Molecular Warming?

Mulling the microwave

When thinking about molecular gastronomy – have you ever considered the microwave? It genuinely messes around with your food on a molecular level, but is considered a long way from “gastronomy”!

Came across an interesting Radio 4 programme today, that you may appreciate seeing written out and paraphrased.

Today we’re looking at a form of cooking that many of us would rather not admit to, begins the host.

“There sort of kitchen’s dirty secret, really. No one likes them, no one really cooks with them – if they were that good, Jamie’s 15-minute meals would all be done in a microwave,” said one contributor.

However, said the host, there are evangelists among us.

“People say I’m obsessed really. And I admit, I do bang on about them all the time – but I am passionate about them.” said another speaker.

So clearly there are a range of views on microwaves. Personally (and this is me speaking, not the programme) I think they are an excellent and useful invention. Sure you’re never going to get a nice golden brown crust on your macaroni cheese, but for heating up leftovers or of course ready meals, why be sniffy about them? They’re quick, efficient and better for the environment (as they take less power than conventional methods to heat an identical quantity of food to an identical temperature, although of course they may have other environmental costs in their production that I‘m not aware of. I’m no expert – hence why I listened to this programme, so that I could learn more and then share it with you.

Suspicious minds

Today, continued the presenter, we’ll be looking at one of the most scoffed at kitchen items, a magic box that uses dark arts to mysteriously cook our food in a suspiciously short period of time: namely, the microwave.

As you might have guessed from that word ‘suspiciously’, the host continued, I don’t own a microwave. I’m a sceptic, a Luddite. I once had to rely on one at my mother’s for a month, and although I was using what was then considered the best microwave cookbook, nothing I cooked during that month convinced me to give up my saucepans and oven. But maybe it’s time for a rethink, as it’s actually been voted by people in the UK as our favourite appliance – although actually the Scots preferred their knives by a small margin.

At this point during my listening, I did wonder how this vote had been conducted. And I wondered what I would vote for. Think I might be with the Scots to be honest. While microwaves are marvellous devices, knives are pretty fundamental. Then again, “favourite” is an odd way of thinking about kitchen appliances – and are knives even classed as appliances? The whole thing doesn’t sound that scientific to me, although I take the point that people do quite like their microwave ovens.

Ready steady eat

So what does that tell us about the way we eat, live and cook – is it just a reflection of the still steady rise in the sales of ready meals, she mused.

Another lady could then be heard saying, let’s go to the staff kitchen, and look at our microwave. Because we do have a microwave, and there it is, there you are, used by all of us.

She said this as if it was sort of a guilty secret. And I suppose on a Radio 4 foodie programme, maybe it is.

Then there was a dinging noise, for atmosphere. The presenter went on to say that the “favourite” accolade actually came from a BBC food magazine survey of 10,000 people, so actually maybe I should have listened on before wondering about how they arrived at that conclusion. Apparently, 56 per cent of respondents said that the microwave oven was the one thing they couldn’t do without, followed by knives (except in Scotland where, as established above, the situation was actually reversed. But the main point is, for the purposes of this programme and indeed this article, that microwaves scored quite highly both north and south of the border).

The magazine’s editor expressed surprise at the results of the survey.

She said that what it tells us is that people like to embrace technology. Clearly, she went on, whatever feelings people have about microwaves – and people can be a bit snobbish about them, saying things like, well, I only use it for heating up the children’s meals, that kind of thing – I think people are very creative in how they use these devices.

On our website, she said, people have uploaded and shared their microwave recipes, and this really is the way people eat. If you’re a busy woman – and yes, it usually is still the woman who prepares food for the family – then it’s really useful to discover proper supper dishes that you can prepare. For example we have a delicious salmon recipe with leeks and filo pastry, and a chorizo jambalaya – a really nice and spicy dish – and a sweet and sour chicken. Also we have lots of sponge puddings and chocolate puddings, that kind of thing. We all know that you can buy those things from shops and that they cook really well in the microwave, but you can make them from scratch too.

Eggs is eggs

On hearing her discuss these various recipes that readers had sent in, I was put in mind of the first recipe I came up with in a microwave. Or rather, using a microwave. And that was for a sort of omelette, kind of crossed with scrambled eggs. If you break a couple of eggs into a bowl and beat them lightly with a fork, they actually puff up really nicely with just a couple of minutes in a microwave. Season the mixture first with salt and pepper or whatever you like, and if you want to make more of a meal of it, why not chuck in a handful of frozen peas, or leftover curry, or maybe cheese or mushrooms. Basically, anything that you might fry up with an omelette or scrambled eggs.

The result is a light, soft and perfectly cooked omelette, ready in literally a couple of minutes and with no oil needed during cooking, and hardly any washing up. You might need a second plate to slide it on to (as the first one gets very hot of course) but that’s really about it. Give it a go.

Molecular Gastronomy Kits & Microwaves

Despite the fact that if you’re playing around with a molecular gastronomy kit you have an interest in the science of cooking. How many gastronomy kits have recipes that involve a microwave? Is it because they don’t have any particular use in the world of molecular gastronomy or is that they are two “common” to be considered by the budding modernist chef? The only microwave recipe we could find that described itself as molecular gastronomy was for making an instant chocolate cake with a cream whipper and microwave. It doesn’t involve any modernist ingredients and perhaps the only molecular gastronomy aspect is the use of the microwave?

A question of passion

But how many microwave owners, pondered the host, are really doing much more than simply reheating their coffee? It was a fair question as I was thinking much the same thing. While it’s of course that you can do these creative recipes with salmon and filo, most people I know just tend to use their microwaves for ready meals and for reheating leftovers, and if they were going to the time and trouble of actually making a recipe at home, then they’d probably cook it conventionally. After all, it takes time to prepare a recipe, so it’s not going to be instant anyway. In the time you are preparing the ingredients the oven can be heating up or the oil heating in the pan.

One lady was then heard to say that with her passion for microwave cooking and for educating people in microwave cooking, then she does literally educate the whole of the UK on a one-on-one basis. I couldn’t help thinking that even though the definition of the word ‘literally’ has relaxed somewhat in recent times, this was still probably stretching it a bit. Nevertheless, I listened keenly, curious to learn more.

Last month, she said, I actually gave 15 cooking shows, and some chefs have even told me off for, in their words, making cooking too easy.

The presenter then told us that the woman who’d just been speaking had made it her life’s work to try to convince people everywhere that they should be harnessing the power of the microwave. Not too surprising really, as she’s president of the trade body for the microwave industry. But microwaving for her is almost more of a crusade than just a job. She says she hasn’t used a saucepan for 30 years.

Good old common sense

The woman from the trade association then began to explain her views. Microwaving for me, she said, is common sense. Why would I want to cook rice in a pan of boiling water and then have a really sticky, horrible pan to clean up afterwards? Why would I want to cook scrambled egg in a saucepan when you can cook it directly in the bowl that you are going to be serving it in?

She went on, saying that on average, four saucepans on the top of your stove, containing carrots, broccoli, peas, cabbage and so on, a saucepan will take on average 15 or 20 minutes to cook those vegetables.

I’m not sure on her figures here. Cooking veg for that length of time sounds rather like overcooking to me. It’s more common these days (as well as being more tasty and more healthy) just to cook the veg in a very shallow amount of water for a couple of minutes or so, thereby effectively steaming it. This retains all the colours and flavours of the veg and it also retains a nice crisp texture. I think back in the 70s people did indeed overcook everything, and if this woman says she hasn’t touched a saucepan for 30 years, this might explain why she’s a little out of touch with her cooking wisdom.

That said, her point that microwave cooking saves on both time and washing up is very hard to dispute.

Watching the figures

She wasn’t finished though. During cooking of the aforementioned veg in saucepans, she said, you will lose about 85 per cent of the nutrients, as well as much of the colour and the flavour. Again, I couldn’t help but think that yes, obviously it you boil it to death for 20 minutes then this is the case, but a quick steaming generally produces a nice, bright al dente product. Having said that, I really can’t see any problem with microwaving veg, and while her 85 per cent figure sounds a little high, the fact that it is cooked quicker in the microwave surely would mean that more of the nutrients are indeed retained. Unless there’s some science-y bit that I don’t know about.

She then pointed out that if you cook all those veg together, in one bowl in the microwave, you are essentially cooking them in their own steam. Hard logic to argue with. She also said that the cost of the cooking would be only about a quarter of the cost of cooking on the stove. Again, good points one and all.

So, she concluded, if you cook your veg in the microwave you are giving your family more nutritious food, saving washing up and saving time. Not only that, but in one month alone you will save something in the region of five pounds on your energy bills.

Spreading the word

She said that she was quite evangelical about it, a point that the presenter had actually made earlier, although it was good to reinforce this point. When she goes into cookery classes (that she teaches), she says she asks how many of you have a microwave at home. Something like 100 per cent of hands go up, she says. Hardly surprising you might think, given that the people in the class had chosen to do a microwave cookery course. The really interesting question would be to ask the people who didn’t put their hands up what exactly they were doing there. Were they just hoping to learn about microwave cooking out of purely academic interest, and had no actual intention of making the microwave recipes at home? Or were they going to do the course, then if so inspired go out and buy their first microwave? Or maybe they were planning to stay at a friend’s house, and the friend had a microwave as opposed to a conventional oven so they thought it might be useful to learn a few recipes? We’ll probably never know.

Anyway she said, although nearly 100 per cent of people in the class say they own a microwave, when she asked how many of them used it to cook proper meals, she says the percentage goes down to 16 per cent. I thought I must have misheard this and she actually meant 60 per cent, as 16 per cent does sound oddly precise. But I listened to it back and no, she does seem to say 16 per cent. By the end of this cookery course, she tells them (presumably addressing mainly the 84 per cent who hadn’t put their hands up), I’m going to have converted you all to be massively into microwave cooking.

She who laughs last

When she tells the class this, she says, a lot of them laugh. But at the end of her demonstration (usually about an hour, she tells us), when they come up and taste the food, they are really surprised and impressed by how genuinely delicious it tastes. People know how to put water in a pan and boil a potato, but microwave cooking she reckons can be out of some people’s comfort zones. You need to sit down and think about it a bit. But once you do, the results are worth it. And then when people see how easy it truly is, they tend not to go back.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

The presenter then informed us that according to government statistics, per cent of of UK households own a microwave. That’s about 53 million of us popping and pinging away – but where do those metal boxes at the end of our counters come from?

To help answer this question, she went to the Science Museum in London, to talk to the curator of household appliances – a position many people may not have even realised existed.

The curator tells us that microwave technology had quite an exciting start, coming as it did from radar technology during the war. It was apparently two British scientists at Birmingham University who came up with the idea, and they used it in anti-aircraft operations. Sadly she didn’t expand on this, as it would have been interesting to know how microwave ovens could help to combat enemy aircraft. Maybe the cooked them out of the sky or something.

Inspired by chocolate

Then after the war, the scientists continued to experiment with microwave technology. The story goes that it was actually an American scientist who stumbled across its other use, when he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He hadn’t felt any heat and yet the bar had definitely softened considerably, so he knew that something unusual was happening.

Him and his team began to experiment with foodstuffs like popcorn, eggs and so on, and in due course after a couple of years or so were able to bring out the world’s first commercial microwave oven. It wasn’t entirely practical at that time, being about the size of a fridge and weighing in at three-quarters of a tonne.

By the 50s though they were being made to be a bit smaller and more practical, and the UK followed soon after. However it wasn’t until the mid-70s that they were affordable enough and reliable enough to begin to appear in UK homes.

Holy trinity

Even then though, says the curator, they didn’t really take off until what she calls a holy trinity of events had taken place. The three things were the availability of affordable microwave ovens, the widespread use of home freezers, and women beginning to go out to work in large numbers. This she says really took off in the 80s, when around half of UK women were working outside the home. This meant that they simply had less time to prepare meals both for their families and for themselves.

It was, she says, the first real development in cooking methods for hundreds of years. While there have been developments in solid fuel, electricity and gas, they all work by applying heat directly to food. With microwave ovens, the cooking is happening in a metal box, you can’t actually see it happening. This must have seen really space age and exciting when it first came out, and they were indeed marketed in this way. The real heyday was in the 1980s, she says, although I’m not sure this is true as the whole premise of the programme, as discussed at the start, is that they are now as popular as ever and possibly more popular than ever, so surely that would make the heyday right now, or even suggest they they haven’t really had a heyday and are instead just perennially popular.

Testing it on a doubter

The programme then spoke with a chef and self-confessed microwave snob. He told us that he hadn’t even owned a microwave until a few years ago, and that he kept it in his utility room, not his kitchen, using it only for reheating food or for defrosting things from the freezer. Nevertheless he was willing to try out a couple of recipes from back in the 80s to see how he found them, focussing on some of the most popular and famed dishes from what were considered the top microwave cookery books of that era.

He started with a cheese soufflé. The reason he says he picked that recipe is that the recipe book says that it was once thought impossible to cook a soufflé in the microwave, but if the sauce is properly stabilised using evaporated milk then this can be done. The chef said this was throwing down the gauntlet to a microwave-hater such as he, but he gave it a go.

One concern was the evaporated milk is quite sweet, so he’s not sure that it would work. Still he got his can opener and opened the tin, then mixed the milk with flour, cheese and seasoning as per the recipe. Next he put it into the microwave for one to two minutes on full power. While it was cooking he watched it revolving through the oven window, beseeching it to rise. It did indeed rise, but he said it wasn’t that appetising to him as it rapidly collapsed. As it also lacked the crust of a normal soufflé he declared himself overall disappointed with the results.

Space age all the rage?

While early microwaves were marketed for their space age attributes, the host of the programme says that it was actually this that put many people off, including her from the sound of things. But, she muses, in this age of smartphones, isn’t it time we got into smart cooking?

A contributor then agrees with her, saying that while some chefs are a bit sniffy about microwaves, for most of us they are just practical and useful. Certainly Monday to Thurday evenings, do we really want to spend out time chopping, peeling and boiling, when a microwave oven can save so much time? This technology works for us.

She says she thinks the snobbishness comes from the fact that most of us probably wouldn’t be too happy to go to a restaurant and be served microwaved food. Somehow it seems almost too easy, not enough effort to justify the bill. And people at the top end, she speculates, maybe don’t like technology that demystifies the cooking process and makes some seemingly complex things actually easier to do. Has she got a point here? Maybe.

Where’s the beef?

Next we went back to the chef we met earlier, the microwave sceptic. Next he was going to try cooking a steak, again using one of the leading microwave cookery books of the 80s. He noted that when they discuss cooking meat, these books all tend to call for the use of a browning agent of some kinds. This he describes as giving the meat something of a fake tan, because of course the meat doesn’t really brown in a microwave as it would in an oven or pan. For his browning agent he used a mushroom ketchup and some Worcester sauce, though he noted that other recipes called for brown sauce or tomato ketchup, neither of which sounded particularly nice, he thought – and I have to say, I think I agree with him.

He painted the meat with the sauce and placed it in the microwave for the appropriate amount of time, guided by the weight of the meat. In his case, this was about 10 minutes, and it was quite exciting waiting to hear whether this would turn out any better than his soufflé had done a few minutes ago.

The results were better. While he said that the steak lacked that lovely crust of normal cooking, it was nice and pink in the inside and, he suggested, once sliced and covered in gravy would not be too bad, in a sort of boiled meat kind of way. But, he added, it didn’t seem anywhere near as tasty as an oven-roasted joint. Few people would argue with that you’d imagine. I certainly wouldn’t.

Ovens of the world

Next the presenter of the show asked what the future of the microwave was. Strangely though she didn’t really seem to answer this question, so this seemed like maybe a scripting issue. She interviewed a taxi driver who said that he didn’t know what the buttons on his microwave all did, but he appreciated the convenience. There was a brief discussion on how microwave ovens vary across the world. In Asia for example, where steamed rice and veg are popular, there is a demand for ovens that can sense humidity levels to make nicely steamed food. In India, there is a real fondness for microwaves with lots of pre-coded auto-cooking menus. In the States, there is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a big demand for microwave ovens that are quite simply a lot bigger.

After this we returned to our chef again, this time to have a crack at a dessert – crème caramel, to be precise, again from an 80s microwave cooking book. We heard the sound of him beating eggs, adding hot sugar, milk and vanilla, then heating it in the microwave. Once it had cooked for the requisite time he let it cool and set. The taste test wasn’t too bad. A bit like an egg custard he thought, and edible if unremarkable.

Product development

The show then went over to chat to a product developer at a leading microwave oven manufacturer. They are now producing ovens with all kinds of additional features such as grills, convection ovens and steaming. She showed how using these you can make such relatively sophisticated foods as goats cheese tarts, rocky road mud cakes, puff pastry, steamed salmon and poached eggs. The show’s host sounded genuinely surprised by how nice all this stuff looked.

The product developer said that many of her friends, who are in their 20s, are active in swapping recipes and ideas on various social media sites. Once they realise that those really impressive looking recipes can all be prepared in under 10 minutes, they tend to find they get a bit hooked. Another positive point she said is the simplicity of these meals (simplicity to prepare, that is). Many of the recipes only call for two or three ingredients, which makes them quite appealing for the cook in a hurry and who maybe doesn’t have all that much cooking expertise.

She then demonstrated how to cook caramelised onions using the convection function of the microwave, and followed this by talking through how to poach salmon. This seemed remarkably straightforward, and consisted just of placing the salmon in a bowl with a little water and lemon, covering it and microwaving for just three or four minutes.

The proof of the pudding

After the successful and delicious sounding main course, we next were guided through how to make the rocky road mud cake. This involved melting some butter in a large mug by giving it a quick zap for 10 seconds then mixing it a tablespoon of cocoa powder, three tablespoons of caster sugar and a medium egg. You could then hear the sound of her beating all this together, while all around her microwaves could be heard dinging and whirring. The rocky road mud cake mix was then put back in the microwave for two minutes.

Meanwhile the poached salmon was ready, having only taken three minutes. She also gave us a top tip, which is that after you’ve cooked fish in a microwave, if you put a bowl of water and lemon juice in the oven and heat for 30 seconds, they vapours can do a good job of getting rid of that fishy smell for the next time you use it. It was good that the presenter of the radio programme refrained from making any puns about smelling something fishy, or not smelling something fishy, or something.

The host, an experienced food broadcaster – who you’d think knows her stuff – tried it all and pronounced it “delectable” and a “revelation”, as well as saying how impressed she had been by the speed it all took – calling it scarily fast. However it should be noted that his particular presenter tends to be rather flattering towards most food she tries on that programme. Of course, it might all be absolutely delicious, it’s hard to say without trying it.

Therefore it was with real curiosity that I had a crack at some of these recipes. They were actually quite delicious. The mistake seems to be in trying to recreated things that need to be oven-cooked to create a Maillard reaction in order to achieve their ideal flavour, as opposed to food that is basically wet-cooked and so doesn’t need to brown. This would explain why steamed veg, poached salmon and so on work so well, while pizzas or steaks don’t.

In conclusion, it is strongly recommended that you experiment with some of this stuff – you are very likely to enjoy the results.