In my childhood, microwaves were used for the kinds of foods that didn't deserve real silverware. Things like reheated Chinese take-out. Hot Pockets. Popcorn. Pop-Tarts. Even "convenience foods," like frozen pizza and boxed macaroni and cheese, were heated in the oven or on the stove. Later, in college, a roommate of mine claimed that her favorite way to make scrambled eggs was in the microwave. I turned up my nose at her. I didn't need the microwave, because I was capable of real cooking. The microwave was pathetic.
Then I discovered the 1979 cookbook Adventures in Microwave Cooking, which made it seem like microwave cooking was a lost art. The cookbook, published by now-defunct home retailer Montgomery Ward, recreated recipes as extravagant as whole fish and as fussy as Béchamel sauce entirely in the microwave. And some of the recipes looked, for lack of a better word, mouthwatering.
But why cook in the microwave when you could just as easily use the oven or the stove? As Adventures in Microwave Cooking suggests in its introduction, it's a matter of convenience: "Microwave cooking gives you the opportunity to show off your creative skills as a great cook without spending the entire day toiling over a hot stove." It is, perhaps, the invention that has most liberated women from spending their days cooped up in the kitchen; it has given frenzied college students living in cramped dorm rooms a viable way to eat.
Still, microwave cooking is not for the faint of heart. It's hard to fit dishes into the little box, and materials that conduct too much heat, like metal, are off-limits. It's messy. Ingredients will splatter. And the precision of the timing is everything—leave something in the microwave for a few seconds too many or too few, and your food will come out soggy, rubbery, or exploded. But if you can get it just right, the microwave promises an easier, more time-efficient life.
In some ways it's strange that the microwave has fallen out of fashion. In our fast-paced, instant gratification-obsessed world a box that can cook dinner in five minutes flat sounds like a godsend. Yet for whatever reason the aughts have not been kind to the microwave. So in an effort to rediscover the magic of an often overlooked appliance, we opened up Adventures in Microwave Cooking and set out to create a five-course meal using only the microwave. If you haven't started preparing your Thanksgiving meal yet, pay attention.
Bacon microwaved at high heat for two minutes; poached eggs microwaved at low heat for two minutes.
Cooking bacon in the microwave is easy. Poaching an egg is not. Generally, poaching an egg involves coaxing a cracked egg into a simmering pot of water and cooking it very, very gently so that the yolk remains a little runny. To replicate this in the microwave, we heated a bowl full of water until it was near-boiling. Then we cracked an egg into a ramekin and slipped the cracked egg into the hot water, keeping its shape intact. We cooked it in the bowl of water, sealed with plastic wrap, for a few minutes more on very low heat. When it came out, it was shaped perfectly, but the yolk was cooked through.
Creating Hollandaise sauce in the microwave was easier: We melted butter in the microwave, then beat in egg yolk, lemon juice, and salt. Then, we stacked an English muffin with the bacon and slightly-overcooked poached egg; we garnished it with a drizzle of homemade Hollandaise sauce and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary. Against all odds, it tasted just like Eggs Benedict is supposed to taste, and it looked lovely—the kind of breakfast you might serve to a one night stand, considering it only took a few minutes to make.
Microwaved at high heat for seven minutes.
The idea of cooking meat in the microwave made my stomach turn, though I couldn't pinpoint exactly why. Adventures in Microwave Cooking assured us that everything from "an elegant crown roast of lamb or an all-American pot roast [could be] prepared quickly and easily in your microwave oven." The only caveat was that, given how quickly things cook in the microwave, our meat might not brown properly. If our meat came out looking pallid, the cookbook recommended using "gravy browning sauce, soy sauce, or dry gravy mix" to fake the appearance of browning. The fact that the cookbook recommended essentially painting our food to make it look adequately cooked did not settle my stomach.
Still, we gave it the old college try. We brushed our steak with melted butter before microwaving it for exactly seven minutes, as recommended by the pound-to-minute ratio in the cookbook. Without the precision of a meat thermometer, the trick to microwaving steak is to get the timing just right. Ours came out looking browned enough, although it also had a somewhat grayish tint. It seemed to be cooked medium-well, but it was chewy and tough. We had covered the raw steak with parchment paper before we microwaved it, but in spite of this, it left a residue of splattered blood on the ceiling of the microwave.
Microwaved at low heat for 25 minutes.
Soufflé is a challenging enough dish to prepare in a conventional oven: The egg whites have to be whipped until they're exactly stiff enough, and then folded into the rest of the mixture so gently that enough air remains. It has to be cooked at exactly the right temperature, for exactly the right amount of time, with exactly the right architecture, in order for it to come out with a well-formed pouf.
Our soufflé was constructed from melted cheese, egg yolk, and butter, heated in the microwave and whipped until smooth. The egg whites were hand-whipped with cream of tartar until they formed stiff peaks. We gently folded the yolk mixture into the egg whites, poured the finished soufflé into a set of ramekins, and cooked uncovered for 25 minutes. Its texture was dry and somewhat rubbery; the cheese was overpowering rather than subtle. We gave the soufflé every opportunity to rise to the challenge of the microwave oven, and still, the soufflé did not rise.
Microwaved at medium heat for seven minutes.
The recipe for whole fish is titled exactly as such: "whole fish." The cookbook did not specify which variety of fish to use, but there was an illustration of a fish next to the recipe, so we brought the book to a nearby fish market and asked the fishmonger for one that looked like the drawing. "Tilapia?" he said. We shrugged.
The fishmonger gutted and cleaned the fish for us. We then put it into the microwave whole, covered with a piece of parchment paper. The instructions recommended covering the fish's head and tail with tin foil—a microwave cooking technique known as "shielding," or protecting certain areas of food from overcooking. We were wary of putting tin foil in the microwave, since conventional knowledge suggests that this might cause the microwave to catch fire, so we skipped this step. When the fish emerged, its eye looked blank and cloudy, as if it had seen some things in there.
Old-Fashioned Fudge Cake
Microwaved at high heat for seven minutes.
Microwaves and cakes are decades-old friends. The widespread success of the Easy Bake Oven—which were, themselves, teeny-tiny microwaves—popularized the idea that you didn't need a full-sized oven to make baked goods. Later, the "cake in a mug" phenomenon revitalized microwave baking, providing single-serving cakes ready in a matter of minutes. Nevermind that "cakes in a mug" usually come out either chewy or runny, or that the Easy Bake Oven was better suited for doll food than real baked goods. They were convenient, and more than anything, they were fast.
Our microwave cake was made from melted squares of baker's chocolate mixed with butter, flour, sugar, and eggs. It was, more or less, a traditional chocolate cake batter. We poured the batter into a glass cake pan and secured it in the microwave, where we cooked it for just under seven minutes. When it came out, it was spongey and dry—not fudgey at all—and crumbled when we tried to cut it. Its taste wasn't offensive, but it lacked the gooey, chocolatey quality that you'd expect from a fudge cake. We garnished it with fresh raspberries, which was not unlike putting a small garden in the center of Chernobyl.
The verdict? The food we constructed and cooked in the microwave was about as appetizing as the plastic faux-food that children play with. Some of it looked decent, and it wasn't altogether inedible, but the textures were all wrong and almost everything came out dry, rubbery, and grayish. A microwaved meal, however convenient, just can't replace the quality of food cooked in an oven or on the stove. Call me a snob, but I'll stick with my old-fashioned oven for now. The only time you'll find me hovering near the microwave is to reheat that Chinese take-out.