by Chris Woodford. Last updated: August 31, 2020.
How our ancestors would have loved
microwave ovens! Instead of sitting around smoky wood fires for hours on end, boiling up buffalo stew for their
Stone-Age friends, they could have just tossed everything in the
microwave, pressed a few buttons, and had a meal ready in a minute or
two. Of course, they had no electricity, which might have been
something of a problem…
When microwave ovens became popular in the 1970s, they lifted
household convenience to a new level. A conventional oven heats food
very slowly from the outside in, but a microwave oven uses tiny,
high-powered radio waves to cook food
more evenly (loosely speaking, we sometimes say it cooks from the "inside out"—although
that isn't quite correct). This is why a microwave can cook a joint of meat roughly six times faster than a conventional oven. Microwave ovens also save energy, because you can cook immediately without waiting for the oven to heat up to a high temperature first. Let's take a closer
look at how they work!
What is cooking?
Microwave ovens are so quick and efficient because they channel heat energy
directly to the molecules (tiny particles) inside food. Microwaves heat food like the sun heats your face—by radiation.
Photo: The "cooking cavity" of a typical microwave oven. This strong metal box stops harmful microwaves from escaping. The microwaves are generated by a device called a
magnetron, which is behind the perforated metal grid on the
right hand side (just behind the lamp that illuminates the oven
inside). If you peer through the grid, you might just be able to see the horizontal cooling
fins on the magnetron (which look like a stack of parallel, horizontal
Note also the turntable, which rotates the food so the microwaves cook
it evenly. The back of the door is covered with a protective metal
gauze to stop microwaves escaping.
A microwave is much like the electromagnetic waves that zap through the air from
TV and radio transmitters. It's an invisible up-and-down pattern of electricity
and magnetism that races through the air at the speed of light (300,000
km or 186,000 miles per second). While radio waves can be very long indeed
(some measure tens of kilometers or miles between one wave crest and the next),
they can also be tiny: microwaves are effectively the shortest radio waves—and the microwaves that cook food in your oven are just 12 cm (roughly 5 inches) long. (You can read more about electromagnetic waves in our article
on the electromagnetic spectrum.)
Despite their small size, microwaves carry a huge amount of
energy. One drawback of microwaves is that they can damage living cells and
tissue. This is why microwaves can be harmful to people—and why microwave ovens
are surrounded by strong metal boxes that do not allow the waves to escape.
In normal operation, microwave ovens are perfectly safe. Even so,
microwaves can be very dangerous, so never fool
around with a microwave oven. Microwaves are also used in cellphones (mobile phones), where they carry your voice back and forth through the air, and radar.
How do microwaves cook food?
How does a microwave turn electricity into heat? Like this!
- Inside the strong metal box, there is a microwave generator called a magnetron. When you start
cooking, the magnetron takes electricity from the power outlet and
converts it into high-powered, 12cm (4.7 inch) radio waves.
- The magnetron blasts these waves into the food compartment through a channel called a wave
- The food sits on a turntable, spinning slowly round so the microwaves cook it evenly.
- The microwaves bounce back and forth off the reflective metal walls of the food compartment,
just like light bounces off a mirror.
When the microwaves reach the food itself, they don't simply bounce off. Just
as radio waves can pass straight through the walls of your house, so
microwaves penetrate inside the food. As they travel through it, they
make the molecules inside it vibrate more quickly.
- Vibrating molecules have heat so, the faster the molecules vibrate, the hotter
the food becomes. Thus the microwaves pass their energy onto the
molecules in the food, rapidly heating it up.
Do microwaves cook from the inside out?
In a conventional oven, heat has to pass from electric heating elements
(or gas burners) positioned in the bottom and sides of the cooker into the food, which cooks mostly by
conduction from the outside in—from the outer layers to the inner ones. That's why a cake cooked in a conventional oven can be burned on the edges and not cooked at all in the middle.
People sometimes say microwave ovens cook food from the "inside out," which is a bit of a gloss
and isn't quite correct. When people say this, what they really mean is that the microwaves
are simultaneously exciting molecules right through the food, so it's generally
cooking more quickly and evenly than it would otherwise.
Artwork: Microwaves (orange) cook food mainly by making the water molecules (red and blue) "vibrate"
Exactly how the food cooks in a microwave depends mostly on what it's made from. Microwaves excite the liquids in foods more strongly, so something like a fruit pie (with a higher liquid content in the center) will indeed cook from the inside out, because the inside has the highest water content. You have to be very careful eating a microwaved apple
pie because the inside may be boiling hot, while the outside crust is barely even warm. With other foods, where the water content is more evenly dispersed, you'll probably find they cook from the outside in, just like in a conventional oven.
Since they work by energizing water molecules, microwaves also tend to dry food out more than conventional ovens.
Another important factor is the size and shape of what you're cooking. Microwaves can't penetrate more than a centimeter or two
(perhaps an inch or so) into food. Like swimmers diving into water, they're losing energy from the moment they enter the food, and after that first centimeter or so they don't have enough energy left to penetrate any deeper. If you're cooking anything big (say a joint of meat in a large microwave oven), only the outer "skin" layer will be cooked by the waves themselves; the interior will be cooked from the outside in by conduction. Fortunately, most of the things people cook in small microwave ovens aren't much more than a couple of centimeters across (think about a microwaveable meat or fruit pie). Unfortunately, since the inside and outside of the food are cooking in different ways, at different speeds, it's easy to end up with something that's cooked on the outside and uncooked in the middle,
or overdone on the outside and cooked just right in the middle. Like every other cooking method, microwaving has its drawbacks and takes some getting used to.
You'll notice that microwaveable dinners specify a "cooking time" of so many minutes, followed by a "standing time"
that's often just as long (where you leave the cooked food alone before eating it). During this period, the food
effectively keeps on cooking: the hotter parts of the food will pass heat by conduction to the cooler parts,
hopefully giving uniform cooking throughout.
The way microwave ovens distribute their microwaves can also cook things in unusual ways, as
Scientist Laboratories found out when they tried cooking Indian snack food in a selection of different microwave ovens.
Who invented the microwave oven?
Like many great inventions, microwave ovens were an accidental
discovery. Back in the 1950s, American electrical engineer Percy Spencer (1894–1970) was carrying out some experiments with a magnetron at the Raytheon Manufacturing Company where he worked. At that time, the
main use for magnetrons was in radar: a way of using radio waves to help
airplanes and ships find their way around in poor weather or darkness.
Artwork: One of Percy Spencer's original patent drawings for the microwave
oven. I've colored it in here so you can see it more clearly and recognize how very similar it is to the microwave I've
described up above. On the left (red), we have the incoming electrical power. That makes a pair of magnetrons (blue) generate microwaves, which are channeled down transmission lines (yellow) and a wave guide (orange) to the cooking
compartment (green). Artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
One day, Percy Spencer had a chocolate bar in his
pocket when he switched on the magnetron. To his surprise, the bar
quickly melted because of the heat the magnetron generated. This gave
him the idea that a magnetron might be used to cook food. After
successfully cooking some popcorn, he realized he could develop a
microwave oven for cooking all types of food. He was granted a series of patents for
this idea in the early 1950s, including one for a microwave coffee
brewer (US patent 2,601,067, granted June 17, 1952) and the one I've illustrated here (US patent 2,495,429 "Method of Treating Foodstuffs"
on January 24, 1950), which shows the basic operation of a microwave oven.
In this patent, you can find Spencer's own pithy summary of how his invention works:
"...by employing wavelengths falling in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum... By so doing,
the wavelength of the energy becomes comparable to the average dimension of the foodstuff to be cooked,
and as a result, the heat generated in the foodstuff becomes intense, the energy expended becomes
a minimum, and the entire process becomes efficient and commercially feasible."
Spencer's early equipment was relatively crude compared to modern wipe-clean microwaves—his first oven was around
1.5 meters (5 ft) high! Since then, microwave ovens have become much more compact and millions of them have been sold throughout the world.
It's easy to put Spencer's invention down as a "mere" happy accident, but there was more to it than that: it takes
the right kind of inventive mind to seize on a discovery and make something of it. As Reader's
Digest magazine later
reported, Spencer "demonstrated that nothing is beyond the grasp of a man who wants to know what is going on, and who feels a sense of responsibility for doing something about it." The 130 patents he was granted in his lifetime attest to that,
and to his inventive ability to put scientific ideas into practical action.
How efficient are microwave ovens?
You might expect a microwave to be much more efficient than other forms of cooking: in other words,
you'd expect more of the energy going in from the power cable to be converted into heat in your food and less to be wasted
in other ways. Broadly speaking, that's correct: cooking in a microwave is cheaper and quicker than cooking with a conventional
oven because you don't have to heat up the oven itself before you can cook.
But that's not the whole story. If you want to heat up only a small quantity of food (or a cup of hot water), a microwave
oven is not necessarily the best thing to use. When you microwave something, apart from putting energy into the food, you're also powering
an electric motor that spins a relatively heavy glass turntable.
Although you don't have to heat up the food compartment for the oven to cook, a microwave oven does, in fact, get fairly
warm after it's been on for a while, so there are some heat losses. A magnetron is not perfectly efficient at converting
electricity into microwaves: it will get hot. And you also have to power an electronic circuit, a timer display, and probably a cooling fan. Taken together, all these things make a microwave less efficient than it might be.
How much less efficient? Physicist Tom Murphy recently
compared the energy efficiency of different methods of boiling water and found (perhaps surprisingly) that it was only about 40 percent efficient, which is about half as efficient
as using an electric kettle.
Are microwave ovens safe?
Do you worry about standing too near your microwave as it hums and whirrs and blasts that
frozen block into a steaming, tasty dinner? Don't! The cooking cavities in microwave ovens are sealed metal containers: use a microwave normally and the waves can't leak out. If you look closely at the inside of the glass door, you'll find it has a grid of metal stuck to the back; those holes you can see in it are too small to let microwaves through. Another safety feature (called an interlock) keeps you safe and sound: if you try to open the door, the magnetron stops buzzing immediately; most microwaves actually have two independent interlocks in case one fails. Of course, it still pays to take precautions. You don't want microwaves leaking out of your oven, so if the door doesn't close properly (perhaps because it's gummed with spilled food), if the grid on the back of the glass has started rusting and peeling away, if the interlocks don't work, or the machine gives you any reason to think it might be leaking, get it repaired or replaced straight away.
Photo: A microwave oven has a protective metal grid on the inside of its door. You can see into the oven when the door's shut because light can get through the holes in the gauze.
Microwaves, however, are much bigger than light waves, so they're too big to get through the holes and remain safely "locked" inside.
Even if your microwave is "leaking," it's unlikely to do you any harm. Although microwave ovens can produce very high power inside (up to 1000 watts in a typical large oven), the power drops off very quickly the further away you go. Outside the cooking cavity and some distance away, even a leaky microwave would produce only tiny amounts of electromagnetic radiation—less than you'd pick up from a cellphone. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, at a distance of about 5cm (2 inches), the amount of power a microwave can leak is about 5 milliwatts per square centimeter, which is "far below the level known to harm people," while at a distance of about 50cm (20in), it's about 1 percent as much again. Even standing right up close to a leaky microwave, you'd need to be exposed to much higher levels of radiation for much longer for there to be any real risk to your health. The World Health Organization is reassuring on this point: "thermal damage would only occur from long exposures to very high power levels, well in excess of those measured around microwave ovens." In other words, there's simply too little power to heat your body tissue up enough to do damage.
And if you've ever wondered why you can't microwave your dinner with a cellphone (which, remember, uses similar-sized waves), the explanation is exactly the same: there isn't enough power. Even if you stood your cellphone right on top of a frozen dinner, it wouldn't release enough power to generate the heat required for cooking, no matter how long you left it there.
Find out more
On this website
- What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert Wolke, Norton, 2002. This witty and very readable introduction to kitchen science (mostly chemistry) includes a long section about different aspects of microwave cookery ("Chapter 8: Those Mysterious Microwaves"). It also covers the science behind many other food-related topics.
- The Facts about Microwave Ovens by John R. Free, Popular Science, February 1973. This might be an old article, but it's a great introduction to microwave ovens—and how revolutionary they were when they first appeared.
Health and safety
These official sources should reassure you that microwave ovens really are safe:
If you're more technically minded, you might find Percy Spencer's patents worth a read. There are quite a lot of them—and here
are three to start you off:
- US Patent 2,495,429: Method of treating foodstuffs by Percy Spencer, granted January 24, 1950. Spencer's original microwave patent, illustrated above.
- US Patent 2,601,067: Coffee brewing by Percy Spencer, granted June 17, 1952. A microwave that can brew coffee!
- US Patent 2,408,235: High efficiency magnetron by Percy Spencer, September 24, 1946. A typical wartime cavity magnetron.
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