Some pieces of technology — the cellphone, for instance — change and evolve constantly while others, like the microwave oven, haven’t changed in decades.
Microwave ovens are powered by a magnetron and other components, which convert high-voltage electricity to microwave radiation that excites and heats molecules in food.
All kinds of bells and whistles have been added since microwave ovens became mainstream household appliances in the 1970s, but that core technology remains essentially unchanged. And we still use them mainly for boiling water, popping corn and reheating food.
In January of this year, our old microwave gave up the ghost. This presented an opportunity to scout local appliance stores for potential advances in microwave technology.
Turns out, there is one. It’s called “inverter” technology and is made only by Panasonic (if my Internet searches are reliable). I purchased the NN-ST661W, a 1,200-watt, shelf-sized oven with a 1.2 cubic foot interior ($169 at Future Shop).
The inverter concept is simple enough. Traditional microwave ovens cook at various power levels, measured on a scale of 1 to 10, but all they do is shut off intermittently. Surely you’ve noticed this: when cooking at reduced power levels, the microwave energy cuts in and out again, allowing the food to cool down a little before it resumes at full power.
This always struck me as a particularly clumsy way to cook or even heat food. It’s like putting something in a very hot oven, taking it out after a minute, then putting it back, then out, and so on. Why not simply send a consistent flow of microwave energy at lower power levels?
That, in a nutshell, is how the inverter works — with continuous, reduced power rather than intervals at 100 per cent.
But does it work?
I’ve been using the microwave for nine months and, yes, I am fairly impressed with it.
I should note off the top that I don’t use it for microwave popcorn. With all those weird chemicals, that stuff is not fit to eat. I make my own popcorn on the stovetop. However, we do use the microwave several times a week to bake potatoes, cook oatmeal and reheat foods.
The inverter has been working wonderfully on all of these things. Cooking potatoes at reduced power seems to result in lighter, more tender potatoes. The reduced power is also easier on reheated foods, which can get dry, tough and overheated in seconds in conventional microwaves.
Twice a week I start my day with cooked (not instant) oatmeal. On the stovetop, this takes time and results in a sticky pot that clutters the sink until evening cleanup. Now I cook it in the microwave, for about 60 seconds on power Level 1. The oatmeal does slowly rise to the edge of the bowl, but the key word is slowly — it cooks for 30 seconds before I open the door and let it fall. Another 30 seconds and it’s ready to eat.
In the past, I’ve had problems thawing meat in the microwave. Invariably, you wind up with a glob of meat that is at once cooked, steaming hot, cold and still frozen, depending on where you prod it.
This oven boasts a “turbo defrost” feature that prompts you to enter the weight of the frozen meat and supposedly it does the rest.
However, I didn’t go there. Frankly, I don’t trust any microwave with such a delicate operation.
In fact, you should not turn your back on any microwave cooking for more than two minutes. I did, however, thaw a chicken breast and a chunk of hamburger meat, with the inverter setting on 2. This worked surprisingly well, with only a few cooked areas and pretty much even thawing throughout.
The microwave is ideal for other cooking shortcuts, like scrambled eggs (it works wonderfully) or melting marshmallows for Rice Krispie squares. Using reduced power levels yielded a better result on every occasion. I’m sure it works better than conventional microwaves for pretty much anything that doesn’t involve cooked meat or browning of same.
Which brings us to the limitations of this or any microwave. I never use them for cooking meats, which always come out tough, rubbery and unevenly cooked, with a pale finish to boot. If you have electricity, cook that meat in the oven or frying pan and if you don’t, toss it on the barbecue.
Bottom line: the bells and whistles are typical technobabble, but the inverter feature is worth including in your next microwave purchase.
Geoff Meeker is public relations consultant who has always had a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about local media, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com.