Microwave Oven, appliance that uses electromagnetic energy to heat and cook foods. A microwave oven uses microwaves, very short radio waves commonly employed in radar and satellite communications. When concentrated within a small space, these waves efficiently heat water and other substances within foods.
In a microwave oven, an electronic vacuum tube known as a magnetron produces an oscillating beam of microwaves. Before passing into the cooking space, the microwaves are sent through a fanlike set of spinning metal blades called a stirrer. The stirrer scatters the microwaves, dispersing them evenly within the oven, where they are absorbed by the food. Within the food the microwaves orient molecules, particularly water molecules, in a specific direction. The oscillating effect produced by the magnetron changes the orientation of the microwaves millions of times per second. The water molecules begin to vibrate as they undergo equally rapid changes in direction. This vibration produces heat, which in turn cooks the food.
Microwaves cook food rapidly and efficiently because, unlike conventional ovens, they heat only the food and not the air or the oven walls. The heat spreads within food by conduction (see Heat Transfer). Microwave ovens tend to cook moist food more quickly than dry foods, because there is more water to absorb the microwaves. However, microwaves cannot penetrate deeply into foods, sometimes making it difficult to cook thicker foods.
Microwaves pass through many types of glass, paper, ceramics, and plastics, making many containers composed of these materials good for holding food; microwave instructions detail exactly which containers are safe for microwave use. Metal containers are particularly unsuitable because they reflect microwaves and prevent food from cooking. Metal objects may also reflect microwaves back into the magnetron and cause damage. The door of the oven should always be securely closed and properly sealed to prevent escape of microwaves. Leakage of microwaves affects cooking efficiency and can pose a health hazard to anyone near the oven.
The discovery that microwaves could cook food was accidental. In 1945 Percy L. Spencer, a technician at the Raytheon Company, was experimenting with a magnetron designed to produce short radio waves for a radar system. Standing close to the magnetron, he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted even though he felt no heat. Raytheon developed this food-heating capacity and introduced the first microwave oven, then called a radar range, in the early 1950s. Although it was slow to catch on at first, the microwave oven has since grown steadily in popularity to its current status as a common household appliance.
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