Ping! not a sound most customers want to hear coming from the kitchen. The microwave’s association with ready meals, petrol station forecourt burgers and hideous scrambled eggs has soiled its culinary reputation to such an extent that a string of high-profile chefs have gone on record to label the microwave a gastronomic monstrosity fit only for sterilising babies’ milk bottles.
Raymond Blanc famously stated that using a microwave to cook food for your children was an “act of hate” and Arthur Potts Dawson says he’d rather serve food raw. But for every chef railing against the device there is another singing its praises. Marco Pierre White is an advocate of microwaving bacon (the jury is still out on that one) and just last month Matt Gillan, head chef at newly starred The Pass at South Lodge Hotel in West Sussex, proudly turned out microwave beetroot sponges on the Great British Menu.
Would a chef have done that on national TV five years ago? Probably not. And there’s plenty more evidence to suggest that attitudes to the microwave are changing in the professional kitchen.
Diners at The Fat Duck in Bray might be more than a little surprised to learn that a couple of garnishes are cooked in the microwave, a 50 [pounds sterling] job from Argos, no less. Head chefJonny Lake believes the culinary stigma attached to the machine should not be allowed to cloud people’s judgement.
“It’s like any other kitchen tool. If it’s the best possible way to cook something, we’ll use it. We use it to cook puntarella hearts a delicate variety of chicory. I’ve yet to find a better way of keeping it green. We prep and vac-pac the hearts, and it basically just steams them.” The team does something similar with grelot onions, says Lake, who admits he has yet to try out the microwave’s mysterious chicken tikka masala button.
There is also a microwave in the Bray restaurant’s development kitchen. Currently, Lake and head of creative development James Petrie are experimenting with dry ice, which is unaffected by the frequency of the microwave, to better achieve clouds of vapour for a new dish. “We fill a glass with whisky and dry ice and put it in the microwave the microwaves travel straight through the dry ice as it is a compressed gas, but they do heat up the whisky, which creates more vapour to carry the whisky aroma.”
Others on the bleeding edge of the culinary arts scene are finding new uses for the microwave. Nathan Myhrvold and the rest of the team behind scientific culinary tome Modernist Cuisine and the more recently published Modernist Cuisine at Home are big expounders of the device, believing its technology is almost universally misunderstood by chefs. “Microwaves are often considered second-class tools that aren’t appropriate for ‘real’ cooking,” says Myhrvold. “Yet this ignores the fact that the device does an excellent job of many kitchen tasks. They excel at drying, dehydrating, puffing grains and quickly warming or defrosting foods.”
As well as supplying sample recipes including an ingenious microwave-steamed black cod dish the books helpfully point out some key technical misconceptions. The common notion that the microwave cooks food from the inside out is incorrect: microwaves penetrate only a centimetre or two into the food with the remainder heated through neighbour molecules’ vibrations and, eventually, regular conduction. In addition, although the term ‘nuking’ has entered the lexicon, microwave radiation has nothing to do with nuclear radiation, despite the alarming results that can arise from misuse. The most notable being the boiling of water which is very dangerous as the speed of the heating process causes the water to become ‘superheated’ and, potentially, burst the container as the trapped heat escapes and the use of some metal items, especially kitchen foil.
Will Holland, head chef at La Becasse in Ludlow, Shropshire, once created an impromptu mini fireworks display in his former landlady’s microwave after using a metal-rimmed plate. Not the greatest initiation, it must be said, and perhaps the reason why the La Becasse kitchen remains a microwave-free zone. “I don’t feel like we need one. It’s not snobbery and I don’t equate using a microwave with cowboy cookery. I suppose I just like doing things the old-fashioned way,” he says. “Although I do remember it being brilliant for creating herb crisps–just clingfilm a plate, rub the film with oil and lay some herbs on it, add a little more oil and microwave to create a crispy sheet of herbs.”
One of the principal disadvantages of microwave cooking is that power settings aren’t standardised. Most indirect cooking methods regular ovens, water baths, combi ovens and steamers allow fine control of the temperature a product is cooked at. A microwave’s wattage ratings gives some indication of how powerful it will be, but each brand and model will have its own idiosyncrasies.
As such, some experimentation is required to fine tune recipes to the equipment you’re using, as Gillan found out to his cost when he burnt his first batch of sponge puddings in the Great British Menu kitchen’s unfamiliar microwave.
The contemporary microwave sponge should be reserved a special entry in the annals of the device’s history. Created by Albert Adria at El Bulli in the early 2000s, savoury and sweet incarnations of the light and fluffy mini-cakes are now all the rage in the UK fine-dining scene. The recipe sees the sponge ingredients mixed in the normal manner, transferred to a siphon and charged with O. The mix is then chilled and dispensed into individual cups and microwaved for 40 seconds to one and a half minutes depending on the recipe. Mark Jarvis, head chef at south-east London’s Blueprint Cafe, pairs his olive oil-flavoured sponge with a blood orange parfait. “There’s no other way to achieve the lightness, it’s a brilliant technique,” he says.
Top-end posturing aside, the microwave has the potential to be a workhorse in nearly any kitchen. It’s particularly useful for melting large quantities of ingredients and heating stocks, cream and milk quickly. The device also has solid green credentials: generally, heating things in the microwave is extremely energy efficient. Even the pastry chefs at Le Manoir have been known to use a microwave to temper chocolate, but presumably only when Monsieur Blanc is out of earshot.