July 31, 2014

Newest Microwave Features

Microwave ovens have been around for over forty years during which most people used them for exciting tasks such as heating leftovers, warming coffee and making popcorn.  There were those adventurers that added to their cooking repertoire by preparing whole meals in the microwave.

But how to improve a product whose entire purpose is to be simple? Oven makers right now are betting on steam. Sharp has a $1,000 microwave that uses steam to cook more thoroughly, keep food moist without adding fat and help heat penetrate better (consumers fill a water reservoir attached to the oven). Whirlpool Corp. offers steam in a combination microwave-ventilation hood, starting at $349. It’s a space saver because it goes over a gas or electric range.

Steam microwaves are aimed at people who are in the market for an oven with special features, but not necessarily a microwave. “For anyone looking for a steam oven, it’s much cheaper than the other options,”  says Jason Hughes, associate director of product planning and development at Sharp Electronics, a unit of Sharp Corp., in Japan.   Conventional steam ovens cost upward of $2,000.

Now could be an opportune time to introduce new features. The number of meals Americans prepared at home using a microwave rose 9.5% to 47 billion meals last year, the first usage increase in decades, according to NPD Group.

Consumers are “actually doing a lot more meal preparation” in their microwaves, says Bob Schiffmann, president of R.F. Schiffmann Associates Inc., a New York consulting firm.

New-and-improved microwaves face big challenges. “Not every customer’s lifestyle is the same,” says Sue Bailey, director of major-appliance product management at Viking Range Corp., which has introduced a $1,275 microwave in a pull-out drawer that sits under the kitchen counter. Viking says it may come out with a steam device. “Some want steam, some just want things a little more quickly, and others just want a little more space” inside, Ms. Bailey says.

“It’s a product that still hasn’t been perfected after all these years,” says David Lockwood, director of consumer insights at Mintel International Group, whose research indicates 93% of households have a microwave oven. “It still doesn’t do everything people want it to do,” he says.

It may be simply a matter of sex appeal. Boxy, noisy, at times smelling bad, the microwave oven hasn’t inspired the kind of lust and romance that a trophy refrigerator or oven marketed as professional-grade commands from upscale homeowners.

The average microwave lasts only about eight or nine years, Mr. Lockwood says, and many consumers own microwaves that cost less than $90. “The average buyer still wants the cheapest possible solution,” he says.

You can read about the history of the microwave oven in our article “The Microwave Oven-a Brief  History”

Cook Microwave Ready Meals Safely

After more than thirty people in twelve states contracted salmonella from microwaveable dinners, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a warning on February 12th about microwaving food.

“Foods cooked improperly in the microwave have the potential to make people sick,” said Graciela Padua, a research associate professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Padua added that one of the main reasons for the salmonella outbreak is because people simply don’t follow the directions on the food’s packaging. If consumers read the instructions more carefully, the risk of sickness would be minimized, she said.

When you heat up a microwave ready meal, be sure the food is heated thoroughly, all the way through the package. If possible, stir the food to distribute the heat and continue cooking until the entire meal is hot to the touch.

Admit it – You Love Your Microwave

Microwaves are one of the great conveniences of life. They heat up our coffee and lunch at work, make popcorn for snacks and heat up leftovers for a quick dinner.  While most of us admit to using the microwave for these tasks, there are fewer who find they truly cook meals using them.

“Everyone says that all they use it for is defrosting, reheating and making popcorn,” Johanna Burkhard says at a recent Microwave Myth Debunking session put on by Panasonic at Toronto’s Calphalon Culinary Centre, “but when I tell them to write down everything they’ve put into it over a week, they surprise themselves.”

Burkhard should know. She wrote the book on it. Or rather, one of the books on microwave cooking, hers being 125 Best Microwave Oven Recipes. Other best-sellers include The Well-Filled Microwave Cookbook and Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka, regarded as the bible on the subject.

Your may find that you mostly melt chocolate or steam some broccoli in your microwave but Burkhard shows that you can whip up several fast and nutritious dishes, including perfectly cooked asparagus with Gorgonzola and pine nuts, Mediterranean chicken, and an especially tasty one-dish meal of spicy ginger salmon with steamed vegetables.

Go ahead, try it:

JOHANNA BURKHARD’S SPICY GINGER SALMON WITH STEAMED VEGETABLES – 3 tbsp (45mL) orange juice – 4 tsp (20mL) soy sauce – 1 tbsp (15mL) rice vinegar – 1 tbsp (15mL) packed brown sugar – 1 tsp (5mL) cornstarch – 2 tsp (10mL) minced fresh ginger – 1 small clove garlic, minced – ½ tsp (2mL) chili paste or to taste – 2 centre-cut salmon fillets (5 ozs/150g each), skin removed – 1 cup (250mL) thinly sliced mushrooms – 2 cups (500mL) shredded Swiss chard or spinach – ½ red bell pepper, cut into 2″ (5cm) thin strips – 1 green onion, finely sliced

1. In a glass measure, blend orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Add ginger, garlic and chili paste. Microwave on high for 1 to 1½ minutes, stirring once, until sauce comes to a full boil and thickens. Sauce will be quite thick. 2. Place salmon in an 8″ (2L) glass baking dish, pour prepared sauce overtop, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap and turn back one corner to vent. Microwave on medium (50% power) for 3½ to 5 minutes or until fish is just opaque.

3. Layer with mushrooms, Swiss chard, red pepper and green onion. Cover and cook at medium for 3 to 4 minutes or until Swiss chard is just wilted and pepper is tender-crisp.  (I suggest serving this with rice.) Makes 2 servings.

Microwave Popcorn Tips

Next time you pop one of those convenient bags of microwave popcorn, put the bag on a plate first.  The bottom of the bag can become so hot that it can crack the glass tray inside the oven.  Another good suggestion for popcorn and other foods is to place the food off center on the turntable.  This enhances the stirring effect of the turning movement and also makes it less likely that the same spot will be used repeatedly for cooking.