radar experiments when he noticed a candy bar in his pocket melted.

He later discovered that microwaves could pop popcorn and blow up eggs.

I am not sure that the egg explosions were planned.

Microwave ovens have been around since the mid-1950s. However, their size and cost were prohibitive for most homeowners.

Like the first computers, the first microwave ovens were very large. According to historical information from the Smithsonian Institute, the early models were 6 feet tall and weighed 750 pounds.

Microwave ovens became available for home use in the late 1960s. Affordable, compact microwave ovens for households became more widespread in the 1970s.

When I went to college, I received a small microwave oven for my first apartment. Back then, apartments were not equipped with microwave ovens as a standard feature, as many are today.

In 2001, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 90% of households had microwave ovens.

When microwave ovens were first introduced, manufacturers thought they would replace regular ovens. However, that did not happen.

Microwave ovens primarily are used for reheating foods, although they can be used to cook many foods.

A downside of microwave ovens is that they do not brown food. Some combination ovens have been developed that allow for browning to occur.

When cooking in a microwave, remember some safety considerations. Glass, ceramic cookware and items labeled as safe for microwave use can be used.

Anything that comes in contact with microwaved food should be microwave safe, including paper towels and wax paper used around your microwaved food.

Some containers should not be used in a microwave oven. Carry-out containers from restaurants and plastic foam containers should not be used to reheat foods unless they specifically state they are microwave safe.

For example, margarine tubs, whipped topping bowls and other disposable plastic containers are not safe for microwave cooking or reheating. The containers might melt and/or allow harmful chemicals from the plastic to migrate into your food.

Do not thaw meat on the foam-insulated tray that may be used with meat. Remember, too, that containers that come with microwaveable meals are meant for one-time use only.

Keep these food safety tips in mind when using a microwave oven to cook or reheat foods.

  • Know the wattage of your microwave oven and compare to the wattage stated in the packaged foods’ cooking directions. Adjust cooking times accordingly.
  • Read and follow package cooking directions. Foodborne illness outbreaks have been associated with undercooked microwaveable meals that were not prepared according to the package directions.
  • Microwave-thawed meat should be cooked to doneness right after thawing. The meat might be warm enough to allow for bacterial growth. Do not put microwave-thawed meat back in the refrigerator to cook later.
  • Use a food thermometer to determine doneness. Sometimes microwaveable foods have added coatings that make them look “brown” but that does not mean the foods are done.
  • Stir and rotate your food half way through cooking to prevent cold spots or areas where harmful bacteria can survive.
  • Prevent burns by removing your food from the microwave carefully. Use potholders and uncover foods away from your face so steam can escape.
  • Observe recommended “standing time.” Food continues to heat to a higher temperature after it is removed from the microwave.
  • Use a food thermometer to be sure your food is cooked to the proper temperature.

When time is short, here’s a nutrient-rich food that can be ready in under 10 minutes.

Microwaved Sweet Potato

1 medium-sized sweet potato

Scrub the outside of the potato with a vegetable brush under cool running water to remove dirt. Puncture a few times with a fork to allow the steam to escape. Place the potato on a microwave-safe paper towel in a microwave-safe dish. Cook on high for three minutes. Turn the potato over and rotate the dish (unless you have a rotating turntable). Continue cooking for about 3 to 4 minutes until the potato is soft.

Top with butter, cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste.

Makes one serving with 150 calories, 0 grams (g) fat, 2 g protein, 38 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber and 70 milligrams sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)

NDSU Agriculture Communication – Sept. 16, 2022

Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, 701-231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu

Editor: Elizabeth Cronin, 701-231-5391, elizabeth.cronin@ndsu.edu


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