In a world filled with magic, it’s sometimes hard to single any one thing out for praise, but I’d like to mention microwaves. Not the ones coming from those big towers on the prairies that used to transmit Howdy Doody and Don Messer’s Jubilee across the country. I never watched them -honest- and certainly not the ones that form the cosmic microwave radiation background. They’re a bit scary, and anyway I like to think I’m an agnostic.
No, it’s the microwaves that heat up day-old pizzas and those half-filled cups of coffee with the thin scummy films on their surfaces. I mean, we’re not talking miracles, or anything -just convenience. We never had much technology in the house when I was growing up -just a black and white Fleetwood TV when I was around 10 years old. I remember being amazed at the apps that you could buy for it then -like the plastic sheet you taped over the screen: blue on the top half and green on the bottom that transformed the gritty images into colour. Even the test-pattern that came on after midnight, or whenever the TV station went to bed for the night, was chiaroscuroid.
But no microwaves. I don’t think my mother even knew the word. I only heard about it when a friend told me you could transmute stale bread into fresh with microwaves. We were both staying in residence at university at the time, and there was a microwave oven in the kitchen along with loaves of sliced, stale white bread and usually-empty jars of strawberry jam. It’s where I first discovered the taste of wet cardboard that was to serve as a template for myriad frozen dinners as I progressed through several educational facilities.
I thought TV dinners were supposed to taste like that. I knew exactly what to expect when I put one in the microwave. It would never look like the picture on the box, and I figured it was supposed to imitate warmed-up felt for a reason. I still don’t know why they decided on that particular flavour, but anyway, I am never disappointed. You get what you buy; it’s mea culpa all the way down.
Cooking has always seemed an occult art to me -something that only selected adults can do – and something that is not heritable. I did not get my mother’s genes -not those ones, at any rate. But I have always coveted them -especially the ones that allowed her to stand, stirring pots on the stove for hours, or to wait patiently in front of a formless steaming shape bubbling with odours and know precisely when to transfer it into the red hot oven with those thick burn-marked fingerless gloves.
I suppose it’s what every child wants, though. It’s how we learn; it’s what we teach to those who watch us in turn. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but microwaves got in the way… okay, my way. If microwaves could heat things, make water boil, or convert peas from little green frozen balls into chewable nuggets, I couldn’t understand why they shouldn’t also stand in for stoves, and ovens.
I didn’t even know about the Maillard reaction until the BBC Future article. I mean, who would? http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180223-the-secrets-tricks-in-our-microwave-meals?
‘First discovered by the French chemist, Louis-Camille Maillard, back in 1912, it’s the most widely practiced chemical reaction on the planet. It happens in millions of kitchens every day […] something delicious happens when you mix amino acids with certain kinds of sugars, then heat them up. New compounds begin to form, which turn the food brown and contribute to its flavour. These Maillard by-products are responsible for the earthy sweetness of coffee and the malty, caramel notes in beer, as well as the appetising aroma of baked bread, chips, fried onions, barbecued meat, biscuits, toasted marshmallows, and most other foods that we find irresistible. It’s one reason spices are fried or toasted before they’re used, and why there’s no comparison between roasted and boiled potatoes.
‘It’s a very complicated reaction,” says Steve Elmore, a flavour chemist at the University of Reading. Depending on the proteins and sugars involved, there are thousands of possible by-products. Amino acids with higher levels of nitrogen tend to lead to more nutty smells, while the more potent varieties, according to Elmore, tend to involve sulphur and smell of onions.
‘The problem is, the reaction can’t happen if the food is too wet. “If you’ve got a raw potato in the oven, it’s got around 80% moisture,” says Elmore. Once it gets to boiling point, water starts to evaporate and its surface begins to dry. “You need to get the water content down to about 5% before the Maillard reaction will take place and you get all the nice cooked flavours and brown colour.” This is why roast potatoes are usually brown on the outside and white on the inside.
Microwaves work differently. ‘Rather than heating the surrounding air, they bombard food with tiny, high-powered radio waves that heat up the molecules inside as they pass through. This relatively even cooking means the surface never gets hot or dry enough for the Maillard reaction to occur, leading to disappointingly pallid toppings on shepherd’s pies and lasagnes.’
Reading all of this, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed with what my microwave oven can’t do -maybe I’ve just been asking too much of it. Not everybody can play in the NHL, after all. I mean, I always got picked last in the hockey games we used to play in the backyard ice in Winnipeg when I was a kid. There always has to be a default -something you can turn to when there’s nothing else available.
Okay, if you can’t Maillard something in a microwave -so what? I can live without crusts, and if I close my eyes, the colour doesn’t really matter. Taste is oversold, and anyway it changes relative to the other stuff in the meal, doesn’t it? A cookie goes a long way to salvaging whatever came before it.
Still… sometimes I’m tempted to see if I can find my old toaster oven -remember those?