Think Again About Microwave Ovens

This is the next post in my series on how to save significant money by cooking at home.  In this post, I will tell you that you should spend some money so you can save some money.  A counter-intuitive idea to be sure.

Let me backtrack a bit first.  You can cook almost anything with elementary and inexpensive cooking gear.  In 2012 I had several recently divorced men in my psychiatric practice. When they moved from their homes into apartments, they knew to buy a couch, big screen TV, and other creature comforts.  However, they purchased little to no kitchen equipment and spent what discretionary cash that they had on restaurants and fast food. I made a Saving Savvy video for guys in similar situations, and in it, I looked at the minimum equipment that they would need to go beyond reheating and to start cooking.  I’ll link that video at the end of this post for those who are interested.

However, today my goal is to get you cooking, and the easier the process is, the more likely that you will not only try cooking but also sustain cooking.  It is only when you do the latter that you will see the many benefits of cooking for yourself.

I am a gadget fanatic, and one of the activities that give me pleasure is exploring the pros and cons of electric and mechanical creations.  Many years ago I bought a sewing machine. I can’t sew so such a purchase would seem odd on the surface. However, my buy was with intent, it was just that my purpose was different than the obvious.  I wanted to understand how such a complex machine worked. It is with a similar zeal that I have explored the potential of small electric cooking appliances. How do they work? Are they worthwhile time savers or simply shelf warmers.  What else can they do beyond their commonly used utility?

The microwave oven is one of the appliances in my holy trinity of necessary kitchen gadgets.  If I were suddenly forced to leave my house with only the clothes on my back one of the first appliances that I would buy for my new dwelling would be a microwave oven.

The microwave oven is an amazing, versatile, and inexpensive appliance.  Everyone knows that you can reheat leftovers and make bag popcorn in a microwave, but many believe this is where the device’s utility ends.  This is not the case.

Teaching my daughter how to bake a cake in her new dorm microwave. Part I.
Teaching my daughter how to bake cakes in her new dorm microwave. Part II.

When I was a single resident, I discovered that a microwave oven could be used to make all sorts of food.  Meats like fresh fish and chicken can be cooked to deliciousness. Vegetables can be done correctly. Baked items like muffins or cakes can be successfully created. Rice and pasta take about the same amount of time as on the stove, but you don’t have to watch the pot continually.

I made many meals from this cookbook when I was a single medical resident.

The process of microwaving is most similar to steaming, and so you can’t expect your foods to be brown, but there are many workarounds to make your dish look appealing. However, since a microwave is super quick, it is not the right choice for foods that require long/slow cooking to tenderize (like stews).

Smaller amounts of food cook quicker than larger amounts making the microwave perfect if you are preparing for one or two. A microwave can be a kitchen in a box if you live without a formal kitchen.

Quick oats, dried blueberries = instant breakfast!
Breakfast is served!

When microwaves were new and expensive, they came with thick cookbooks that not only were chocked full of recipes but also had a lot of useful general information on cooking methods. Unfortunately, newer microwaves usually just come with minimal information. It is definitely worth your while to learn basic microwave cooking techniques. Buying a microwave cookbook or researching on the internet can be the right places to start.

As amazing as microwave ovens are the device has detractors. Some dislike them because they expect a microwave to do things (like brown foods) that it is incapable of. Others have a fear that microwaves are bad for you. This latter group often sites information whose only authority is a rumor. The next section of this post tries to address some of the concerns that people voice when it comes to microwave cooking.

Search the internet for the dangers of microwave ovens, and you will come across countless “authoritative” sites that say the wildest things. Here is just one quote from a website called “Health-Science.”

Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term, permanent, brain damage by “shorting out” electrical impulses in the brain [de-polarizing or de-magnetizing brain tissue]

Now, someone is going to read this and believe it. I’m telling you that as a physician the above claim is not only ridiculous, it also makes no medical sense.

Let’s spend a little time talking about the science behind the microwave oven and some of the common concerns about cooking with this device.

Microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Various parts of this spectrum include radio waves, visible light, and ultraviolet light. When living tissue is directly exposed to concentrated electromagnetic energy, it can be damaged. An example of this would be getting sunburned from spending too much time in the sun. However, we are continually exposed to a lower level of this energy daily, besides, many of the devices that we use create this type of energy. Your cell phone, your computer, your radio, and your TV are just a few examples of devices that generate low levels of electromagnetic radiation. No one would advise you to directly expose yourself to highly concentrated microwave energy. Microwave ovens contain this energy in the cooking chamber, which is a metal box. Your smartphone exposes you to significantly more microwave energy than any microwave oven.

Microwaves heat food mostly by energizing the water molecules in the food. The active water molecules start to vibrate and rub against each other. This movement creates heat by friction, just like rubbing your hands together creates heat by friction. It is this friction heat that actually cooks your food. Most other cooking sources (like your stovetop) provide energy indirectly to the food which makes these devices less efficient and slower. Since the power is applied directly to the food the only residual heat in the oven is a byproduct of the hot food, as opposed to a heated cooking element (like the burner on a stove).

Let’s explore some common microwave oven concerns:

Microwave ovens cause cancer
FALSE
I have heard many variations on this theme, but the basic idea is that foods that are microwaved cause cancer. I think that this idea is because folks are confused by the term “ microwave radiation.” Radiation just refers to how energy (or particles) are emitted. The sun radiates heat, a radio tower radiates radio waves, and so forth. Nuclear radiation is very different from microwave radiation, and it is dangerous because it contains so much energy that it is ionizing, and can damage cell components like DNA. Microwave energy is non-ionizing, and its effects on food are just to cook it like any other source of heat.

Microwave ovens denature the protein in foods
TRUE
I read a blog where a woman refused to use a microwave because she understood that cooking food in a microwave denatures the food’s proteins. This is absolutely true, and on the surface, it sounds scary, but it isn’t at all. Proteins are twisted chains of amino acids. Heat in any form can untwist these chains to some degree which changes their properties. When you fry an egg on the stove the albumin protein in the egg white is denatured and goes from transparent and liquid to white and solid. Denaturing is what cooking is all about and is in not exclusive to microwave ovens.

Microwave ovens destroy the minerals and vitamins in foods.
MOSTLY FALSE
When we talk about the minerals that we need to survive, we are mainly referring to salts of elements like calcium or magnesium. These type of elements are fundamental, and they do not change.

Vitamins are organic compounds needed for healthy cell metabolism. Prolonged heat can destroy vitamins, and any cooking method has this potential. However, since microwaves tend to cook faster than other cooking methods they actually can have a less adverse impact on vitamins than other cooking methods.

Making vegetables in the microwave is not only easy, it is more nutritious.

Microwaves don’t brown food
TRUE
Microwave ovens produce heat by energizing water molecules which then vibrate and create heat by friction. This process is similar to steaming food and does not provide the dry heat that is needed to brown. There are many tricks that a cook can use to make a microwave cooked food look more appetizing. Coating chicken with BBQ sauce, topping a meatloaf with catsup, using a naturally dark cake batter (like chocolate), or running the cooked food under a broiler for a few minutes are just some of the techniques.

Microwave ovens don’t cook evenly
TRUE
The pattern of microwaves in a conventional home oven is uneven which is why most microwaves have rotating platters. However, you still may need to stir food or rearrange items during the cooking process to have them cook more evenly.

Microwave ovens cause EMF (electromagnetic field?) sickness
FALSE
I read a post on a website that said that microwave ovens caused EMF sickness and listed a bunch of generic malaise symptoms (like fatigue). Remember, that microwave ovens are designed to be a Faraday cage (a device that does not let electromagnetic waves out). Cooking a frozen burrito is considerably different than working on a microwave transmission tower!

It is dangerous to cook chicken in the microwave
FALSE
Just like in any other cooking method you need to make sure that chicken cook to the proper temperature and then is allowed to rest for a bit before eating. I could find no credible reports that could confirm that properly cooking chicken in a microwave was dangerous.

Microwaved baby formula is bad for the baby
TRUE…but
It is not recommended that you warm up a baby’s bottle in the microwave. This is because microwaves heat unevenly and portions of the milk could be overly hot.

Microwave ovens can cause heart attacks
FALSE
Decades ago you would see signs around public microwaves warning pacemaker wearers about the danger of being too close to a microwave. Since 1971 all microwaves have to meet stringent guidelines as far as microwave emission, and the FDA now advises against such warnings.

We are surrounded by sources of electromagnetic radiation from devices that range from your cell phone to your computer. Modern pacemakers are very shielded from external sources of radio waves, so don’t worry.

What about microwaves causing heart attacks? I think that non-experts made the wild leap between the old pacemaker warnings and myocardial infarctions. There is no link.

Microwave ovens are dangerous for pregnant women and can cause infertility in men.
FALSE
This rumor exists because strong EMFs may have a negative effect on developing babies and may cause a reduction in viable sperm counts. Remember, microwave ovens are basically Faraday Cages, they don’t release EMF. Typing with your laptop on your lap is potentially a much higher source of EMF for those regions, but before you get too concerned about this, there isn’t good evidence to support even these claims. Don’t worry, be happy.

Microwaved water kills plants.
FALSE
True urban legend. By the way, why would anyone microwave water for plants anyway?

Whether you choose to use a microwave or not is up to you. However, make your decision based on fact, not fiction. In our house, the microwave oven is a constant and convenient appliance that makes our daily cooking chores easier and faster.

The cheapest way to start cooking is by using just the basics.

2 thoughts on “Think Again About Microwave Ovens”

  1. Very Nice perspective – I remember when microwaves came out and they did come with cookbooks etc. …. and then they became ways to reheat water and leftovers and we all forgot all that they can do. Thanks for giving us input.

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