Your Microwave Buttons Don't Do What You Think They Do

Girl with painted red nails using microwave

As an average American microwave owner, I’ve never taken the time to study my device's myriad heating options. And why should I? The microwave is designed for convenience, and with a mere 60 seconds to spare to meal preparation (The X-Files is not going to rewatch itself), I hardly have time to customize my instant heating option, much less poke a hole in the packaging of my frozen enchilada platter. But apparently it doesn't even matter.

According to microwave expert and consultant Bob Schiffmann, who's studied microwaves "since they looked like refrigerators" (circa 1961), we all have some things to learn about what's happening inside the machine.

Frozen pizza being reheated in microwave
Flickr/Adam Gerard

Your microwave settings don't work the way you think they do

There's no actual reduction of microwave energy, or scientifically designed blend of air-wave output and wattage that generates ideal defrosting conditions. "Time Cook" works by heating your food at 100% power for your set number of minutes. "Defrost," on the other hand, works by pulsing between 100% and 0% power. 

That's right, people. You could essentially recreate the defrost option yourself by stopping the heat cycle, popping open the door, waiting a few seconds, and closing it and restarting it -- and then repeating that process every few seconds. No fancy steam sensors that indicate the perfect doneness. No temp gauge. Just the mechanical equivalent of opening the door and shutting it.

Girl pressing buttons on microwave

All the other buttons are just variations on the defrost button

Your standard-issue microwave will likely have, in addition to "Time Cook," extra buttons like "Pasta," "Potato" (?), and "Cream Cheese" (??), but they're all a sham. I don’t care how many super-specific entrees your microwave claims it can perfectly heat -- "Salmon," "Breaded Chicken Cutlet on Roasted Beets With Goat Cheese" -- not a single one of your microwave's keys will activate microwave engineering that goes beyond the simple 0%-to-100% power mechanics explained above.

Because the options on your microwave are just part of a marketing ploy

According to Schiffman, it's all part of a consumer-targeted scheme. "Everyone’s trying to differentiate their oven. So they put more buttons and more functions. They're all trying to outdo one another."

A less cynical take on the same theory is that excessive microwave design is an attempt to help clueless 21st-century cooks. "One of the major concerns we hear when we talk to consumers is they don't know when things are done. So, this might be a way to take some of that guesswork out," he says.

microwave, kitchen, stove, counter top
Scott Hales/Shutterstock

Unless you have a really expensive microwave

A fancy few select microwaves have something called an acoustic sensor that activates when you cook popcorn. Once the popping declines to a set rate, these microwaves will shut themselves off. Other models even have temperature sensors or humidity sensors. "But you won't get these features until you're paying well over $100," says Schiffmann. 

panasonic microwave, microwave
Flickr/Wil C. Fry

... or a Panasonic microwave

Which is the one brand that delivers on the Microwave Buttons Myth. "Panasonic is the only microwave brand whose heating options operate like dimmer controls," says Schiffmann, referring to this particular oven's ability to actually reduce microwave energy and heat items at this reduced rate, instead of just see-sawing between zero and 100. "But their patent is running out soon so other companies will probably adopt it."

Meaning only in the future will microwaves work how you think they already do!

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Michelle No is a production assistant at Thrillist and she's never used a microwave to try and warm her hamster, never, who told you that. Follow her on Twitter at @Michelle_No and Instagram at @MichelleNope.