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Microwave Memories

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

Do you remember when microwave ovens became standard fixtures in American homes of the 1970s? If you do, you may also recall how cookbooks of the era were filled with recipes for dishes that really had no business being cooked in a microwave. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

MAJOR APPLIANCE

Microwave oven technology has been around since 1947, but it took 20 years for manufacturers to figure out how to make microwaves small enough and cheap enough for the home kitchen. The earliest models, sold to restaurants and commercial kitchens, cost $5,000 ($52,000 in today’s dollars), weighed more than 700 pounds, and were as big as refrigerators. Many of the restaurants that bought microwaves used them to reheat already-cooked dishes that had gone cold.

By the mid-1960s, microwaves were small enough to sit on a kitchen counter and cost around $500 ($3,400 today). That was still a lot of money (a 1967 Ford Mustang cost just $2,400), and to entice consumers into buying them, manufacturers and appliance dealers promoted them with a lot of hype. They claimed that microwaves could do anything that conventional ovens could do, in only a fraction of the time, and with much greater convenience. An entire industry of microwave-related products—including cookbooks, cookware, and specially formulated mixes for pies, cakes, casseroles, and other foods sprung up to feed the public’s fascination with these new devices.

But microwaves seldom delivered on their promise, as many a homemaker discovered by ruining one cooked-from-scratch meal after another before finally giving up and using their microwave the same way restaurants had in the 1940s: to reheat food that had been cooked some other way.

MICRO-MANAGING

Even referring to microwaves as “ovens” is a bit of a stretch, because they cook food differently. Conventional ovens use what is called a “dry heat” process, applying an external heat source at temperatures ranging from 300°F to 525°F to cook the food. Though microwaves may appear to use dry heat, they are actually using a peculiar form of “moist heat” cooking, similar to boiling or steaming. The short-wavelength radio waves generated inside a microwave oven penetrate about an inch and a half into the food and cause the water molecules in the food to vibrate. The friction generated by the vibrating molecules produces the heat that cooks the food. (Though the oven is full of microwave energy, the only heat inside the oven comes from the cooking food itself.)

THE REST OF THE STORY

But there’s a catch: water has a boiling point of just 212°F, a temperature too low to produce the rich tastes, textures, and aromas produced by roasting, baking, or broiling food in a conventional oven. (When was the last time you set an oven to 212°F?) Meats don’t brown, breads don’t form a crust, and foods containing natural sugars don’t caramelize or turn a golden color. On large pieces of meat and poultry, such as roasts and whole chickens, the outside can become dried out before the inside has had a chance to cook. Cakes, pies, and cookies “baked” in a microwave can end up tough and chewy on the outside and soggy on the inside. And microwave ovens also have “hot spots,” where microwave energy concentrates and overcooks food. Few early microwaves had turntables to counteract this effect.

(YouTube link)

While there were fixes for some of the problems associated with microwave cooking, such as covering parts of a chicken with foil to deflect microwave energy and prevent overcooking, they were often so complicated and time-consuming that the purpose of owning a microwave in the first place—speed and convenience—was defeated entirely. But you wouldn’t have learned any of this from your appliance dealer or from the microwave cookbooks of the 1970s, which were filled with recipes for everything from steaks and cakes to chicken chow mein—few of which, we’re betting, many people bothered to prepare more than once. Here are some of the odd, inappropriate, and (in some cases) truly disgusting recipes we’ve dug up from microwave cookbooks of the past:

NO STIR/NO FRY STIR-FRIED SHRIMP WITH GARLIC

“Sprinkle 2 tbsp. of salt over 1 pound medium raw shrimp that’s been shelled and de-veined. Mix well, then rinse in cold water for about 5 minutes to remove salt. Drain and dry on paper towels, then mix shrimp with 3 minced garlic cloves, 2 tbsp. dry sherry, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 1 tbsp. vegetable oil. Arrange in a single layer around the sides of a heatproof baking dish, leaving the center unfilled. Cook on high 2 minutes, then mix well and rearrange shrimp in a single layer around the sides of the dish. Cook on high 1½ minutes more, then serve.”

BEEF BRAIN SALAD

“Rinse brain in cold water, then remove the medula, or middle part of the brain connecting the two hemispheres. Place the hemispheres, rounded side up, in a 2-quart soufflé dish. Combine ½ cup water and 2 tsp. malt vinegar and pour over brain. Cover and cook on high for 4 minutes, then turn brain over and cook on high for another 4 minutes. Drain brain and let stand until cool, then cut into 1⁄4-inch slices and arrange on a serving platter on a bed of escarole lettuce leaves. Combine 1 tsp. tarragon vinegar, 3 tsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. minced tarragon, ½ tsp. salt, 1 finely chopped hard-boiled egg, and 1 tsp. minced shallot  and pour over brain. Serve with freshly ground black pepper.”

NO-FUN FONDUE

No fondue set? No problem! “Pour 1 cup dry white wine and two cloves peeled and smashed garlic into a 1-quart soufflé dish. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Place ½ pound Swiss Gruyére or Emmentaler cheese in the work bowl of a food processor and pour the wine and garlic mixture over it. Process for two minutes, then pour back into soufflé dish. Microwave uncovered on high for 2 minutes, then stir and microwave on high for 2 minutes longer. Stir in 2 tsp. cherry brandy; serve with bread chunks for dipping (use fondue forks). Reheat in microwave as needed.”

THANKSGIVING TURKEY

“Remove giblets; fill the turkey with stuffing of your choice. Tie drumsticks together and secure wings to bird with kitchen twine. Place turkey breast side down on a microwave-proof roasting rack in a microwave-proof baking dish. Microwave on high power for five minutes per pound. During cooking, look for areas that are browner than the rest of the bird and shield with aluminum foil. (Using small amounts of foil to shield food from overcooking is safe, as long as you leave most of the food uncovered.) When cooking has finished, drain fat from baking dish and turn turkey breast side up. Insert temperature probe in thickest part of thigh, and let microwave to cook at medium power until the probe reaches 180°. Let stand ten to fifteen minutes before carving.”

For Best Results:

• “Pop-up thermometers are not inserted deeply enough into the turkey to give proper readings when microwaving. Test for doneness using a standard meat thermometer.”

• “Turkeys over 12 lbs. are difficult to cook evenly in a microwave.”

CAPPUCCINOS

“Pour 2 cups of milk into a 4-cup glass measuring cup. Microwave until milk is hot but not boiling, 3 to 3½ minutes. Stir in four tsp. sugar and two tsp. instant coffee. For a dessert drink, add four ounces of brandy and four ounces of grated semisweet chocolate to milk before heating; top with whipped cream. Serves four.”

TACO HOT DOGS

“Combine 2 tbsp. bottled taco sauce, ½ cup of grated cheddar cheese, 2 tbsp. of chopped onion and 2 tbsp. of chopped green chilies. Slit four hot dogs lengthwise and stuff with three-fourths of the cheese mixture. Place stuffed hot dogs in taco shells and stand shells upright in a microwave-proof baking dish. Spoon the rest of the cheese mixture into the taco shells. Microwave on high for 1½ to 2 minutes; top with shredded lettuce, garbanzo beans and guacamole dip. Serve immediately.”

PECAN PIE

“Roll pastry dough into a 12-inch circle, then place in one 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim and flute edges, prick with a fork, and set aside. Combine 1⁄4 cup melted butter or margarine, 1⁄3 cup brown sugar, 1 cup dark corn syrup, 3 eggs, 1½ tsp. all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. vanilla, ⅛ tsp. salt, and 1 cup pecan halves. Pour mixture into pastry shell. Cook on defrost for 25 minutes. (Note: crust will not brown in the microwave. To improve pastry color, add 1 to 2 drops of yellow food coloring or brush diluted dark corn syrup on pastry before cooking.)”

CHEESEBURGERS

“Mix 1 lb. ground beef with 1 tsp. salt and ½ tsp. pepper. Shape into four patties; place patties in an 8-inch by 12-inch microwave-proof baking dish. Cover dish with wax paper and microwave on high for four minutes for rare burgers, and six minutes for medium burgers. Place each patty in its bun and top patties with a slice of cheese. Microwave each cheeseburger on medium for one additional minute or until the cheese melts.”

MORE MICROWAVE “TIPS & TRICKS”

• “Do not attempt to operate the microwave with the door open.”

• Bread baked by microwave “does not brown or form a crust, but this can be partially overcome by using toppings, frostings, and dark flours.”

• “Popcorn will not cook in a microwave. It is too dry to attract microwave energy.”

FINAL THOUGHT

“It was one of the most ghastly experiences of my life. The foodies thought I was insane—how could I do anything so demeaning?” —Former New York Times microwave columnist Barbara Kafka, describing the public response to her 1987 cookbook, The Microwave Gourmet, which included instructions on how to kill a lobster in the microwave. “The humane types got all upset. But the lobster dies very quickly,” she told the Detroit News in 2005.

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's newest volume, Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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There are all sorts of terminology you could use to mess with the head of someone who associates the word microwave only with the oven. For example: microwave plumbing for piping around and dispensing microwaves.
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My kids were thoroughly confused one day when I referred to the "microwave oven." We have a toaster and toaster oven which is confusing enough for them, considering the microwave is right above the oven. The big oven.
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