Should Microwave Cooking Be Back on the Menu?

It's cheaper, it saves energy, and it may well be healthier.

Cooking iwth a Microwave oven
Microwave like it's 1965.

Pictorial Parade/ Getty Images

Microwave cooking peaked in the '70s with entire cookbooks dedicated to creating a meal with the device. Over the past few decades, the popularity of the microwave has steadily plummeted: Quartz reported sales have dipped 25% since 2000 and 40% since 2004. Now, an article in The Guardian is stirring up a conversation about whether microwave cooking should be back on the menu.

The Guardian's article—titled "What foods can I prepare in a microwave?"—stated in its subhead: "Beyond defrosting and reheating, you may be surprised to learn that microwaves are also great for cooking green vegetables, potatoes and even eggs." This felt strange, as it seemed like the article was transported from the '70s. The chatter around the virtual Treehugger water cooler was that we are all just using them to reheat coffee or tea. But The Guardian's revival of the microwave is for a very good reason: There is an energy crisis in the United Kingdom right now, and the price of gas and electricity has gone through the roof.

Deputy Editor Anna Berrill answers a question from a reader, Mark, asking what kitchen tasks microwaves are useful for. Berrill wrote: "According to a recent study by energy firm Utilita, microwaves typically cost 8p a day to use, compared with 87p for an electric cooker, so you are wise, Mark, to utilise yours in these tight-belted times."

Guardian cover

Screen capture, The Guardian

These days, 8 pence is pretty close to 8 cents. I couldn't find the recent study, but Treehugger has written about this before, when The Guardian ran a very different headline, complaining about how much energy microwave ovens used. In our analysis, "No, Your Microwave Oven Isn't Killing the Planet," the comparison to cars made no sense and was not even correct. We also included a comparison of the cost of cooking using different technologies:

cooking comparison

Consumer Energy Center

In another post, Treehugger's Sami Grover wrote how, for certain foods, it could reduce electricity consumption by up to 50%.

The Guardian article noted microwaves do an excellent job of cooking green vegetables. “Green vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, asparagus, mange tout and spinach are fantastic in the microwave,” said one chef. However, in our post celebrating the microwave's 50th birthday, we noted that many people used them because of the convenience of factory-made food from the big freezer cabinet in the grocery, foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar. Few people actually used them to cook from scratch. We saw this as the biggest problem.

the Alter Microwave

Lloyd Alter

Goodness knows, we tried. My wife worked her way through the Barbara Kafka Microwave Gourmet cookbook and unlike the blurb on the cover attests, it did not change the way she cooked forever. I loved it for cooking fish, which my wife Kelly doesn't like, and would wrap artichokes in saran wrap to have them steam perfectly, while probably poisoning myself with chemicals. I don't do that anymore; It is now a reheating machine for us, and I had to go find Barbara in the basement.

Many have complained about the health risks of microwaves, but Treehugger's Mary Jo DiLonardo has written: "The FDA has said that microwaves, when used correctly, pose no health risks. (The one overriding concern, however, has been the use of BPA plastics in the microwave.) The agency has said that microwaves don't reduce the nutritional quality of foods and are more energy-efficient than traditional ovens because they cook faster and don't require time to heat up."

But there is also another health risk from cooking that people are worried about more: particulate matter. Studies have found PM2.5 is emitted when cooking, even on an electric stove; "Different cooking methods emit different quantities of particles. Frying can produce peak particle levels of 745 μg/m3; this is 90 times higher compared to the levels encountered in naturally ventilated houses. Just frying bacon can emit 2.35 × 103 μg/min of PM2.5." Microwaving bacon eliminates this and probably does for almost any food.

When concluding a post about particulate emissions from cooking, I joked that the only thing that was safe that I could make for dinner was reservations. People are doing less of that in tough economic times, whereas the microwave oven is clearly the cheapest way to cook food and also the most environmentally benign-other than a solar cooker because it uses so little electricity. It may well be the healthiest. Perhaps it's time to have another look at Kafka.

View Article Sources
  1. Liu, Qingyang, et al. "Healthy Home Interventions: Distribution of PM2.5 Emitted During Cooking in Residential Settings." Building and Environment, vol. 207, 2022, p. 108448., doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2021.108448