No other cooking method gives rise to quite so many myths and legends as the microwave. Partly because it is one of the most recently introduced and partly because it abandons the ageold security of fire in favour of a technology which, until a few years ago, seemed to have been borrowed from an extraterrestrial spaceship. One of the most widespread myths regarding the microwave oven has to do with food nutrients. In brief, or so the story goes, a dish cooked with this technique would have most of its beneficial substances destroyed, primarily vitamins and minerals. Because of the electromagnetic waves, even a pizza which contains several “healthy” ingredients risks becoming a food whose only effect would be to make us fat, without any nutritional benefit. Is that true?
Not wanting to keep you on tenterhooks any longer, let’s just say that you will not have to rush into the kitchen to throw your beloved frozen pizzas into the garbage bin. Now let’s try to understand why. First of all: do you know how a microwave oven works? Basically, waves similar to those used by your phone or television antenna are generated inside the oven. These waves change polarity millions of times in one second, and also change the polarity of the molecules they encounter. Imagine the wind blowing on a propeller: it will turn in whatever direction the wind blows. If the wind changes direction, the propeller will do likewise. If the molecules are those of the food we cook and in particular if they contain water, their polarity will change so quickly as to generate heat. In microwave cooking, therefore, the food cooks “from within”. So, now do you understand why the plate holding your pizza is never hot? Because it does not contain water.
On the grounds of this explanation you will clearly see that it is mainly water that heats food in a microwave oven. And it is for this same reason that, from a nutritional viewpoint, the cooked food is no different from a dish that has been boiled or braised for instance. This is a discussion among friends, as though we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee in a snack bar. But there are some people who have spent time studying the issue, even as far back as1982. The effect of microwaves on nutrient value of foods, a report by Cross and Fung, has put the delicate question of the interaction between microwaves and nutritional substances in black and white, when this cooking technique started to catch on in kitchens around the world. The two academics analyzed and compared traditional and microwave cooking methods to verify whether substantial differences exist in the retention of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. It emerged that the differences are irrelevant enough to debunk the myth of the microwave oven being a “vitamin killer”. Some may object that a minimum difference is nevertheless a difference. Correct, but a research of 1985 carried out by Hoffman and Zabik established that modern microwave ovens (modern for the time, that is) had been improved to such an extent that this minimum difference had not only been ironed out but actually made microwave cooking preferable, and could now be considered an ideal way to preserve nutritional substances! This result was further endorsed in 1989 by a study effected by Dr. Klein B.P.
So, do we part, bemused and bewildered, after having debunked the umpteenth cooking myth? Of course not. We wish to conclude this article with a useful tip on how to get the best out of your microwave oven. First and foremost, use it for what it is and not to emulate other equipment such as the traditional oven. Microwave ovens lend themselves most effectively to heating cooked food or for giving a nice crisp finish to vegetables and, above all, for defrosting dishes you have bought or prepared the day before. This time, without fear of losing vitamins, minerals and so on. Furthermore, learn how to clean this particular type of oven: just boil a cup of water and a bit of white wine vinegar inside for five minutes. This will “steam” clean your oven, so that it will fully enhance your dishes.