How Do Microwaves Work?

The standard microwave—ubiquitous in workplace break rooms, resort lobbies, and doubtless your personal kitchen—is nothing if not handy. In any case, it’s a field in which you’ll put final evening’s leftovers (or a frozen burrito; no judgment right here), push a few buttons, and await the magic of electromagnetism to deliver your meals again to life inside minutes. Fairly cool!

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

A Story as Previous as Time: A Transient 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 sooner or later 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 grasp that lively magnetrons have the facility to prepare dinner meals—and shortly at that. He information some patents and the remainder, 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 internal 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 fashionable microwave ovens function between 600 and 1000 watts (and a few increased than that), with the latter being the usual full-power quantity as we speak. On the whole, a microwave with extra watts is extra highly effective and may have quicker prepare dinner (or warmth) instances.

Wattage additionally refers back to the fee of electrical energy consumption, and microwaves are fairly environment friendly. The typical value is about $10 per year, and that’s for those who’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 outdated yogurt tub you rinsed out three months in the past
  • Paper plates, paper towels, and napkins
  • Meals storage luggage

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

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

*Know-how 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 clean sufficient to replicate the microwaves as an alternative of arcing—which is what could occur for those who had been to warmth a fork.

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

What About Microwave Oven Presets? 

Severe Eats / Will Dickey

Numerous microwaves have particular buttons for preset cooking modes—just like the traditional popcorn button. In reality, although, these presets normally aren’t price getting enthusiastic about. They’re simply preselected time and wattage ranges that will or is probably not sufficient for the precise meals or beverage you’re making an attempt to warmth. 

What is helpful, although, are the completely 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 equivalent to soups and stews. For a small portion or a finicky ingredient (softening butter, maybe), you would possibly wish to drop the facility degree right down to 500 watts to keep away from an exploding mess. Whirlpool has a terrific information on microwave oven energy ranges. Understanding find out how to modify these settings may help you take advantage of your equipment.

Once more, most microwaves on sale as we speak will run at round 1000 watts out of the field, which is loads (and you may modify it). Purchase in line with dimension and your price range—not the variety of presets. 

What Can You Cook dinner in a Microwave? 

Severe Eats / Abigail Clarkin

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

On this very site, we have now 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 properly, like this set we reviewed from Anyday. Their web site options complete meals you’ll be able to prepare 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 word for those who discover bizarre sounds, smells, or meals which can be improperly cooked. Or if it doesn’t really warmth your meals up, which we’ve had occur. 

What is an effective wattage for a microwave?

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

What are the completely different sizes of microwaves?

Microwave ovens usually vary from 0.5 to 2.0 cubic feet in dimension. The smallest fashions can be countertop microwaves.

What are the various kinds of microwaves?

Yow will discover countertop, over-the-range, and built-in microwaves. Countertop fashions can plug in anyplace with an acceptable outlet—good for small areas, places of work, and so forth. Over-the-range microwaves can 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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