In 1982, in a black-and-white photo on the front page of the Toronto Star, my family touted our new microwave oven. My mom, a thirtysomething mother of four, stood in front of our wood-grained microwave, while her hungry family, some of whom had matching mushroom haircuts, looked on. Beaming into the camera, her eyes foretold a brighter future. Problem was, she was also holding an outsized, bronzed turkey that clearly didn’t fit into that microwave. The promise of perfection was a lie.
The microwave is the great enigma of the modern kitchen: While it’s an appliance that more than 95 per cent of Canadian households own, few admit to using it for more than heating up coffee. And with more Canadians buying ready-to-eat meals – a 2017 Dalhousie University study found 42 per cent of Canadians do so once or twice a week – and using food delivery apps – we spent $1-billion on Uber Eats, Foodora and the like in 2018, according to Ipsos Foodservice Monitor – it’s a wonder that more homes haven’t kicked the quick-cooking appliance to the curb. But all this could by why the microwave is finally evolving.
Toronto-based interior designer Cameron MacNeil says that in 15 years of designing he’s seen the advent of smaller microwaves. However, the latest trend, says MacNeil, sees high-end small condo developers investing in speed ovens, a combination of a regular oven and a microwave – basically a microwave with a broiling element. “The benefit is that you get two-in-one,” he says. “They’re popular because they heat up faster, they cook faster and they actually brown food. Plus, they take up a smaller footprint.” MacNeil says there are good options from Miele, JennAir, Thermador and Wolf, but they don’t come cheap. For sleek, diminutive convenience, you pay the price.
Bosch’s 500 series 24-inch model is one of the less expensive ones, at just shy of $2,000, and is more like a toaster oven than an oven. “But once you hit the $3,500 mark, it’s a true oven and microwave.” In larger kitchens, MacNeil’s clients are getting both, but in smaller condos it’s not uncommon to find just a speed oven, replacing a traditional oven.
Last year, Germany’s high-end Miele launched its Dialog oven, which could be the game-changer that the microwave and even the newer speed ovens were meant to be. Because in addition to traditional baking and convection abilities, it adds a new method to the mix: interactive radio frequency. The oven uses radio waves to heat food while monitoring how much energy the ingredients absorbs, then adjusting the cooking environment accordingly.
It establishes a dialogue between multiple foods and the oven, whereby two antennae emit and react to the electromagnetic waves. This means, depending on how you program the oven, you may roast a medium-rare beef tenderloin, blister cherry tomatoes and crisp potatoes at the same time on the same baking tray. They will cook in unison, but at different temperatures and desired doneness. In Germany, the Dialog recently launched at a price point of €7,999; the oven won’t be available in Canada for about a year as the company tries to bring down the price from that of a mid-sized sedan.
Kelly R. Lam, Miele’s vice-president of marketing, says the Dialog oven is about purposeful innovation, which actually challenges the conventional idea of cooking with heat. “By using energy to cook food from the inside, combined with the unique two-way Dialog technology, we can ensure more efficient cooking times, more precise results and extreme convenience,” he says.
At the theatrical grand unveiling of the Dialog in Berlin, eight chefs pulled on black surgical gloves as a troupe of waiters arrived in unison, each carrying a box made from ice set upon a silver tray. The chefs removed the ice lids and placed a piece of raw, seasoned cod inside. The lids were popped back on and into the oven they went. The chefs each pressed a long series of preprogrammed buttons and then stood back and waited for the magic to happen. Eight minutes later, a chef retrieved his ice box from the Dialog and placed it in front of me, removing the lid with a flourish. The ice box was intact and the fish inside was steaming hot and delicious.
Will ovens such as the Dialog mean the microwave is finally headed for the Betamax trash heap of obsolescence? “I think that if these appliances can live up to their promise of cooking a variety of foods at the same time to perfect doneness, then there is a good chance that adoption will be widespread,” says Dana McCauley, food trend analyst and director of New Venture Creation at the University of Guelph. “But it will take time.”
She says the advantages the microwave has over the new models for the home user are numerous: A microwave is familiar and trusted as safe, kids can use them easily because of buttons such as “popcorn” and “one minute,” they’re inexpensive and they’re small enough to be quite portable. “Before these new electromagnetic ovens can usurp microwaves,” McCauley says, “they’ll need to be viewed as easy to use quickly and consistently, and be offered at a price point that is affordable enough for regular families and offices to take the plunge.”
So in the near future you may find yourself gathered around the table, ready to tuck into a holiday dinner with your family. Just an hour earlier, you’ll have put an 18-pound turkey into an oven such as the Dialog, along with baby potatoes and organic Brussels sprouts, and simply punched a few buttons for programming before wandering off to sip on your first glass of red. As if by magic, everything on the table before you will have emerged as a precisely cooked homage to the season. It’s quite likely that the microwave oven will be there too, sitting empty in the corner, forgotten. But perhaps, not for much longer.
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