Matthew Kressy likes to think that he owns a first-rate microwave. The founding director of MIT’s integrated design and management program, Kressy lets his experience inventing gadgets guide his purchasing decisions. But when he needed a new microwave a few years ago, the best he could do was the Panasonic NN-SD861S. Instead of poking at a touch pad to set the cook time, he twists a dial. “It’s kind of fun to use,” he told me, “but it’s not much better than anything else.” His 1.2-cubic-foot unit looks essentially the same as every other countertop microwave available to the average American consumer. It is large. It is rectangular. Its right side is dominated by numerous buttons that could be removed at no loss to society. And it has the same basic look as microwaves from a decade ago, the decade before that, and the one before that.
Not only are microwaves ugly, but they are also not particularly user-friendly: My own Sunbeam microwave has a “Potato” button that sets the cook time to five minutes for one potato—irrespective of spud size—and then adds 2 minutes and 30 seconds for each additional potato, up to the device’s arbitrary maximum of four potatoes. Aside from the notorious popcorn setting (which some microwave-popcorn instructions specifically tell you not to use), there are additional useless buttons for “Pizza,” “Beverage,” “Frozen dinner,” and “Reheat.” After four years, I’m still not sure whether it’s possible to set a cook time at an interval of fewer than 30 seconds; I just press “+30 Sec” repeatedly and watch to make sure nothing explodes.
The microwave is a baffling contradiction: a universal, time-saving appliance that also seems trapped in time. You can now easily find plenty of sleek and technologically advanced dynamic precision cookers, stand mixers, and coffee machines, among many other appliances. But somehow, the microwave, a device used in nearly every American home, has responded with a resigned shrug.
It may not seem like it today, but the microwave oven is a grand success story of American innovation. The first one, invented by a scientist at the military contractor Raytheon in 1945, weighed 750 pounds, stood more than five feet tall, and cost at least $2,000. Some 20 years later, the company released a countertop version that cost $500, pushing the United States into an era of TV dinners. Most of today’s microwaves work in the same basic way as these early devices: They reflect microwaves produced by a magnetron around a cooking chamber. When the wavelengths strike the food molecules inside, they vibrate them and create heat. The turntable came soon after, and by the 1980s, it was included in basically every microwave. The appliances became smaller, too, but then the changes largely stopped. “For the last several decades, there have not been a lot of new paradigm-shifting innovations in the microwave oven,” says John F. Gerling, the president of the International Microwave Power Institute, a group that advocates for microwave safety and performance standards.
Part of the problem is that most companies don’t seem to be trying very hard to innovate on the device. The microwave is notorious for heating unevenly, rubberizing meats, and failing to brown or crisp. Even Kressy’s colleagues who also design and develop products, he said, “are skeptical and only use, like, two features on the microwave.” I asked five of the biggest microwave manufacturers in the U.S. about whether microwaves have advanced, and heard back from only Bree Lemmen, Whirlpool’s kitchen brand manager. She wrote in an email that “one of the biggest innovations in the microwave space over the past few decades is the Whirlpool® low profile microwave, which combines the power of a standard microwave and a vent hood into a sleek, compact appliance that mounts under your cabinets in place of a range hood.” Awesome.
The microwave’s stifled evolution is not solely due to lack of effort. A few plays on the standard design—retro-looking ones, square ones, multifunction ones—do exist, but they haven’t altered the default, which has become the scourge of interior designers. Jan Rutgers, a kitchen designer and educator, told me that appliances are common kitchen centerpieces. Ranges are easy to showcase. Fridges too. How about microwaves? “Oh, no, no, no, no,” she said. “I’ve designed more than 1,000 kitchens. I don’t think I’ve ever had the microwave as a focal point.” If space permits it, Rutgers generally directs clients to tuck their microwave in a back kitchen or a butler’s pantry.
And considerably better methods of microwave heating have long been available. In 1988, Panasonic debuted “inverter technology,” which allows the microwave to cook more precisely at lower power levels and prevent overheating. (Conventional microwaves operate at maximum power or not at all; when set to half power, they cycle on and off at equal intervals.) Lots of different companies now sell inverter microwaves, but the technology’s slightly elevated price has kept it lagging behind the conventional microwave from decades before. More ambitious microwaves have fared worse. General Electric’s Trivection oven—essentially a combination of microwave, convection oven, and conventional oven—flopped so badly that it became a gag on 30 Rock. “That’s too bad,” Gerling told me, “because I thought it was really cool.”
Part of the problem is that the microwave’s limitations are inherent to its cooking mechanics; without added technology (like the microwave crisping sleeve), it can’t heat the air around food enough to make its outside crispy. But a key reason microwaves have stagnated is that they have been optimized not for performance, but for price. A single Midea factory in Guangdong, China, reportedly produces the budget microwaves for Toshiba, Black+Decker, General Electric, Whirlpool, Panasonic, and many other brands. Even if changing a keypad or scaling back on dubiously useful buttons raises the microwave’s price by, say, $20, that difference could seem pointless to consumers who are, in large part, expecting the bare minimum. A $350 Whirlpool low-profile over-the-range microwave might not seem worth it when it heats just like a $70 one. Keli DiRisio, an assistant professor of design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told me that when her family built their house, she knew exactly what features she wanted in her oven and fridge—but “on the microwave, it’s like, whichever one fits the budget,” she said. “It wasn’t as big of a deal.”
For the microwave to improve, people would have to want it to improve, believing that their appliance could produce something delectable and not just … warm. I cook my daily oatmeal in the microwave not because it tastes better than on the stovetop (it doesn’t), but because I don’t want to clean a pot every day. “You need a cultural moment,” Jim Young, the lead industrial designer at the firm Fresh Consulting, told me. “You need people who are going to make it something special.” For sous vides, high-performance blenders, and artisanal pizza ovens, that moment has come. For the microwave, it has not. People are not yet allured by the promise of inverter technology, the ingenuity of microwave-specialized cookware, the splendor of strategic defrosting. “I don’t know if it’s a losing battle,” DiRisio said, “because we’ve been so conditioned on what it is for all these decades.”
In some ways, that might be changing. During the early pandemic, culinary voices challenged the lowly reputation of microwave cooking. In 2021, the celebrity chef David Chang co-authored Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave) with the food reporter Priya Krishna, writing that the microwave is “the single best piece of equipment in a kitchen.”
Gerling hopes that someday, the microwave can regain the status it held in its earlier days. He’s excited about new solid-state technology, which allows for a level of precision cooking so profound that one company, Miele, claims it can cook fish buried in a block of ice without melting the ice, or veal tenderloin in beeswax without melting the beeswax. Currently, it costs nearly $10,000 and seems to be advertised toward a kind of Marvel-supervillain home chef who contemplates serving ice-encased bass. Still, Gerling is optimistic about its future, calling it “the holy grail of microwave power.” After decades of stagnation, perhaps the microwave will join the legions of tech products whose evolution now seems inevitable, as is so often the promise in Silicon Valley. Until then, I will continue mashing “+30 sec,” praying that my daily oats don’t overflow.