Despite the fact that microwave cookers have been with us for over 30 years, they still tend to be treated as a secondary method of cooking in many kitchens. Part of the reason for this stems from some ill-informed comment made about them when they first appeared, much of which persists to this day and is still often repeated by those who should know better. First of all it's important to understand that microwave cookery is perfectly safe. In fact, it's probably the safest form of cooking, given that the oven never heats up and has no sharp edges.
You cannot burn or cut yourself on a microwave oven. Food is cooked by exactly the same source of power that is found in sunlight; i.e.
short waves of electro-magnetic energy that, in the case of a microwave oven, are converted from electricity. And although this can be described as a form of radiation it is not, as some people seem to think, radioactive. On the contrary, this is the same short-wave energy that is used in TV sets, some medical equipment and even FM radio. It's also found in ordinary light bulbs, sun lamps and fluorescent tubes. It cooks food because the microwaves are attracted by water molecules as well as those of fat and sugar. In turn, it causes them to vibrate, creating friction and therefore heat.
It's a process not unlike someone rubbing his, or her, hands together. In many cases, only a part of the food is cooked in this way because the microwaves only penetrate up to a depth of about 5cm. Heat is spread to the rest of the food by convection and distribution, which is why stirring the food is important, as well as leaving it to stand for a few minutes after the oven switches off. The speed with which microwaves cook has also given rise to the idea that they are unable to change the appearance of food and in particular that they fail to brown meat. The truth is that most of the time meat is cooked before it has time to brown. This is particularly true of poultry and small joints.
Using cooking bags can help to overcome this problem - if that's what it is - as well as 'painting' with soy sauce, paprika, butter and the like. On the plus side, meat cooked in the microwave will remain moist and succulent, retaining most of its nutrients, which in turn will give rise to enhanced flavor. Vegetables, too, will benefit from the rapid cooking in very little water, which keeps both their color and their nutrients intact. In short the microwave is not just for reheating leftovers and cooking TV dinners. It has a respectable place in any modern kitchen and has many benefits to offer, not the least being the fact that, while it may not entirely replace a conventional oven, it is a lot cheaper to buy, economically far superior and a good deal more versatile.
Michael Sheridan is a former chef and published writer on all cooking related matters. His main website, The Cool Cook's Club, may be found at http://www.thecoolcook.com