The quest for a quick dinner fix is eternal.
For millions of American college students, the first taste of adult freedom comes in a bite of Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza or a salty slurp from a Cup Noodles. Dorm dwellers have long embraced such microwaved delicacies, honing cook times in shared lounges with low-powered appliances balanced atop mini fridges. When I was in college, my first microwaved drug of choice was popcorn.
Microwaves, of course, are not just the province of broke young adults. The device has put forth a broadly tempting bargain for decades: fast, inexpensive, hot food, if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit in taste and texture. From 2009 to 2014, the diet-meal giant Lean Cuisine lost a quarter of its sales. Some people predicted the microwave’s eventual death.
In 2019, the number of microwaves shipped to U.S. retailers is expected to increase, even the much-maligned TV dinner is on the upswing, with a couple of years of rising sales in a row.
It’s often not very good. “In a microwave, what you’re not getting is either caramelization, which is the browning of sugars, or the Maillard reaction, which is the browning of protein and starches,” says Bruce Mattel, a chef and dean at the Culinary Institute of America.
“A TV dinner is basically C rations for civilian use, and things like plastics that went into Tupperware and dehydration technology and all that was developed in wartime,” says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific.
The decidedly nonculinary origin of microwave ovens and frozen dinners has left plenty of room for microwaved meals to get better. Companies such as Nestl., which owns the frozen-food brands Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, and DiGiorno, has recently introduced things like vegan Lean Cuisines and the Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen line, which offers bowl-style meals that promise lots of protein.
There’s an obvious appeal to food that’s cheap, fast, and just as good as more expensive, time-consuming plates. But microwaves will never replicate much of what makes conventionally prepared food so delicious, even if the frozen meals Americans reheat get a lot better. A simple pan with a lid on a stovetop will easily reheat almost anything in a couple of minutes, and that method preserves all the crispy, chewy deliciousness that was cooked into the food in the first place.
Mattel remains an avowed microwave- hater, but he does acknowledge that the appliance serves a purpose for many Americans—just not an all-encompassing one. “There’s a place for everything, and I’d much rather be seeing people eat [modern frozen dinners] than McDonald’s every day,” because frozen meals more frequently contain vegetables, he says.
If nothing else, microwaves are hard to beat when it comes to one particular use, even for a chef, Mattel notes: “They make great popcorn.”
By: Millie Jameson, SLN Reporter