Microwave Ovens

While microwave ovens were made available to the public in 1967 (remember the Amana Radarange anyone?), their price tag made them prohibitively expensive to most middle class families. But today not only do most households have a microwave, but so do most dorm rooms, offices, break rooms, restaurants, and college dining halls, yet most people don’t even know how they work. And we’ve all put the popcorn bag in the microwave, set it for the amount of time indicated and come back to a pile of solid burnt mess in-a-bag – or a bag of nothing but luke warm kernels. It always seems that the microwave is good for heating things up and not a whole lot more.

But according to Carolyn Dodson, that’s just a big dumb lie.

Carolyn is The Woman when it comes to microwave cooking, and she’s earned that title. She’s been creating recipes – ones that really work! – since Raytheon’s first Amana Radarange hit the market in 1957. She knows how to use aluminum foil in the microwave, how your microwave can be used to freshen stale crackers, peel onions more easily, make croutons, cut your grilling time in half, and most importantly: determine your microwave’s wattage so that you’ll never risk undercooked or overcooked food again. Oh, and that pesky little popcorn problem? It’ll be a thing of the past.

Microwave output is rated in wattage and, just like light bulbs, the higher the wattage the more power. While light bulbs get brighter, microwave ovens cook faster. But microwaves can be finicky in how they work. To determine your microwave oven’s working wattage, Ms. Dodson recommends her tried and true formula: place one cup of room temperature water in your microwave and set it to “high.” How long it takes for the water to boil determines the wattage of your oven:

Oven Type Minutes to Boiling Wattage
High Wattage < 2 850-1,000 Full Power 2-3 650-850 Lower Power 3-4 400-650 Once you determine your microwave wattage the culinary world is at you speedy little fingertips. Carolyn’s books Definitive Microwave Cookery I & II can get you from the kitchen to the table in ten minutes – and not with a gray gelatinous mass either. She can even cook a turkey – yes a whole turkey, browned and all – in the microwave!

But what about the hazards of microwave ovens? We’ve all heard the stories of leaking radiation, ovens that operate even with the door off, cockroaches that won’t die, urban legends of the babysitter with the headful of acid mistaken the family dog for a meatloaf, and so on. But while we’ve all heard these stories not a single person I asked could actually confirm knowing anyone associated with one. But I did find out a few things.

First, microwaves, especially old ones that have taken a beating or have built up a lot of dirt can leak, but almost never leak enough to cause any damage. I say almost because I did come across one admittedly not-so-bright self-made test dummy at http://rabi.phys.virginia.edu/HTW/microwave_ovens.html who owned a microwave that the door had come off. After doing a less than stellar home repair job (what, did microwaves suddenly become prohibitively expensive or something?) curiosity got the better of him and he decided to find out what would happen if he stuck his finger in the microwave when it was on. While I urge you to check out what he has to say for himself, but suffice to say it was a less than comfy experience. At least he came forth and allowed us all to learn from his, uh, stupidity.

As for the cockroach that just won’t die, I could only find one reference to this story. On September 24, 1982 Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope published a letter from “Two Malefactors in Suspense, Chicago” who claimed that a roach they placed in their microwave took 15 minutes to die. Cecil submitted five possible reasons why this might have been (as well as suggesting that perhaps they put their intruders out of their misery using a more humane method).

So use your microwave oven with reckless abandon, but keep your hands to yourself and make sure that whatever you put in it is dead first.


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