When she was first faced with a microwave oven in 1980, New Idea food director Barbara Northwood was “terrified of it”, she tells The New Daily.
“We all thought our ovens were going out the door and we would have to master this new thing.”
Then working at the Australian Women’s Weekly, Ms Northwood – who has also overseen the food pages at Woman’s Day, making her the queen of magazine cookery for nearly 40 years – was sent with her team to a home economist in Sydney to learn how to use a microwave.
“Literally we all stood around her one microwave and thought, ‘How amazing, isn’t this clever’.”
Now celebrating its 50th birthday, the first microwave was sold in 1967 by the Amana Corporation. The first home-use appliances, called Radaranges, were expensive, selling for $US495 ($A620, or about $A4474 accounting for inflation).
By 2013, 96 per cent of households had a microwave, according to a Canstar Blue survey of 2500 people.
In 1977, when microwaves were first being sold in the Australian domestic market, Virginia Hill was hired by Sharp as a demonstrator. She self-published the first microwave cookery book in the country in 1983 and has since written more than a dozen more.
“They are totally underused,” says Ms Hill, who ran her own microwave cookery school for 20 years.
“What I’ve heard for 40 years is, ‘They don’t brown’. It’s hard for Australians, who always like things burnt to a crisp.”
Ms Hill uses her microwave daily for cooking, not just reheating: “It makes a beautiful clafoutis in eight minutes, and I’ve just made a ratatouille.”
She acknowledges she’s had “many, many” failures, and Ms Northwood too recalls there were teething problems.
“Every microwave is different – all different wattages, some are 600, some are 900 – so we had to write 400 different versions of the same recipe. If you didn’t, things were burning in a minute and it was a disaster.”
A particular magazine recipe for microwave toffee led to an actual meltdown.
“One person who made it ended up with her microwave on fire because the cooking time and wattages were wrong for hers,” says Ms Northwood.
“We tried to do chickens, the legs would dry out, and there was nothing to tell us how to do it – no internet, no instructions.
“There was just this terrible feeling of desperation, trying not to kill people with recipes that ended in half-raw food. That was my biggest fear in life.”
A happy accident
The microwave came about when an engineer working for defence contractor Raytheon in the 1940s noticed that a chocolate bar in his front pocket started to melt when he was using a magnetron, a device that generates the radio waves at the heart of radar technology.
Timothy Jorgensen, an associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, told US media organisation NPR the engineer then pointed the magnetron at a raw egg, and it exploded.
“Then he got some popcorn kernels and the popcorn kernels started to pop. So you can see where this is going.”
The first microwaves were so expensive and huge they didn’t sell up a storm, plus the lack of colour in the dishes put people off so much that Assoc Prof Jorgensen told NPR “there were spray-on things that you would spray on meats and things to make it brown”.
Best microwave recipe
Ms Hill says the microwave is perfect for cooking plum puddings in 10 minutes, including two for zapping your fruit sprinkled with booze, but her No.1 recipe is for “three-stir, one dish” risotto.
“Coat the very best arborio rice with your onion and oil. Add warm stock and stir, and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Stir it again, and cook for another 10 minutes. Then add in your prawns or peas or whatever you like, and re-cover for five minutes. Add the best parmesan and serve with a salad.”
Ms Northwood mostly uses her microwave for vegetables, but her best-ever tip for the appliance is a model of simplicity.
“I do my ice cream in it,” she says.
“You warm the whole tub for 10 seconds on high, and it scoops beautifully. Then you just whack the tub back in the freezer.”
– with Rachel Eddie