1970s microwave ovens: Look back to when they were the super-hot new kitchen appliances

1970s microwave ovens

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It wasn’t too terribly long ago that we had two main options for cooking food: you could do it on the stove or in the oven.

But in the early 1970s, that all changed with the mass-market introduction of microwave ovens. They were a total game-changer.

Check out some old how-to info and classic ads from the early days of 1970s microwave ovens, with tips on how to use what is now the most basic of kitchen appliances!

How to make friends with your microwave (1977)

By Lillian Austin, Food Editor – News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida) January 6, 1977

Make friends with your microwave. That was advice given at a recent demonstration of microwave cookery. Judging by all the questions participants ask during these sessions, it would seem to be a point well taken.

Lucky for them — and no doubt for the microwave oven dealers who give them — demonstrations are given frequently these days. Because microwave ovens cook in a completely different manner from conventional ranges, special instruction is helpful if not entirely necessary.

Your first microwave oven - Magic Chef (1974)
Your first microwave oven – Magic Chef (1974)

It is estimated there are 2.5 million homes across the country today equipped with ovens that cook with electromagnetic waves of microwave frequency. That’s a knowledgable sounding phase about a technical subject that’s a mystery to many of us.

Microwave cookery demonstrators may begin with a simple explanation of how it works; for instance, the food is cooked with microwave energy, a particular type of high-frequency radio energy that enters the oven at the top in the form of invisible, very small ‘waves’ called microwaves.

The microwave energy is distributed throughout the oven by a rotating blade or “stirrer” located behind the plastic cover at the top of the oven. Microwaves turn into heat energy when they come into contact with food.

Amana microwaves - Make the greatest cooking discovery since fire - Oct 31, 1969
Amana microwaves – Make the greatest cooking discovery since fire – Oct 31, 1969

Audiences at microwave demonstrations are not all female; you always see a fair sprinkling of men. Indeed, it is reported by industry spokesmen that early microwave sales were primarily made to married men who bought them as gifts for their wives.

But today, homemakers are apparently getting more involved in the purchase decision. According to Southwest Florida microwave oven dealers, many sales were made during the past gift-buying season to both men and women.

In the October issue of General Electric News, it was estimated American families would buy 675,000 countertop microwave ovens during the last three months of 1976, at an average price of $370.

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As with a home freezer or any expensive piece of kitchen equipment, the oven must be used to get a return on the investment, home economist Sandra Bell tells audiences at her demonstrations. Ms Bell works full-time for Al’s Appliances showing how to cook successfully with the Amana, Magic Chef and Tappan microwave ovens they handle.

Brown Selectronic vintage microwave oven 1974
Brown Selectronic vintage microwave oven (1974)

“If you only use your microwave as a bun warmer (or for any snack foods) you are not using it as much as possible and not getting the savings and convenience potential,” Ms. Beli says. “If you don’t eat many deep-fried foods, you can use it for as much as 95 percent of your cooking.” While you can pan-fry foods in the microwave, deep-fat frying is one of several types of cooking that can’t be done.

The microwave manufacturers disagree on how much of the family cooking can be done with them and how much must be done in the conventional oven. One claims 80 per- cent of cooking can be done the microwave way; others less.

Litton Meal-In-One Microwave oven (1978)
Litton Meal-In-One Microwave oven (1978)

The Microwave Times says you may save as much as 50 percent on energy costs if most of your baked and oven foods are prepared in the microwave. If you still bake and prepare most foods conventionally, using the microwave mainly for reheating and defrosting, you may not be saving any energy.

If you have a small family and use the microwave for almost all cooking except larger quantities of water and long-simmered foods, your savings probably exceed 75 percent. If you have a large family and microwave almost all cooking, your savings are probably not as great as if you used a burner for heating larger quantities of high-liquid and long-simmered foods, the fall issue says.

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Baked potatoes may be given as an example of savings. If a baked potato takes five minutes, and four potatoes done at a time take eight to nine minutes, it takes less energy and is less costly to do them in the microwave than the conventional oven because of the lesser time and wattage.

Compare nine minutes, for example, at 1,500 watts in the microwave with an hour at 4,500 watts in the conventional oven.

Toshiba microwave oven from 1977
Toshiba microwave oven from 1977

From another angle, savings may result because frozen foods reconstitute quickly and with moisture retained in microwaves. Also, microwave cooking does not heat up the kitchen requiring extra air conditioning.

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But, there are foods that cannot be cooked successfully in a microwave oven. They are cakes which use egg whites as a leavening agent, such as angel food cakes; deep-fried foods such as doughnuts, French fries from a raw state and crisp chicken; toast; canning of foods; popcorn; eggs, other than scrambled are not recommended at high power, although poached eggs and omelets may be cooked at the lower power levels in dual-power or multipower ovens; broiled steaks and some chops; and grilled sandwiches and pancakes (unless you use a browning dish).

Some models of some ovens are coming out with a browning element. “Anything over three-quarters of a pound or requiring more than 20 minutes cooking time will brown naturally.’ Ms. Bell says. ‘A browning dish (which works by preheating) is helpful, as is a brushing of gravy or Kitchen Bouquet mix or a hickory smoke salt, if that flavor is desirable.”

Magic Chef microwave from 1977 - with Jack Nicklaus
Magic Chef microwave, with Jack Nicklaus (1977)

Many questions people ask at microwave demonstrations ask concern browning food and proper containers.

Dishes of glass, ceramics, paper and some plastics are the best containers for cooking in the microwave because microwaves pass through them freely as they cook the food. To determine if a utensil is safe for use in the microwave oven, place the empty utensil in the oven for 15 to 30 seconds. If it becomes very hot it should not be used.

Because metals reflect microwaves, foods have a tendency not to cook in them. For best results, avoid utensils with metallic trim or metal parts such as screws, bands, handles, etc; dishes glazed with high-metallic-content glazes; utensils or dishware with cracked or crazed glazes or chipped parts; ceramic mugs or cups with glued-on handles; delicate glassware.

Under some conditions, metallic materials can be used in the microwave oven but they should not touch the oven’s sides or arcing may occur.

Metal foils may be used if the amount of food is much greater than the amount of foil. Small pieces of foil are sometimes used to cover wings or legs of poultry to shield spots that cook too quickly. Frozen dinners no more than three-fourths-inch deep may be cooked in the microwave. Remove foil cover and replace with wax paper or cook food in its cardboard box. Other frozen dinners should be transferred to another container before cooking.

Metal skewers can be used if there is a large amount of food in proportion to the amount of metal. otherwise, arcing (static discharge) may occur.

Vintage Litton microwave ovens (1973)
Vintage Litton microwave ovens (1973)

Other microwave cookery tips concern even heating, covering the dish and standing time.

It is best to leave space between food items such as canapes for even cooking; or, in case of a dish of food, rotate it a quarter or halfway turn once or twice during cooking time. Turn over roast meats or chicken once or twice during cooking time.

Casserole covers, plates, plastic wrap, wax paper or almost any type of non-metallic covering may be used when covering is called for in recipes. Stretch plastic wraps, however, are unsuitable because they form such a tight seal.

Foods continue to cook after they are taken from the microwave and a standing time period is often desired. If so, it is indicated in individual recipes. A dish may cook as much as two minutes after a six-minute cooking time, for which allowance should be made.

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Chef Phil Lehr for O'Keefe and Merritt's microwave (1976)
Chef Phil Lehr for O’Keefe and Merritt’s microwave (1976)

Since microwave cooking is a relatively new technology, developments making it more convenient are occurring rapidly. The newer ovens have sophisticated touch control panels, variable control, turning apparatus and browning elements.

Most models with touch control have two memory levels but Magic Chef, for instance, has three. This means you can tell the oven to do three things at a time, for exam- ple, you can tell it to defrost for 14 minutes, cook gently for 35 minutes and keep warm for 20 minutes, with three touches.

Variable control cycles the heat according to time rather than temperature. Reduced power settings on some ovens allow for proper cooking of those foods needing low- er temperatures. Expanded scale timers give the cook more leeway in choosing minutes to cook. Digital timers show the minutes as they turn.

Vintage Litton microwave oven ad from 1975
Vintage Litton microwave oven ad from 1975

As such timers take the place of the manual dial for setting cooking time, so do the stirring and turning apparatus on some ovens eliminate manual rearranging of foods.

Generally, automatic features make the microwave more expensive: not all would be found on any one oven. Oven prices range from about $190 for the cheapest, up to $500. This is for countertop models; some microwave ovens are incorporated into the conventional range along with the regular oven and some ovens are made to alternate microwave cookery with conventional cookery.

Amana Radarange (1972)

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Actress Barbara Hale for Amana Radarange

The fancy new microwave ovens - 1977

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Some frank talk about GE’s “Just-A-Minute oven” (1971)

Some frank talk about our Just-A-Minute oven.” And what about microwaving? “Frankly, it’s the fastest method of cooking there is. No other method comes close.”

Just plug it in and turn it on. The food gets hot. The oven stays cool. If you want, you can even cook on paper plates.

Some frank talk about GE's Just-A-Minute oven (1971)

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Microwave cooking Q&A (1972)

General Electric explains microwave cooking for cookbook writer, Myra Waldo.

Q. How much faster is microwave cooking than conventional oven cooking?

A. Microwave cooking is up to 8 times faster. Conventional cooking relies on the slow transfer of heat from the food surface to the inside layers. Microwave energy penetrates the food, causing the food molecules to vibrate, resulting in friction and creating heat. This heat is distributed through the food and cooks it.

General Electric markets two complete microwave cooking centers (Model J 896 and Model J 856) plus a countertop portable microwave oven (Model JET80). Cooking speed varies with the type of food being prepared…

Q. Can you use standard recipes for microwave cooking and just change the timing?

A. In many cases, yes. General Electric’ furnishes a complete User’s Manual and Cookbook with each microwave oven. Included are recipes representative of all food categories. lb adapt your own recipe, you would select a similar one and use the same time and dish size stated for that particular food.

General Electric explains microwave cooking for cookbook writer, Myra Waldo. (1972)

Q. Is there any change in flavor because of the rapid way the food is cooked?

A. No. Foods cooked by microwave energy generally taste the same as when cooked conventionally. Some people say foods cooked in a microwave oven taste fresher, because the faster cooking time retains more of the natural moisture in the food.

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Q. Do I need special utensils for microwave cooking?

A. No. Glass, china, ceramics, pottery, paper plates and heat-resistant plastics can be used if there’s no metal in their composition or decoration. Metal tends to reflect microwave energy away from the food and should not be used unless specifically recommended in the User’s Manual and Cookbook.

Q. Is there any hazard in working next to a microwave oven while it’s operating?

A. No. General Electric’s microwave ovens are engineered to keep the microwave energy from escaping outside. Two special interlocking devices automatically shut off the oven whenever the door is opened. GE complies with all Federal Safety Performance Standards for microwave ovens set by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Rules CFR Part 78.

Vintage 1970s microwave ovens: Amana Touchmatic Radarange (1975)

Vintage Amana Touchmatic Radarange microwave oven (1975)

YouTube video

Beaming in on microwave buying tips (1977)

By Lillian Austin, Food Editor – News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida) January 6, 1977

With the multitude of choices facing the prospective microwave oven buyer, he should know what to look for when he gets to the store. Here are some suggestions from Claire Johnson, a specialist in food preparation at the Lee County Extension Service, of points to consider.

Do you want the oven door to open from right to left, or vice versa, or do you want a pull-down door? You will be guided by placement in your kitchen.

Where is the oven vented? If your oven is to be built-in, you will need front venting. If not, again, you will be governed by where it is placed.

What size to buy? If you have a one-person household and cost is a factor, the smaller oven will probably suffice. A family should consider the standard size.

How to choose for maximum time settings? Microwave ovens have a selection of 8 to 60 minutes according to the make. Of course, the time can always be reset. In some ovens, the door merely has to be opened and shut again for re-setting.

1978 GE microwave ovens - The Whiz
The Millers introduce the seven wonders of their new GE Microwave oven, The Whiz (1978)

What about warranties? They have to do with parts and labor. There is quite a variance in the times for which the different makes are guaranteed. Check these against each other; also, try to find out what kind of service the store offers.

What about safety? All the ovens mentioned in the accompanying story meet the emission standard set by the U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health, which means they are declared safe. Although some consumerists have questioned the standards, there is no evidence that anyone has ever been injured by radiation from a microwave oven.

The person with a heart pacemaker should check with his physician before using a microwave, even though the pacemaker has a protective shield.

Mrs Johnson sums it all up by saying all microwave ovens “basically do the same thing — the consumer should choose the one which suits his individual need.”

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Aside from digital displays, it’s interesting how little microwave ovens have changed over the years — though I wonder how many people really used them to cook roasts! The family of a friend of mine got one when they were very new; we used to do stupid stuff like cook bananas in them and even “cook” aluminum foil, just to see what would happen (spoiler alert: nothing good).

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