Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
I was born in 1982. For me, there was never a time without a microwave; it’s always been buzzing away in the kitchen, spinning my frozen dinner. But humanity spent several thousand years poking around smoky fires before this appliance appeared in our homes.
I began thinking about the historic importance of the microwave after stumbling across The Microwave Cookbook: The Complete Guide by Pat Jester. Written the year of my birth, it’s adorned with perfect Atari-era graphic design. Inside, it’s a technical manual with instructions for microwave oven cooking, hefty as a textbook, designed to help hungry Americans decipher this new piece of kitchen technology.
The microwave was different from any previously conceived method of cooking. According to food historian Andrew F. Smith, the earliest model microwave oven was bought by a Cleveland restaurant in 1947, but its $3,000 price tag made it unattainable for home use. Smaller, more affordable units were developed by the 1960s, but were found to leak harmful levels of radiation. By the 1970s, designs had improved and microwave ovens were deemed safe, but it took the partnership of the convenience food industry — who created microwave-safe packaging designs — and a slew of instructive newspaper articles, pamphlets, and cookbooks to teach the home cook how to use this new tool.
Most kitchens today have a microwave: over 90% of households own one. I don’t really think of mine as an instrument of cooking: it heats leftovers and melts butter. These odd jobs seemed unworthy of such an amazing object of science and technology. So when I opened The Microwave Cookbook, I was looking for a new perspective and perhaps a challenge.
The book has chapters for appetizers, breads, vegetables and desserts, and many of the recipes are exactly what you’d expect from a microwave cookbook from the 1980s, all easy-cheese convenience food and bizarre combinations (Deviled Egg Tostadas, Chinese Tacos). It includes a few classier recipes that use sherry, and a microwave Chicken a la King. But the chapter that really grabbed my attention was all about meat, particularly when I got to the page where it explained how to roast a whole chicken. “In the microwave?” I thought. “A whole chicken?!” Here was the challenge I sought.
I trussed my chicken, a little under four pounds, and set it in a Pyrex baking dish. The cookbook offered an array of basting ideas, and I choose a Seasoned Butter Basting Sauce: butter, mixed herbs, and a packet of Sazon Goya — my own special touch. The chicken had two rounds in the microwave: first, breast down for 12 minutes. When I took it out to flip it, cooking the chicken on its breast had caused it to become flat chested — not at all the busty birds I knew from roasting in a conventional oven. The second round of microwaving took a little longer: 30 minutes on high. A meat thermometer told me my bird had achieved the correct internal temperature, so I let it rest and then carved it up.
The meat was done all the way through and was very moist, but it was shockingly tasteless. The problem with microwaved meat is that it lacks the Maillard reaction. When you roast or sear meat, it gets all nice and brown and crispy; this crispiness results from a reaction of proteins, carbohydrates and amino acids caused by the application of heat. That idyllic roasted chicken was a far cry from the pale, slimy-skinned bird that came forth from my microwave oven. Author Pat Jester even lists this unappetizing appearance as a possible concern in the “Getting to know Your Microwave Oven” chapter of her book; she goes on to recommend using a glaze or “color-enhancing” product to hide the appearance of microwaved meat.
So, yes, you can indeed cook a whole chicken in the microwave. Do you want to? Probably not. When it comes to kitchen science, the latest technology often wins — but sometimes you just can’t beat that prehistoric smoky fire for the best flavor.