Happy 50th birthday, microwave oven.
This year, the ubiquitous cooking box born out of an accidental discovery by a Ratheon military researcher has reached the half century mark, and as the last new cooking appliance category to become indispensable in nearly every American home, it’s certainly a milestone worth celebrating.
However, there are signs that the fast-cook workhorse will soon be on the decline as newer, better technologies make their way to market. On this 50 year celebration of the microwave, let’s consider how pervasive they’ve become and the many reasons the microwave oven will not be around for its hundredth birthday.
Surpassing Oven and Ranges
Ever since Amana introduced the first countertop unit back in 1967, consumers have embraced the convenience of the microwave. They helped usher in an era of fast-cook food like microwave popcorn and pizza, and as the microwave became cheap and plentiful in the 70s, they were soon everywhere.
Eventually the microwave rivaled traditional ovens and ranges in adoption, and today there are more microwaves sold quarterly than gas ranges.
Still, for all its success, the microwave’s future is in doubt. Perhaps the biggest reason is that while the microwave is fast and efficient, it’s actually pretty poor at its job. Not only do microwaves cook and reheat food unevenly, they are not good at cooking multiple items simultaneously.
And it’s these shortcomings that have opened the door for newer technologies such as…
Here Comes RF Cooking
RF cooking, which utilizes solid state (semiconductor) technology in place of the microwave’s old school technology, cooks with a much higher degree of precision.
Here’s what you can do with an RF cooking enabled oven:
- Cook multiple foods at once within the same cooking chamber at different temperatures
- Can sense when a food is done
- Cook evenly across and through an entire piece of food rather than the uneven cooking results you get with a microwave
There are multiple companies with RF cooking technology products in development. One is Goji Food Solutions, which originally developed its RF cooking technology for medical applications as a way to heat tissue evenly. The company claims to have 147 issued patents in the area of RF solid state heating and another 76 pending. Other companies, such as NXP, have chip solutions that early system builders are bringing to market. Lastly, there is an industry consortium called the RF Energy Alliance that includes Whirlpool as a founding member that is working on standards for solid state RF technology.
Let’s Get Steamed
For many years, the combi oven has become the darling of chefs for its ability to combine multiple cooking modes (convection, steam, combination) into one and its ability to produce delicious food. However, despite its many advantages, the combi oven has been relegated mostly to the pro kitchen despite efforts by high end manufacturers such as Miele and Jenn-Air to bring to the home.
But that may change soon, as companies such as Anova and Tovala to bring low-cost counter top combi ovens to market for under $500. The Tovala oven first sold to backers through a crowdfunding campaign and will be available for under $400 this year, while the Anova oven, which is expected to ship in mid-2018, will sell for under $500 when available.
The Instant Pot Generation: Slower Cooking Takes Hold
Lastly, while we may never see an end to prepackaged convenience food, it’s safe to say the heyday of the Hot Pocket is well past us. More and more Millennials are embracing slow cooking by using revamped old-school products with modern tech flourishes like the Instant Pot. This multifunction pressure cooker has become a phenomenon, garnering over 18 thousand reviews on Amazon to become the #1 overall product in the kitchen and dining category.
By adding multiple cooking types beyond just pressure cooking such as rice and yogurt mode as well as processor-driven programmable cook modes and automation, the Instant Pot has tapped into a generation of young cooks and wannabe cooks who love Swiss Army knife devices that can save space by combining multiple functions while also producing high quality results. There are best-selling cookbooks, as well as dozens of websites and large and active Facebook and Reddit communities where enthusiastic Instant Pot users share recipes and cooking tips.
So, while it’s time to step back and wish the one of the most unlikely success stories of the modern kitchen a happy 50th birthday, it’s also a time to recognize that the microwave’s best days might be behind it. Newer and better technology technology, combined with changing consumer behavior, could mean we might be celebrating a new type of cooking appliance 50 years from now.