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How Do Microwaves Work?

The common-or-garden microwave—ubiquitous in workplace break rooms, lodge lobbies, and doubtless your individual kitchen—is nothing if not handy. In any case, it’s a field in which you’ll be able to put final night time’s leftovers (or a frozen burrito; no judgment right here), push a few buttons, and look ahead to the magic of electromagnetism to convey your meals again to life inside minutes. Fairly cool!

However what truly is a microwave oven and the way does it work? Effectively, all of it begins with a man named Percy who unintentionally cooked a sweet bar in his pocket.

A Story as Outdated as Time: A Temporary Historical past of the Microwave

OK, so, it’s 1946. Percy Spencer is an engineer working for a magnetron firm referred to as Raytheon, and in the future he’s hanging out within the radar lab when he notices that the snack he’d stashed in his pocket is getting awfully heat. 

Spencer experiments with bringing popcorn and eggs into the lab over the following couple of days. It doesn’t take him lengthy to know that energetic magnetrons have the ability to cook dinner meals—and shortly at that. He recordsdata some patents and the remaining, they are saying, is historical past. 

What Is a Microwave?

Severe Eats / Will Dickey

The equipment we all know and love is a kind of oven. Microwaves are the precise electromagnetic waves generated in magnetrons, they usually get zapped round contained in the confines of the oven—therefore the ingeniously named microwave oven.

Microwaves work by reflecting off of the steel surfaces contained in the oven, and the meals you’ve positioned inside absorbs these waves. The FDA simplifies it by stating that “microwaves trigger water molecules in meals to vibrate, producing warmth that cooks the meals.”

That is additionally why, whereas comparatively fast-acting, microwaves typically yield meals that’s inconsistently warmed. The interior depths of, say, a Sizzling Pocket or a bowl of soup simply can’t soak up microwaves as readily because the outer layers.

Does Wattage Matter?



Magic Chef

Most trendy microwave ovens function between 600 and 1000 watts (and a few greater than that), with the latter being the usual full-power quantity in the present day. On the whole, a microwave with extra watts is extra highly effective and could have quicker cook dinner (or warmth) occasions.

Wattage additionally refers back to the price of electrical energy consumption, and microwaves are fairly environment friendly. The common price is about $10 per year, and that’s should you’re working your microwave for quarter-hour a day. 

What You Can (and Can’t) Put within the Microwave

Severe Eats / Abigail Clarkin

Regardless of their effectivity and ease of use, microwave ovens aren’t appropriate for each kitchen context. Right here’s what you can microwave safely:

  • Glass and ceramics; although it’s greatest to keep away from crystal, pottery, or something handpainted
  • Reusable plastics; which suggests sure to storage containers, no to that previous yogurt tub you rinsed out three months in the past
  • Paper plates, paper towels, and napkins
  • Meals storage baggage

And right here’s what you can’t microwave safely:

  • Metallic, together with aluminum foil*
  • Cardboard, which can include adhesives or waxes
  • Styrofoam, except it’s labeled as microwave-safe 

*Expertise has superior and the age-old knowledge to keep away from placing steel within the microwave isn’t essentially nonetheless all the time correct. The steel rings on Anyday microwave-safe cookware, for instance, are totally fine to go within the microwave, as a result of the steel used is thick and easy sufficient to replicate the microwaves as a substitute of arcing—which is what might occur should you had been to warmth a fork.

When unsure, search for labels. Most serving ware, cookware, and storage vessels could have some indication as to whether or not they’re microwave-safe or not.

What About Microwave Oven Presets? 

Severe Eats / Will Dickey

Plenty of microwaves have particular buttons for preset cooking modes—just like the basic popcorn button. In reality, although, these presets normally aren’t value getting enthusiastic about. They’re simply preselected time and wattage ranges which will or will not be enough for the particular meals or beverage you’re attempting to warmth. 

What is helpful, although, are the totally different energy ranges. Let’s say your microwave’s default is 1000 watts—that’s full energy. Use it for the quickest heating, ideally with excessive water content material meals akin to soups and stews. For a small portion or a finicky ingredient (softening butter, maybe), you may need to drop the ability stage all the way down to 500 watts to keep away from an exploding mess. Whirlpool has a terrific information on microwave oven energy ranges. Understanding easy methods to alter these settings may also help you benefit from your equipment.

Once more, most microwaves on sale in the present day will run at round 1000 watts out of the field, which is loads (and you may alter it). Purchase based on measurement and your price range—not the variety of presets. 

What Can You Prepare dinner in a Microwave? 

Severe Eats / Abigail Clarkin

Cooking with a microwave might not really feel as lavish as firing up your typical oven, however these little containers can certain be useful—particularly if you’re quick on time (or, let’s be trustworthy, motivation). 

On this very site, we’ve recipes for issues like fried garlic and shallots, rice, and chocolate cake all cooked within the microwave. You possibly can even toast nuts in a single.

Alternatively, there may be microwave-specific cookware on the market as nicely, like this set we reviewed from Anyday. Their web site options whole meals you’ll be able to cook dinner within the microwave, like sloppy joes and coconut lime shrimp. You possibly can even be that individual who places fish in the microwave.


How lengthy ought to a microwave final? 

So long as you’re not utilizing it to warmth steel objects, your microwave can simply final for seven to 10 years. You’ll know it could be singing on the final notice should you discover bizarre sounds, smells, or meals which might be improperly cooked. Or if it doesn’t truly warmth your meals up, which we’ve had occur. 

What is an effective wattage for a microwave?

As we lined above, 1000 or extra watts is right for contemporary microwaving wants.

What are the totally different sizes of microwaves?

Microwave ovens typically vary from 0.5 to 2.0 cubic feet in measurement. The smallest fashions will likely be countertop microwaves.

What are the several types of microwaves?

You’ll find countertop, over-the-range, and built-in microwaves. Countertop fashions can plug in anyplace with an acceptable outlet—good for small areas, workplaces, and so forth. Over-the-range microwaves will likely be put in above your stovetop and have a venting mechanism, whereas built-in microwaves are designed to combine with surrounding cabinetry. 

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