Oh, microwave (Part I)

by Danielle Del Vicario

From preparing midnight snacks in a first-year dorm to making dinner in a tiny studio apartment, every student knows the frustration of cooking with nothing but a microwave for months on end. In recent years, microwaves have made somewhat of a comeback, particularly with the advent of the infamous mug cake, but are they good for more than chocolatey comfort food and pre-made pastas and soups? And, what about the alleged health risks of ‘cancer-causing radiation’?

Correcting four common microwave myths, it’s clear that most (though not all) of the microwave-related fears espoused by worried parents in the last couple decades have been fairly baseless. More importantly, understanding why they are false—and how microwaves actually work—opens a whole new set of culinary doors for the restricted student chef.

Myth #1: Microwaves cause cancer

Microwaves are a mild kind of electromagnetic radiation (about on par with radio and light waves). That said they are contained within the appliance which produces them. Moreover, microwave appliances don’t transfer ‘radiation’ to your food, but work instead because of a process called dielectric heating. Molecules possessing a positive and negative pole (like water) rotate to align themselves with an alternating electric field, generating heat as they do so. There is, however, some danger in microwaving plastics which can leech chemicals into your food. All the more reason to make your own microwave meals from scratch instead of buying pre-made dishes in plastic containers.

Myth #2: Microwaves cook from the inside out

Microwaves can only penetrate around three centimetres into the food. It’s when vibrating molecules bump into each other that kinetic energy (i.e. heat) is transferred to inward molecules. Because of this, microwaving meat can be dangerous as it may not cook through to the centre. Dielectric heating also doesn’t cause browning or charring, which means meat cooked in a microwave won’t taste the same as when fried on a stove or roasted in the oven.

Myth #3: Microwaves waste energy

Microwaves are actually the most energy efficient way of cooking. They facilitate a more direct and contained transfer of energy than that which occurs in ovens or stoves, and cook food more quickly.

Myth #4: Microwaved food loses its nutritional value

Cooking food in a microwave is no different than on a stove except that it needs less water. If anything, microwaved food is better for you as most nutrients are lost during boiling.