3, 2, 1 ... Beeeep! Your Microwave's 50th Anniversary Is Ready

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 2:25 pm

Just like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the microwave oven often gets no respect. Every kitchen has one, but no self-respecting cook would admit to using it for anything more than just heating up last night's pasta. But it's hard to deny the influence the food-nuker has had on American life, and this year marks 50 years since its arrival.

The first countertop microwave was the Amana Radarange, which debuted in 1967 and sold for $495. It's the appliance that made zapping your food as routine as brushing your teeth.

It was called the "Radarange" because of a happy accident by an engineer who was working for the defense contractor Raytheon in the 1940s. Percy Spencer was using a magnetron, a device that generates the radio waves that are at the heart of radar technology. When he turned on the magnetron, he noticed that the candy bar in his front pocket was starting to melt.

Timothy Jorgensen, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, said Spencer then took the magnetron and pointed it at a raw egg.

"And the egg quickly heated up and exploded. And then he got some popcorn kernels and the popcorn kernels started to pop. So you can see where this is going."

Raytheon went on to patent the microwave oven. But the first attempts at microwaves didn't catch on. They were huge, expensive and Jorgensen said the dishes came out looking kind of gross.

"It didn't make the food brown like people were used to seeing from the oven. So there were spray-on things that you would spray on meats and things to make it brown and make it look like it had cooked in the oven."

Creepy.

Fast forward to today and it's still sometimes hard to find microwave dishes that actually look like something you want to eat.

Joe Yonan, the food and dining editor for The Washington Post, makes a delicious microwave dessert called "Strawberry Air Cakes."

It tastes like strawberry shortcake, but when it first comes out of the oven, it looks like an alien blob. Yonan says the key to microwave cooking is understanding what the ovens do well.

"If you think about it, a microwave is targeting water. It's heating up the water molecules in the food. So steaming is great."

All it takes are a few splashes of water and couple of minutes in the microwave and green beans come out crisp and tasty, not mushy.

Microwave potato chips are all the rage on the Internet. They're crunchy, delicious and much healthier than anything that comes from a bag.

But Yonan says unless you're stuck on a desert island and the only machine you have is a microwave, don't use it to cook meat. He says meats need to heat up more slowly to get the right the taste and texture.

But you can't call yourself a real cook unless you've ruined a meal or two in the microwave. As they saying goes, there's no such thing as a mistake in the kitchen, just a new recipe waiting to be born. Think of it as your chance to add a page to the now 50-year-old history of the little electromagnetic box that could.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And this is our co-host Rachel Martin with a searing question.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When's the last time you used your microwave? Probably this morning, right? Maybe you warmed up some leftover pizza for breakfast, nuked your coffee that wasn't warm anymore. Microwaves are so ubiquitous, we take it for granted that every house and every apartment will come with one. This year, the countertop microwave celebrates its 50th anniversary. And whether you love it or loathe it, you cannot deny the influence this machine has had on American life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It cooks most everything in about one-fourth the time, so you use less electricity.

MARTIN: This is a commercial for the Amana Radarange, which first came out in 1967. It is the microwave that made nuking your food as routine as brushing your teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: But remember, if it doesn't say Amana, it's not a Radarange.

MARTIN: It was called the Radarange because the technology for microwave cooking came from radar. It was the result of a happy accident by an engineer working for a defense contractor back in the 1940s.

TIMOTHY JORGENSEN: The man who discovered this was Percy Spencer. And he was working at Raytheon.

MARTIN: That's Timothy Jorgenson. He's an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University.

JORGENSEN: He was working with an instrument called a magnetron, which is the heart of a radar instrument. And he had a candy bar in his front pocket. So he noticed that the candy bar was starting to melt.

MARTIN: Spencer tried an experiment. He took the magnetron and shot some radio waves at a raw egg.

JORGENSEN: And the egg quickly heated and exploded.

MARTIN: Exploded.

JORGENSEN: Exploded. And then he got some popcorn kernels. And he got the popcorn kernels to pop. So you can see where this is going. And, in fact, Raytheon went on to patent the microwave oven.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Microwave cooking units are indeed revolutionary. Desserts frozen solid like Swiss chocolate cake - thawed and ready to eat in five seconds.

MARTIN: We should say earlier attempts at microwaves didn't catch on. They were way too big, way too expensive. And the dishes came out looking kind of gross.

JORGENSEN: It didn't make the food brown like people were used to seeing in the oven. So there were there spray-on things that you would spray on meat and things like that so it would...

MARTIN: To make it look like it had grill marks?

JORGENSEN: To make it look like it, yeah. To make it look like it had...

MARTIN: Cooking marks.

JORGENSEN: ...Cooked in the oven.

MARTIN: Ew. Creepy.

In the 1970s, manufacturers tried to counter the creepy with public service campaigns that made microwave cooking seem downright fancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A special delight for lobster lovers is the way these elegant lobster tails broil to perfection in just seven minutes.

MARTIN: We're walking in the back hallways of the Smithsonian to see one of the early models of the tabletop microwave.

Oh, you do need extra security to go in here.

Is this it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes, this is it.

MARTIN: Wow, this is beautiful. Oh, no touching. Oh, I'm sorry.

There it was, situated on a table in a storage room at the Smithsonian's American History Museum, an early Amana Radarange in all of its retro metallic glory. Curator Laura Simo, who knows the rules about no touching, puts on blue rubber surgical gloves.

LAURA SIMO: We'll open this up so you can just appreciate the beauty.

MARTIN: That is magical.

SIMO: You should walk around. You know, we put it out in the middle of the room so you can enjoy it in the round.

MARTIN: I appreciate - yes, in the round.

SIMO: In the round, yes.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SIMO: It's really exciting.

MARTIN: You are well-suited to your job.

Sima was excited about this Radarange not just because it was so well-preserved but because the woman who donated it to the museum kept all the original owner's manuals and brochures.

SIMO: You know, I love the introduction. Like, welcome to the world of microwave cooking. It's not only a time-saver. It also is a solution to the energy crisis.

MARTIN: That's fascinating.

SIMO: You save 50 to 75 percent of the electricity you normally use in cooking. In the early '70s, it's now an energy-saving device.

MARTIN: OK. Saving the planet aside, one of the biggest turnoffs of the microwave oven is that the food that comes out never really seems that appetizing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

JOE YONAN: That's it.

MARTIN: That's a cake?

YONAN: That's a cake.

MARTIN: Let's just say this is not...

YONAN: It's not pretty.

MARTIN: It is not aesthetically pleasing.

YONAN: It's sort of like an alien tube rising.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

YONAN: But we're going - to I'm going to zhoosh it up.

MARTIN: That's Joe Yonan. He's the food and dining editor for The Washington Post. He came to the MORNING EDITION break room to convince me that microwaves are for more than just heating up last night's pasta. And to be fair, after he spooned on some cream and strawberries with a little basil garnish - this would be the zhoosh - he had turned that alien blob into a truly delicious strawberry shortcake. Yonan says the key is understanding what these machines do well.

YONAN: If you think about it, a microwave is targeting water. It's heating up the water molecules in the food. So steaming is great. Green beans - so I have a pretty big bowl just of - this is about a half a pound of beans. And I'm just going to put a - really, just a splash of water...

MARTIN: Oh, that's really not very much.

YONAN: ...In the bottom.

MARTIN: OK.

YONAN: Let's just go for maybe a couple minutes and see how they look.

MARTIN: Fast forward through the magic of radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

YONAN: So that looks pretty good, you know?

MARTIN: Those look like they're supposed to.

YONAN: They're not mushy. You know, so...

MARTIN: Can I eat one?

YONAN: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)

MARTIN: This is really good.

YONAN: And you don't eat this and think that was a microwaved green bean.

MARTIN: No, you definitely don't.

YONAN: You know, that's part of our, I think, prejudice about microwaves - is that we assume that everything that it touches turns to mush.

MARTIN: Ok, fine. He steamed some green beans. Big deal. Show me something really impressive. Joe is up for the challenge. He said he had never tried this recipe before. But he was willing to risk it all on the radio and attempt to make - dun da da dun - microwave potato chips.

YONAN: So this is just a red potato. And I have a little handheld mandolin to get the slices really thin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLICING POTATO)

YONAN: Now I'm going to spray the plate so they don't stick.

MARTIN: OK. So that's just what? Olive oil...

YONAN: That's just an olive oil spray.

MARTIN: OK.

YONAN: I am going to salt these.

MARTIN: Oh, yes. I was going to be so upset if you didn't want to put salt on it.

YONAN: Oh, come on, Rachel.

MARTIN: It's the whole point of a potato chip.

YONAN: (Laughter) Right. We're going to do it for a couple of minutes and watch to see if they start to brown.

MARTIN: After about two minutes, Joe flipped each potato slice over. And here's where the real culinary skill comes in. He then nuked them for another couple minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

MARTIN: Oh, those looks really good.

YONAN: I have high hopes for those.

MARTIN: I am impressed with the browning, I've got to say.

YONAN: Can you believe that?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)

MARTIN: Get out of town.

YONAN: Right? It works.

MARTIN: Eureka.

YONAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: They're so good.

Now, here's where you cannot get cocky. Joe says just because you can make chips in the microwave doesn't mean you can pull off, say, a pork loin or even a hamburger. Unless you're stuck on a desert island and the only machine you have is a microwave, don't use it to cook meat. So if you have learned anything here today, sure, the microwave is 50 years old. But the real lesson is that if you trust your microwave, if you look through the little glass door and say, I believe in you, it might just make you a damn good potato chip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURIE JOHNSON'S "SHOPPING SPREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.