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How does a Microwave Work?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Microwave ovens revolutionized the way we eat. Cooking incredibly fast compared to conventional ovens, a microwave turns even healthy food into “fast food.” Strangely enough, we can thank radio waves.

A microwave oven generates radio waves in the range of 2.5 gigahertz. This spectrum lies between FM radio waves and infrared rays, the latter of which border on detectable light at the red end of the visible light spectrum. Radio waves in the microwave range have favorable properties in that they are absorbed by food – or liquids, fats and sugars.

When food in a microwave absorbs radio waves, the energy translates into atomic motion, which becomes heat. In other words, microwave radio waves excite the atoms that make up food. This results in evenly and quickly cooked food, all things being equal. In reality, some types of food do not allow equal penetration of radio waves, resulting in “cold spots.” This is a concern with poultry, meat and eggs, where bacteria can survive in the uncooked areas.

To ensure that food cooks evenly in a microwave, some experts recommend covering the food with a vented lid or microwave-approved plastic wrap. With this method, hot steam builds under the lid or wrap, raising the temperature to kill any bacteria and help cook the food more evenly. If cooking a large piece of meat, cooking at 50% power for a longer period of time might yield better results. One can also use a meat thermometer to ensure that food is cooked to the right temperature.

A microwave is probably used more often for reheating leftovers or frozen foods. Unlike a conventional oven that must be preheated, a microwave doesn’t waste energy heating the air inside the oven. Only the food gets heated. Plastic, ceramics and glass also do not absorb microwave radio waves. For this reason, some microwaveable foods come with a reflective “browning sheet” to intensify heat in a specific area in order to brown the bottom of a pizza, for example, or the top of a pastry.

Since a microwave does not heat containers it is easy to assume that food is cooler than it actually is. Be careful not to burn yourself with foods taken from the microwave. Experts warn to be especially careful with baby bottles. The bottle might seem fine to the touch, while the liquid inside could be close to boiling. Heating baby bottles on the stove in a pan of warm water may take a few minutes longer, but it’s safer for your baby in the long run. If you do use a microwave to heat a baby bottle, always test the milk or formula on your wrist before giving it to the baby – a ritual that should be used even when heating the bottle on the stove.

At one time, people worried about the idea of eating food cooked by radiation until it was understood that all heat is radiation. Nevertheless, it’s recommended to stand 20 inches (51 centimeters) or more from a microwave while it’s cooking. If there is a radiation leak, this will minimize exposure. If the door of your microwave ceases to click shut properly, it’s time to have it repaired or replaced. Use a conventional oven in the meantime and avoid operating a microwave that you know to be leaking or faulty.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon329754 — On Apr 11, 2013

How is it heat radiation is not dangerous to food for consumption, but is dangerous to humans?

By anon159739 — On Mar 13, 2011

Why do my white bowls come out much hotter than my blue bowls when exposed to the same energy levels?

By anon151488 — On Feb 10, 2011

this is a good site to go on. It has a lot of information.

By ValleyFiah — On Sep 04, 2010

@ Fiorite- You are in luck! You can find over the range combination microwaves in all sizes, colors, finishes, from almost every manufacturer. They start at about $300 dollars and up (plus installation), and you can probably find an oven that will match the other appliances in your kitchen.

By Fiorite — On Sep 04, 2010

@ Babalaas- I just bought a condominium and I am interested in changing out my over the range microwave with a convection microwave. Do you know if there is such thing as an over the range microwave convection oven?

By Babalaas — On Sep 04, 2010

There are other options besides microwaves for quickly cooking foods. Convection and microwave convection ovens use forced hot air to cook foods faster.

Convection ovens do this without the help of a magnatron generating radio waves. They use either gas or electricity to generate heat, and a fan to blow the heat over the food. They cook foods about twice as fast as a conventional oven.

Microwave convection ovens work like microwaves, but they add the forced hot air element. They may take a little longer than a microwave, but they produce cooked foods that more resemble those cooked in an oven. Fast food restaurants often use convection microwave ovens to toast sandwiches.

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