Maybe it is because I came of age in an era when the most effective use of a microwave oven was achieved in the quick neutralizing of a Gremlin in the 1984 film of the same name. Because of this, I have never really regarded the microwave as much more than a means for quickly reheating, or summarily destroying, whatever may find itself trapped in the depths of this atomic-age heating device. Despite my reservations, and the insistence of many that microwaves routinely obliterate the flavors and textures of food, they still endure, in homes (over 90 percent of American homes have them), restaurants, as well as in convenience stores, where they are routinely employed to heat up all sorts of burritos, snacks, and vittles.
The continued appeal of microwave ovens is largely due to the fact that they are capable of cooking food in a remarkably short amount of time. In addition, unlike ovens or even electric ranges, microwave ovens are very efficient in their use of electrical power because the microwave oven only heats the food, not the surrounding space around the food. The use of radio waves is what makes all of this possible. The radio waves are absorbed by water, fats and sugars, and then are converted into atomic motion, otherwise known as heat. When you throw that veggie burrito in the microwave and set it to cook, the radio waves penetrate the food and excite water and fat molecules from tip to tip. These radio waves are not absorbed by ceramics, glass and (most) plastics, which means they remain relatively cool to the touch. Metal, as anyone who has left a spoon or a bit of aluminum foil has learned, reflects these radio waves and are deemed a completely ineffective way of cooking in the microwave, but kind of a great way to make a homemade lightning show (for more entertainment, here is a recent web-worthy chronicle of what these radio waves do to specific foods).
Beyond the issue of convenience and efficiency, many home chefs swear by their microwave ovens. I have spoken to many who believe the microwave oven more evenly steams vegetables than conventional oven or stove top cooking, and there have been reports that many of the nutrients lost in the conventional cooking process are left intact with microwave heating (I am awaiting the hard evidence on this one). There exist numerous reports and accounts that the microwave oven is exceptionally dangerous in more ways than one. Some believe microwaving food increases carcinogenic properties and that there are specific biological effects associate with exposure to these radio waves. I remain skeptical of both the proponents, as well as the detractors, and choose to limit my microwave usage to heating pads and occasionally reheating soup.
Assuming you have one, is your microwave an invaluable culinary tool or just something there for convenience sake? Do you avoid using a microwave at all costs and see it as an enemy to all things good and wholesome? Or do you have favorite recipes that are only perfected by the use of microwave technology?