I remember the first time my Dad brought home a microwave oven back in 80s, which easily had to be the size of one of those college foot lockers.
The first thing he told my siblings and me, as we gathered around this massive strange-looking box was, “Don’t touch it, any of you, until I say when.”
Looking back, that was the right kind of instruction, as all of us kids, especially me, had a penchant for breaking things that were shiny, interesting looking and newly brought into the house.
Of course it only took a few weeks until my father saw that microwaves were safe and an easy contraption for us to use, so he quickly gave us free rein, which in retrospect he shouldn’t have, since I remember putting a bunch of things in the microwave that probably had no business going in there. What were they? Well, let's not go into that.
Back then, microwaves were new to many of us and the very idea of not having to warm food in the oven or stovetop seemed nothing short of miraculous.
And although a lot of consumers around that time started hearing of this new miracle machine that heated foods in minutes, the microwave was still an appliance of mystery in terms of how useful it would be and whether it would just be a trendy kitchen tool that we used for a short period time.
Taken for granted
It’s certainly safe to say that most people didn’t expect the microwave to become the everyday kitchen appliance that it is today.
And just like many other everyday household products that we use, a lot of consumers don’t really think about how they differ from each other, in terms of functionality and overall safety, which is why certain government agencies spend a great deal of time regulating certain products, to set standards of performance and to ensure safety for the general public.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tells consumers not to just randomly select a microwave when shopping for one, and each person should really understand how microwaves work, how to properly use them, and how to give them the proper maintenance.
It’s safe to assume that a lot of people associate microwave ovens with radiation waves and are also aware that these waves are what heat up foods.
Once these waves reach the water or fat content in the food, these contents vibrate, which in turn heats or cooks whatever is inside the microwave.
The FDA says the good thing about microwaves, is there have been very few cases surrounding people becoming injured by radiation, aside from just a few instances. In these rare cases the microwaves weren't serviced correctly or people had somehow managed to get body parts where they didn't belong.
Dangerous to kids
The government regulators also point out that most microwave injuries are related to people becoming burned by containers or other hot receptacles placed inside, and many people heat items for too long, especially liquids that can explode and cause scalding.
And since some small children can reach a low-placed microwave and open its door, they could potentially expose themselves to those hot liquids or overly heated foods and suffer a serious injury.
Parents should definitely place microwaves out of the reach of small children who may grab a hot item out of sheer curiosity, experts say.
To decrease the chances of liquids exploding in the microwave, the FDA says to add whatever contents you were planning to use beforehand, like cocoa mix, sugar or instant coffee.
And many of us don’t like to actually do it, but reading the manual from cover to cover when purchasing a microwave is extremely important, stresses the FDA, since it outlines the right operating procedures and advises how to avoid any mishaps which may be specific to that particular microwave.
Close the door
The FDA also says not to use a microwave if the door doesn’t close securely, and if a piece of the door is bent, chipped or damaged in any way, it should no longer be used.
And if for some reason the microwave is able to function with the door still open, which happens more than one may think among older and heavily used microwaves; consumers should immediately stop using it and replace it if possible.
The government agency also says that certain microwaves shouldn’t be in use while empty, since the waves can shoot back and forth inside the oven, which can cause damage if there’s nothing to absorb those waves.
The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, reminds consumers to be extra mindful when using the microwave when reheating fish, poultry and eggs, and to make sure foods have no “cold spots”, which happens if plates aren’t rotated properly within the oven.
Also, just as you would when cooking meat in a conventional oven, the USDA says consumers should use a food thermometer to make sure bacteria and other potential disease-carrying microorganisms aren’t present in your food.
And both the USDA and the FDA dispel the common belief that microwaved foods are cooked from the inside out, and confirm that radiation waves pass through food and cook it about 1 to 1 ½ inches deep.
A few months back we ran a story on canned, fresh and frozen vegetables, and asked an expert if cooking veggies in the microwave takes away some of the nutrients.
Perhaps surprisingly, the food expert and nutritionist said cooking vegetables as quickly as possible preserves most of the nutrients, so using a microwave is your best bet since it heats veggies faster than most other foods.
The USDA says when cooking meats in the microwave, it's best to remove all of the bones first, especially with thicker cuts of meat, as this will better ensure it’s cooked evenly and prevent the bones from blocking the waves.
It’s also wise to stop foods in the middle of the cooking cycle to turn or stir it so each side is cooked equally.
There’s no doubt that microwave ovens have gone from that weird mystery box that my Dad brought home over 30 years ago, to an everyday kitchen staple that seems a little crazy not to have.
But just because microwaves are extremely commonplace to own these days, doesn’t mean that consumers still shouldn’t be mindful of how each one works best, and how each one is properly maintained.
Also, be sure to read that pesky manual. It’s never good to assume that you know everything about an appliance just because you’ve had one since childhood.