Cook or reheat? Mastering the microwave

Microwaves take up a disproportionately large amount of space for the job they do. Such a large metal box to reheat a mug of coffee. Despite its full name - microwave oven - reheating and defrosting is the most we usually ask of it.

The conventional microwave has never risen to the exalted place once promised.

When they appeared in homes from the late 1960s, cooks loved their speed but language such as ''zap the food'' played to health fears. There was a sneaking suspicion something so fast that used radiation couldn't be good for the food - or you.

Then there were fires. Infernos begun by aluminium foil and forks abounded. A few days ago, The Guardian reported that a hapless man in England set fire to his apartment while drying underpants and socks in the microwave.

The microwave as a clothes dryer and defroster? Whatever happened to The Jetsons-esque future kitchen, where this miracle oven would cook all our meals?

It never happened, but I've given it a go of late. Since my own minor kitchen fire (hapless, yes, but at least I wasn't cooking undies), I've been reduced to the microwave and barbecue.

At Gleebooks on Glebe Point Road, I looked for a microwave cookbook. Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World promised a future I don't relish, and Hash Cakes had a handy recipe for lemon and poppy-seed cake with black hash, but I saw no microwave cookbooks, new or used.

I found Gourmet Microwave Cooking at home. There is no publication date but the recipes give it away. Spinach dip using French-onion soup mix and crunchy camembert chicken with the cheese pressed beneath the bird's skin scream 1980s.

I settled for Mediterranean chicken with classic ingredients such as basil leaves, bacon, semi-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and a dash of red wine. It is simple, it worked and everyone liked it - sort of.

But it highlighted why microwaves will always be relegated to pot warmers. Microwaves don't caramelise, so the onions remained raw-ish pellets. The can of crushed tomatoes provided a liquid but there was nothing rich or satisfying about it.

It didn't have to be this way. Conventional microwaves can do more but the manufacturers made a fundamental error in the early days when they failed to create a standard model. Because the power varies from 700 watts to 1000 watts, no single recipe applies to all machines. One machine's high is another's low. A high from a hash cake probably has more guarantee of success.

The story Cook or reheat? Mastering the microwave first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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