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Kitchen Histories: The Microwave Cookbook

Feb 22, 2013

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

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.

SportSuburban on Flickr

An imagining of the home microwave, circa 1959.

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.

French Press Vintage

A selection of tasty dishes from Better Homes and Gardens’ 1976 microwave cookbook.

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.

Kitsch Composition

Directions on roasting a microwave chicken.

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 unappetizing bird.

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.

More Posts From Sarah

1984 Microwave Cookbook by Kenmore - MINT Condition Like New Retro Sears Culinary Guide Great for Gift with Easy Weeknight Favorite Recipes
1984 Microwave Cookbook by Kenmore - MINT Condition Like New Retro Sears Culinary Guide Great for Gift with Easy Weeknight Favorite Recipes
$25.00 USD
Microwave Cookbooks, Set of 2 Microwave Cookbooks, 1980s Cookbooks, Vintage Recipes, Recipe Books
Microwave Cookbooks, Set of 2 Microwave Cookbooks, 1980s Cookbooks, Vintage Recipes, Recipe Books
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46 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    That's pretty interesting! I too mostly use my microwave for melting butter or heating up leftovers. It rarely gets used for much other than that.

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly said 6 years ago

    You stumped me! I had to really think about what I use my microwave for to think of anything I actually COOK in there, anything other than reheating and melting. Popcorn was the only thing... and that hardly even counts! I think I'll stick with the oven for my meat. : )

  • lcarlsonjewelry

    Liesl Carlson from lcarlsonjewelry said 6 years ago

    I never would have thought to really cook anything in the microwave. I would not think that it would leave too much for creative thought. My microwave mostly holds my sons art on top if it. Thank you so much for sharing. I love your posts.

  • joyishlysmilish

    Rachel Stephens from WhimsyPaperie said 6 years ago

    The only thing I cook in my microwave (besides popcorn, of course!) is meatloaf. Growing up, my mom had a microwave meatloaf pan that had belonged to her aunt. I asked her for the recipe, and the same recipe is 15 minutes in the microwave or an hour and a half in the oven! I bought a $15 pan, and I love it. I use it all the time!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 6 years ago

    Prefer prehistoric smoky fire :)

  • CarpetShopPrincess

    Katie Koshy from carpetshopprincess said 6 years ago

    You can learn to do a ton of crazy things with a microwave when you take forever remodeling your kitchen.

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 6 years ago

    I remember the microwave cookbooks. The pictures always looked so promising! But the food is never as good as when cooked with an oven, stovetop, or grill. I just use mine to heat up coffee. I even make popcorn on the stovetop.

  • MerlinMN

    MerlinMN from MerlinMN said 6 years ago

    Katie, I've been there (lol)> I was given a microwave in 1978 as a wedding present that came with a book of recipes that, as it turned out, ONLY worked with that brand of oven (I think it was a Tappan). One of the things that even I thought was remotely tasty, was a lemon sugar cookie. I tried them out in my regular oven and they were bricks! In that microwave, light and tender. I gave up that oven and stick to my electric ovens, with an occasional foray to gas ovens. I have even cooked in old woodstoves with more reliability than a microwave. I still have a small microwave that gets used primarily for reheating, especially that fifth cup of coffee... Of course, there are a very few recipes that really work well getting 'nuked', little meatloaves being one of them.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    Interesting! I knew there was some reason I've never considerd doing meat in the microwave. Quick heat ups yes, extended cooking no.

  • dmay6565

    dmay6565 said 6 years ago

    I cook meatloaf in my microwave too, as well as all kinds of sauces, puddings. fudge, peanut brittle, corn on the cob (and all kinds of vegetables), and many other things. I also still use my regular stove and my cast iron skillets. Depends on what I'm cooking! When my microwave died recently, I went straight out and bought a new one.

  • TuscaloosaRoad

    Karen Sullivan from TuscaloosaRoad said 6 years ago

    My aunt still uses a working microwave from 1980. It's about 3' wide x 1.5' high. You have to turn a dial (no push buttons) to start it. They don't make things like they used to, eh?

  • empressjade

    Empress Jade from empressjade said 6 years ago

    I make rice crispy treats in the microwave: 3 tablespoons butter and half a bag of mini marshmallows; nuke 3 mins and stir in 6 cups rice crispies (and a tsp of vanilla - optional). Put in your pan and cool. The easiest dessert in the world and everyone loves them.

  • pollymakes

    Polly Tucknott from PollyTucknott said 6 years ago

    Microwaves are the best way to cook fruit compotes. I also lived out of a microwave for 3 months - tiny room in Paris, mini fridge and a microwave. A favourite meal then was mashed potatoes, peas and fish fillets, all in the microwave! That said, I did crave toast like a lunatic...

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 6 years ago

    My microwave is making a weird noise right now! I'm so afraid it's going to quit us! It is one of those appliances that is used every day without fail around here, so I'll be looking for an immediate replacement if it does go out! I don't use if for cooking meat, however.

  • SpringwoodSoaps

    Barbara from SpringwoodSoaps said 6 years ago

    This reminds me when my family got a microwave for the first time and my mom would make these bologna and egg dishes from the cookbook that came with it. Those were always so good!

  • lauraslastditch

    Last Ditch Laura from LaurasLastDitch said 6 years ago

    I've cooked cakes in the microwave before, and it's amazing how you can make a little, personal-sized cake in about a minute or two. Still, my family has since become part of the 10% that does not own a microwave oven--just as a roasted chicken is better from the oven, reheated soup is better from the stovetop.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 6 years ago

    For years my mother was obsessed with a story she read in the L.A. Times about a family who cooked their Thanksgiving turkey in the DISHWASHER. I'm not sure whether this ever really happened or if it was pure legend. I suppose it could be achieved by keeping the turkey in the dishwasher for a long time on the dry cycle. Nonetheless, I suspect a dishwasher turkey might be the only thing more tasteless than your microwave chicken. Thanks for another really great story.

  • WoodlandCottage

    WoodlandCottage from WoodlandCottage said 6 years ago

    I remember (in the early 70s) being totally flummoxed by the tales of the first microwaves—that they would heat a cup of water, but not the cup itself! that food could be cooked on a paper plate! it all sounded like magic! And, in a way, I suppose it is. But remember, any use of magic comes with a price. Therefore, my microwave is relegated to only mundane tasks: it heats the milk that I combine with espresso for my morning latte, pops the popcorn and melts the butter to drizzle over it, and occasionally “defrosts” the meat that then goes on the charcoal grill. In short, the microwave is the sorcerer's apprentice of the kitchen.

  • SavoyFaireSpa

    Gail from SavoyFaireSpa said 6 years ago

    Yes still have and use some recipes from them! Thanks for the memories!

  • aileenrae

    aileenrae from aileenrae said 6 years ago

    All I could do was laugh when I saw this! You've got to love the microwave!

  • WoodsyWools

    ACR from WoodsyWools said 6 years ago

    empressjade, i may have to try that quick n easy microwave rice crispy treat!

  • gaiadesignstudios

    gaiadesignstudios from GaiaDesignStudios said 6 years ago

    Very interesting! Crazy how much things change.

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 6 years ago

    Sarah, this is genius ....

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 6 years ago

    You can cook in that thing?!! Who knew?

  • rebeccagoebel

    Rebecca Goebel from OctoberNative said 6 years ago

    This is such an interesting post :) I havn't learned to cook just for two yet and my husband and I always have left overs to microwave but this gives me ideas for so much more :)

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 6 years ago

    I spent 7 months living with only a microwave & a toaster to cook with, it wasn't so bad. Cakes, pasta, rice dishes, sauce, soup, poached fish & eggs, were all favourites. I think the best microwave meal is paella, although any cooking method that means you don't get rice stuck to the bottom of the pan is fine by me!

  • misspoppys1

    Marie Allen from misspoppys1 said 6 years ago

    I love my microwave, its really handy to have with children around. Leftovers, hot drinks, defrosting things quickly - great!

  • Fiume

    Erin O'Rourke from Aruguletta said 6 years ago

    I am not a microwave lover, but I did love this story!

  • hasincla

    hasincla from travelwanderings said 6 years ago

    I remember taking a microwave cooking class when I was a little kid! I guess my Mom thought that it was probably the safest and easiest thing to learn how to cook with... We mostly made popcorn and cheese-covered stuff. It did teach me about cooking when I was little!

  • ecofriendlyfreckles

    Jessica Woody from ecofriendlyfreckles said 6 years ago

    I'm honored to have my retro 1984 Microwave Cookbook by Kenmore featured in this this historic Etsy article that takes a walk down memory lane and delves into the nostalgia and intrigue of microwave cooking! These mid century style and beyond microwave cookbooks make great gifts and culinary guides for busy people on-the-go, single moms, newlyweds, college students, and best of all grandma...because grandma will probably enjoy flipping through the pages and bringing back memories of yesteryear while having a simple kitchen reference guide to turn to any night of the week!

  • NinaRaizel

    Nina from NinaRaizel said 6 years ago

    fascinating! I'm not a huge fan of microwaving food, but it is rather convenient. I would never think to microwave a whole chicken.

  • MissHildebrandt

    Miss Hildebrandt from MissHildebrandt said 6 years ago

    We always almost buy one. Ha! Fun fun...cheers! (No microwave used today!)

  • WatchWithDaDa

    Alice Irwin from WatchWithDaDa said 6 years ago

    I love the sound of being an historic gastronomist. The Supersizers series with Giles Coren and Sue Perkins recreating historic menus was a favourite of mine. I'm another one without a microwave though. :-D

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 6 years ago

    Oh, I want a microwave book.

  • richardlithgow

    Richard Lithgow from RichardLithgow said 6 years ago

    Nice! Very interesting history. I always wanted to do a history of ____ type book. One that I love is the evolution of the camera! Sears Roebuck Catalogues have only increased my fascination.

  • nativestrandsjewelry

    Rachel from PeppersJewelry said 6 years ago

    "A whole chicken?" Exactly what I was thinking when I got to that part of the article! I never thought of cooking a whole chicken in the microwave. Interesting information on what happens when you do, though!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 6 years ago

    I bake my sweet and white potatoes in the microwave! Really fast cooking!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 6 years ago

    I can remember when microwaves were just coming out...They were so large, and mainly used to heat or reheat items....Technology has allowed them to be used for cooking an entire meal now, if you so choose...Thanks for sharing the information...

  • OffbeatMelody

    Melody Watson from OffbeatMelody said 6 years ago

    Not a fan of the microwave except for occasional reheating. I was not surprised that the chicken came out tasteless! ;) Fun read though...

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    I've cooked full meals in my microwave before, its good when you don't have much time and its surprisingly versatile for cooking vegetables and pasta!

  • RECCIEatETSY

    Clarice Booth from RECCIEatETSY said 6 years ago

    I do like these books, sometimes they have yummy recipes. However, I don't cook them in the microwave. Somehow I would almost bet that cooking meats need the Maillard reaction that "results from a reaction of proteins, carbohydrates and amino acids caused by the application of heat" to make it completely healthy for consumption. But that could be just my opinion, since I tend to favor a meal of fresh cooked vegetables to meat any day. Thanks for sharing. Blessings,

  • MilkhausDesign

    Bethany Nelson from MilkhausDesign said 6 years ago

    This reminds me of one of my first 4-H projects (yes, 4-H!!) called Microwave Connections. I made english muffin pizzas in the microwave. At the time I thought they were the greatest things ever ;) These days I use my microwave mainly for heating up my milk to make hot cocoa on the many cold winter nights we have here in Wisconsin!

  • alienqueenev

    Esther Valdez said 6 years ago

    A far better book is "The Microwave Gourmet" by Barbara Kafka. It's never failed me.

  • retrofuturist

    Alex said 6 years ago

    The best way I have found to cook rice is in the microwave. It comes out fluffier and moist and takes 10-15 min instead of forever on the stove. It has made cooking dinner SO much easier.

  • sdrafke

    Suzette from Suzetteupcycled said 6 years ago

    I have a collection of historic cookbooks.....SUPER COOL! I would be TOTALLY LOST without my microwave!!!!!!! It makes my busy life so easy with so many shortcuts.

  • MisterJoeSprinkle

    Joe Tee from MisterJoeSprinkle said 6 years ago

    I am a smoker for meats but I admit to warming up all of my BBQ in the microwave from time to time! Definitely makes you want to experiment a little. Just read a new cookbook with all of the "MODERN" cooking methods and they included a chapter on Microwaving. Great information!

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