5.8. How microwaves and freezers changed food culture forever 🥡 Food history for the future of food.

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Microwave is hard to beat for sheer convenience. But the most significant food tech innovation of the 1940s wasn't welcomed with open arms. It took decades of struggles before it rocketed to success in the 1980s.

Red to Green is a food tech podcast focused on the future of food and food sustainability. We cover topics like cellular agriculture, cultured meat, food waste, food packaging, and more.

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The first microwave 'electric range' for the home kitchen was launched in 1955, retailing at $1295. It took more than a decade for a more affordable model to arrive, still costing nearly 500 bucks. 30 years after the first commercial model, microwave ovens had made it into less than 10% of American kitchens.

Ad campaigns selling "the greatest cooking discovery since fire" with futuristic and science language may have backfired. As the cold war heated up, fears around any radiation grew. Positioning microwaves as something novel, cutting-edge and techy possibly didn't appeal to the actual users at that time - homemakers.

Despite the introduction of safety standards in the 70s and multiple studies showing microwaves don't mess with the nutritional qualities of food, conspiracy theories about them continue to pop up today.

Early ads for microwaves also promoted how homemakers could cook what they already made, but faster – a roast chicken, done in 30 minutes! However, despite claims of speed and convenience, it could take a home cook hard work to get good results. Microwaves can only penetrate about 2.5 cm into foods, so they tend to cook food unevenly unless they are cut small enough.

They also typically don't produce the caramelization and Maillard reactions, which are delicious browning of foods that make baking cookies and roasting meats smell mouth-watering. If you try onions in a pan with oil, they become nicely brown. If you put them in the microwaves, they will soften up in a puddle of fat.

Also, they tend to dry food out, making a chicken chewy - in the wrong way. As a result, speedy, homemade microwave meals could be inconsistent and uninspiring compared to their oven-baked or stovetop cousins. However, a revolution in convenience and consistency was already underway in another part of the kitchen – the freezer.

Frozen ready meals had been around for a while - Swanson's famous TV Dinners were introduced in 1953 and frozen on the tray used for cooking and serving. Meals like this saved time on planning, shopping, and washing up – They were hugely popular by the 1970s, and late in the decade, food companies and microwave oven manufacturers spotted a chance to team up.

Frozen meals could be incredibly uniform. You might not beat a home cook in quality by formulating recipes and designing packaging specifically for microwave cooking, but you could get a consistently alright meal fast.

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