It’s a funny word. Micro means small, and wave refers to some kind of frequency. So microwave must mean small frequency. Well, that’s only part of the story. While the name may suggest a small (or short) frequency, it’s better understood as indicating wavelengths very much smaller than those used in radio broadcasting. Can you imagine an invisible wave that can carry communications, act as a high-tech military weapon, bounce images off satellites and warm your cinnamon roll?
Right now, you’re probably experiencing a result of microwaves. Cable TV and Internet access on coaxial cable as well as broadcast television use some of the lower microwave frequencies. Some mobile phone networks also use lower wave frequencies. Microwave radio is used in broadcasting and telecommunication transmissions because of their short wavelength.
Smaller, more concentrated antennas can be used to pick up signals, too. Shorter waves are more practical than longer wavelengths or lower frequencies, and there is more bandwidth in the spectrum than in the rest of the radio spectrum.
So, how can these waves actually cook stuff?
The oven passes radiation (non-harmful) through food, causing dielectric heating (ie: transmitting electric force without conduction) by absorption of energy in the water, fats and sugar contained in the food. If that sounds geeky, it is. Actually, these waves enter anything in the oven (with any liquid or sugars) and causes the atoms to twist and vibrate and they get hot when they do that. Dry things microwave very inefficiently.
Take a look at the lists below before you go shopping. Whether you’re looking for a stand-alone unit or built-in, there are considerations you have today that you may not have had a while ago:
Variable Power Controls: Variable power lets you change the setting level and have more control. You can simmer food at 50% power, or defrost at 30%.
Turntable: Of course you need a turntable inside your oven to ensure even cooking. Do not evenconsider a one without a turntable or you’ll be constantly stopping the process to turn the food by hand. Most microwaves today, however, come with removable turntables (glass plates), and some new ones even have rectangular trays that slide back and forth.
Interlocks: This new safety feature insures that the microwave oven will not run if the door is ajar.
Child Lockout: Especially important today are child proof doors. Dishes and food can be very hot when they come out and these child-proof doors can be locked and released using the keypad.
Automatic Sensors: Food is properly cooked by measuring steam within the oven! There’s no need to set a timer because the unit automatically shuts itself off at the correct time. The food will never be overcooked or undercooked. This seems like an incredibly advanced technology, but a lot of manufacturers are now adding automatic sensors to their models.
Auto Shut-off: The unit knows when the food is done, using a high-tech sensor.
Conventional Oven Attributes: Just like your oven, some units now can grill, brown and even broil!
Pre-Program: Using a built-in keypad, you can program recipes and cook by the numbers.
Lower Energy Use: These things used to be energy hogs and, at one time, were required by code to have their own circuit. That’s still true in many states, but the units are constantly getting “greener.” Someday, when all the old micros have died, the codes may change.
POWER AND SIZE:
Compact:, At 500 to 800 watts, these are great for offices, college dorms, family rooms and small apartments. They’re very inexpensive and can be carried from place to place easily. It takes longer to cook your food and they generally do not have the bells and whistles you might want, though.
Mid-Size: Producing 800 to 1000 watts, these guys are faster and do more than their little brothers, but still lack the power to “do-it-all.”
Full-Size: These units produce up to 1600 watts of power and can do everything you’ll need. They can be outfitted with all the features and new technology (see above) that the manufacturers can stuff in them and some are large enough to cook nearly anything you’d put into your conventional oven.
Countertop Units: Cost – $35 to $300 or more. Absolutely the most affordable and the most popular, these units are consistent top sellers. Probably because they have so many uses, and we are a society of nomads, constantly moving and changing. Some of these even come with kits that allow you to mount them under the cabinets!
Over-The-Range Units: Cost – $250 to over $1000. Also called “Above Range” and “Under Cabinet” microwaves. Most have venting capabilities (with multi-speed switches) which allows the owner to install them in place of the vent hood above your cooktop. These are usually the ones that have all the features included.
Combination Ovens Cost – up to $3000! These “combos” are actually a dual-unit, incorporating a conventional oven (usually on the bottom) with a microwave above. They are by far the most upscale you can buy, with drop down doors, sleek design and ALL the features of both.
In the end, you’ll have to balance your needs with your desires, but armed with this overview, perhaps you can make a more informed choice. As always, look for sales, check the Thrifties, Craigslist and the papers. Maybe, just maybe, your needs and desires are closer than you think.
In 1945, with WWII winding down and microwave weaponry still being developed, a US researcher named Percy Spencer walked by a cavity magnetron (part of the weaponry) while
it was in use. Spencer felt some heat, and noticed that the chocolate bar he’d been carrying in his pocket had begun to melt! His co-workers had long before known that things placed near the device did strange things, like melting, heating up and so forth, but as it is with so many things, it would take one person’s curiosity to see something different.
So, Percy decided to investigate. He and a fellow researcher started placing food items close to the magnetron and were surprised to discover popcorn popping, water boiling and eggs cooking. Something was going on, and Percy started working on finding some answers. Within two years the company he worked for—Raytheon Corporation—patented the microwave oven.
The early ones were big and expensive and lacked appeal for the American consumer. By 1967, however, they were small and cheap enough to start showing up in the average family home. Two decades later, microwave ovens were everywhere, and today they’re a central part of our lives!.
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