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What is a Microwave Oven?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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A microwave oven is a cooking device that can cook or reheat food much faster than a conventional oven. Using microwave technology, water and particles within the food are heated incredibly fast, turning cold or frozen food into steaming and hot meals. Although the technology behind microwave ovens has been around for nearly seventy years, many people still believe there are some health risks associated with using this type of oven for cooking.

A microwave is a type of radio wave that can be absorbed by water and certain molecules, like those found in sugar. The absorption of these waves causes the atoms in the food to become highly active, effectively creating heat. Most microwave ovens use a common wave frequency of 2.5 gigahertz (2500 megahertz) that has proved most effective in the food heating process. This specific wave frequency cannot be absorbed in high quantities by glass, plaster or ceramics, meaning that in a microwave oven, only the food will be affected by the heat.

Like many of science's most interesting discoveries, microwave cooking was an accidental find. In the 1940s, so legend goes, a scientist working for the American defense contractor Raytheon accidentally melted a candy bar in his pocket by hitting it with microwaves. In just a few short years, the technology had grown to revolutionize the way food is cooked.

A microwave oven can be a useful appliance to have in your home or office, particularly if you are pressed for time. With microwavable versions of everything from oatmeal to turkey dinners, it might be possible today to make all of your cooked food with a microwave, though this is not generally practiced. There are several types of microwave ovens available on the market, from easily transportable countertop versions to built-in kitchen versions.

You can purchase a microwave at most stores that carry large kitchen appliances. A basic countertop oven will typically cost between $50-$80 US Dollars (USD). More expensive versions offer features like weight sensors to prevent burning or undercooking, rotating turntables, and pre-programmed settings for dozens of foods. While these high end models make an easy job even easier, they can easily cost upwards of $300 USD and may not be necessary for the casual microwave oven user.

While microwave ovens may sound like a dream come true for the time-pressed, some people have expressed concerns over health risks posed by these ovens. Some foods, like eggs, require a specific internal temperature to be fully cooked, and can put the eater at serious risk for food poisoning or salmonella if undercooked. Others also worry about radiation leakage from the ovens, though most studies have shown that while leakage is possible, it is typically in very small doses. To avoid health risks such as food poisoning, be sure to read all directions carefully and cook accordingly.

Despite its detractors, a microwave oven is a wonderful boon when you have no time to cook a hot meal. Although not a total substitute for traditional cooking methods, they can easily mean the difference between having a bag of chips or a hot bowl of soup for a quick lunch.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By KathMartin — On Jun 28, 2012

You are right that a microwave oven cannot be a substitute for traditional cooking, but it is a very convenient tool for people who are on-the-go who do not have time to cook. Thank you for this article. It is very informative!

By anon78647 — On Apr 19, 2010

wow, thanks. this helped a lot with my science fair project .

By obsessedwithloopy — On Nov 22, 2009

I do not cook in the microwave oven, but I do heat up food in it, it is so convenient.

Undoubtedly, when heating food some of it will dirty up the microwave. If you do not clean it immediately, and the food gets stuck to the walls of your oven, heat up some water in the microwave for a few minutes and let the steam soften the hard bits of food.

It will be easier to wipe it down, and restore it to the clean and sparkling condition.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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