The Eating Life: Rediscovering the nuclear option for dinner

Friday, April 5, 2013 at 1:47pm
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent
040513 Culture microwave topper.jpg

(Illustration by Nicole Dudka)


What would Percy Spencer say about his brilliant discovery being used primarily to reheat coffee and warm up Hot Pockets?

Likely he’d be pleased that 90 percent of American households have at least one microwave. He didn’t mean to invent a cooking method — he actually set out to invent a new type of radar.

So he probably wouldn’t complain too much about the wasted potential, but he probably would feel a little wistful about what might have been for the microwave.

It was going to be a microwave world, and it was going to be brilliant, if you believe the 1983 Sharp Carousel Cookbook. The cover featured a soufflé, a golden sesame-topped challah loaf, and a juicy, pink beef rib roast. In a fraction of the time and without heating up the kitchen. Who wouldn’t want that?

Somewhere between that brilliant future and the dinner table, the dream fell apart. Microwave cooking was not easier; in some ways it was harder. Microwaving was a new cooking “language” with new metrics and fewer cues. Temperature is something palpable, but microwaves use wattage. What is a watt? One joule per second? What does that even mean?

Microwaving doesn’t offer browning, sizzling or smells to signal cooking progress. And microwave cooking required a whole new set of cookware.

It got worse: As the ovens got more powerful, they actually ruined as many cooking projects as they enabled. A thousand watts heats coffee in 40 seconds, but it incinerates brown rice, eggs and lots of other foods.

And worse: Microwaves penetrate about 1 inch into food, so it cooks unevenly, risking overcooked and undercooked areas in the final dish.

It’s time to step up to Percy Spencer’s invention and put it back to work. There really are dishes that are better in the microwave. Ten are listed below, with recipes for three of them. To see more microwave recipes that didn’t fit here, and more microwave uses, visit



Foods you could be cooking in a microwave

When it’s too hot to use the stove, or you don’t mind swapping a little quality for a much shorter cooking time:

Whole Wheat Bread

Fish in Lemon Parsley Butter

Poached Fish

Tapioca. Not a whole lot faster, but doesn’t heat up the kitchen

Brownie in a Mug. Not quite the chewy, chocolaty delight of a baked brownie, but it scratches the itch and is quick. Best of all: no leftovers to tempt you later.

Roux. Former Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie uses a microwave for roux, which is faster, but involves walking across the room with a searing bowl of hot liquid.

Pralines. The only tricky part is that the mixture firms up before you can shape all the pralines. You microwave it to soften it again. This overcooks the last of the mixture, so expect a smaller yield.

Lemon Curd

Potato Chips. Cut them thin, toss with a little oil and salt and microwave 2 minutes. Turn over and microwave 2 more minutes. They crisp as they cool.

Papadums. Brush store-bought papadums with a little oil. Arrange on a microwave-safe plate and nuke until they puff and curl.


Fish in Lemon Parsley Butter

Surprisingly good, though a little of the flour’s texture remains. This recipe was developed for an 1100-watt oven.

• 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

• Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)

• 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley, tarragon or chervil

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 1/8 teaspoon celery seed (this was Sharp’s idea, not mine, but it’s nice)

• 1 pound mild white fish fillets such as swai or tilapia

Melt the butter in a rectangular Pyrex baking dish at 50 percent for about 40 seconds. Stir in the flour, lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper and celery seed.

Lay the fish in the butter mixture, turning to coat both sides. Cover the dish with waxed paper. Microwave at 50 percent for 5 to 6 minutes until the fish is opaque and flakes in the center with a fork.


Crustless Quiche

You can use green onions instead of leeks — no need to sauté those first. This recipe was developed with an 1100-watt oven.

• 1 cup sliced leeks

• Vegetable oil

• 3 eggs

• 1 cup half-and-half

• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or chickpea flour

• Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste

• 1 cup chopped ham

• 1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (about 4 ounces)

Sauté the leeks in oil on the stovetop until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Combine the eggs, half-and-half, ham, flour, salt, pepper, cayenne in a bowl and whisk to blend. Microwave at 30 percent for 4 to 5 minutes, whisking every 2 minutes, until the mixture is thickened.

Spread the ham and cheese in a Pyrex pie plate. Pour the hot egg mixture over them. Set the plate on an inverted saucer or small plate in the oven. Microwave at 30 percent until the center is set by not dry, starting with about 16 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes to finish cooking. Makes 4 servings.


Sour Cream Brunch Cake

Lots of healthier substitutions work here: Splenda, whole-wheat flour, almond meal. Just be sure to keep at least half of the white sugar and flour for texture.


• 2/3 cup sugar

• 5 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened

• 3/4 cup sour cream or yogurt

• 2 eggs

• 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

• 2/3 cup whole-wheat flour

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 teaspoon salt


• 4 tablespoons butter or margarine

• 1/3 cup packed brown sugar

• 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

• 3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans or other nuts

For the cake, beat the sugar and 5 tablespoons butter until fluffy. Beat in the sour cream and eggs. Add the flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt and beat for 2 minutes.

For the topping, melt the butter in a 9-inch round deep dish Pyrex pie plate or casserole. Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the butter. Sprinkle the nuts over the sugar mixture.

Drop spoonfuls of batter over the topping. Smooth and spread the batter gently.

Microwave for 8 minutes at 50 percent (aiming for 550 watts). Let stand several minutes to finish cooking. Turn out of pan.


Peanut Brittle

Maybe it’s the Southerner in me, but I think pecans are even better here. This recipe was developed for an 1100-watt microwave.

• 1 cup sugar

• 1/2 cup light corn syrup

• Dash of salt

• 1 to 1 1/2 cups raw peanuts or pecans

• 1 tablespoon butter

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Very heavily grease a baking sheet or set out a Silpat mat. Combine the sugar, corn syrup and salt in a 3-quart casserole or other large microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at 60 percent for 10 minutes (aiming for 660-700 watts), stirring two or three times. The mixture will begin to color in the center toward the end of the cooking.

Stir in the butter, baking soda and vanilla. Working quickly, pour the mixture onto the baking sheet and spread it thinly. Let cool. Break into pieces. Makes 1 pound.




The physics of microwave radiation

Microwaving combines the two things I love doing for a living: radiation and cooking.

Like an X-ray tube, a microwave has an anode and a cathode. Also like an X-ray tube, the positive cathode filament heats up and “boils off” electrons, which are drawn to the negative anode.

In an X-ray tube, the electrons smash into a target made of tungsten, molybdenum or rhodium, and create X-rays. A microwave uses a magnetron, an aluminum-nickel-copper pinwheel array of little bowls. The electrons resonate over the open bowl shapes, creating microwaves.

A microwave is radiation, but not “ionizing” radiation, which concerned a lot of people in the early days of microwaves. Ionizing radiation knocks electrons out of orbits. Ionization creates free radicals and can damage tissue.

It takes an energetic radiation wave to ionize an atom, about 103 electron volts. A microwave peaks at about 102, so it’s non-ionizing, like radio waves.

A microwave is much longer than an X-ray; if an X-ray is a nanometer, then a microwave is a centimeter. A microwave is a low-energy wave, with frequencies between 300 megahertz and 300 gigahertz. It doesn’t travel far, and the intensity drops sharply as the distance increases.

That stuff in the microwave window that makes it hard to see the food? That’s a Faraday Cage, a mesh that prevents microwaves from escaping the unit. It’s a smaller version of the window between the MRI unit and the control room.

Both the FCC and FDA regulate microwave emission. The standard for ovens is a limit of 5 milliwatts per square centimeter at 5 centimeters from any surface of the oven.

If you’re not into the physics, here’s the point of microwave radiation production. My Landauer Luxel Plus radiation monitor badge, required for my other job as a mammographer, measures exposure for X, gamma, beta and neutron radiation. When I’m not wearing it, it resides about 2 feet below a microwave oven. It’s never registered even a trace amount of exposure. (FYI, it’s also never registered any radiation on any of the several trips it has taken through TSA screens.)

2 Comments on this post:

By: whitegravy on 4/10/13 at 7:19

the ART of cooking is evolving just like every thing else because of technology.......microwaves werent even around till i got in high school......maybe the next stage of preparing food will be the "replicator" of "star trek" fame........just say what you want like a drive-thru, push a button, the door opens like a dumbwaiter and VOILA' theres your meal......and i bet you itll taste like least 1 guarantee in life and thats CHANGE

By: rickmuz on 4/11/13 at 8:23

There is NOTHING nuclear in a microwave oven... Microwave energy is concentrated RADIO waves, hardly nuclear fusion.