Kitchen Gear

The microwave: Ping for your supper

As the microwave oven reaches its 65th anniversary, we celebrate by trying to live off ready made meals for a week

When the Elizabethan travel writer Thomas Coryat introduced Italy’s new dining implement to Britain at the start of the seventeenth century, the latest addition to the cutlery box received a lukewarm reception. Why would anyone need a fork, folk wondered, when God gave us perfectly good fingers? It took around 350 years before the true importance of tines became apparent — without them, how else do you pierce the film lid on a microwave meal?

The truth is that a fork is the only utensil thousands of people will use to prepare their meals this evening. The British are by far the biggest bingers on ready-made meals in Europe — according to research by Mintel, we spent nearly £2 billion on them last year, with nearly a third of adults eating them more than once a week.

Incredibly, the microwave oven was invented 65 years ago, although it wasn’t until the 1980s that their popularity soared, helped in no small part by a hugely successful microwave TV campaign for the Sanyo brand fronted by Joan Collins (M&S launched its first ready meal, a chicken kiev, in 1979). By 2011, 93 per cent of homes had microwaves, according to the Office of National Statistics.

These pages are usually devoted to restaurant food and homemade fare but as a service for those who occasionally can’t face cooking from scratch, I decided to spend a week living on nothing but supermarket ready meals, obeying three golden rules. 1) Only to eat the meals out of the trays in which they are packed. No plates allowed. 2) Not to add any accompaniments cooked by myself to the dishes. 3) To keep the recycle bag hidden from view, in the hope of retaining some small crumb of self-respect.

Day 1: Italian While “preparing” dinner (how many times do you have to pierce the film lid exactly? How many is several?) I ponder what the Bell Telephone Company thought the potential of its miracle machine would be when it filed its microwave oven patent in the United States in 1937. I suspect that it wasn’t a Morrisons Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni, which looks like two shaved, waxed baby rats. These “vermincelli” are palatable enough, albeit a tad bland in comparison to Tesco Finest Italian Spaghetti Bolognese, the sauce of which has a bizarre, and frankly vile, sweetness that leaves a strange aftertaste of rhubarb jam. By contrast, the pine nuts in the M&S Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli at least provide the semblance of al dente crunch (at 660g, it is also more substantial than most of the meals in my fridge). And while Sainsbury’s Spaghetti Carbonara has a hefty 28.7g of fat in it (including more than 70 per cent of the saturated fat a person should eat in a day) it is the most pleasing of the dishes: creamy and warm, it’s like getting a hug from John Goodman while under an electric blanket.

Day 2: Indian My sister, a qualified dietician, and Indian food obsessive, arrives to experience some plastic-packed eastern exoticism. “Even if they only taste like something I’d eat on Brick Lane at midnight I’ll be impressed,” she says, setting the bar fairly low.

First up is Tesco Tikka Masala And Pilau Rice which, with its vivid streaks of red pepper and vast hunks of chicken looks decent enough. Yet there’s a slightly off-putting smell to the whole thing, as though it’s been sitting on the passenger seat of a rusting Fiat in Mumbai’s midday sun. Sainsbury’s Chicken Tikka Masala is less pungent; there’s a hint of danger to the tang, with a pleasant taste of coconut. “Everything you could want from an Indian meal if you’ve never been to India,” my sister wryly says. The M&S Chicken Tikka Biryani has a zesty lemon infusion and is refreshingly unfatty, though at 450g would be minuscule for two people. Waitrose’s Beef Masala is a strange creation for a mostly cow-worshipping nation and the label claim that it is a “hot” dish is laughable. Ditto Morrisons Chicken Korma with Coconut and Rose Petals, which looks like a sample of the Deepwater oil spill and has the consistency of a tin of paint.

“The problem with ready meals is that there is just way too much salt in them,” my sister concludes. “They often have far too much saturated fat as well and, whilst you’d be fine eating one or two of these a week, as a dietician I’d be very concerned if a patient of mine was eating them more regularly than that. It doesn’t matter how much the packaging claims that this is ‘gourmet’ or ‘the healthy choice’ the fact is that the microwave meals just cannot ever be a decent substitute for fresh ingredients.”

Day 3: British Strangely my text offers to friends to come over to mine for a “ready meal feast” have mostly gone unanswered. Two journalist mates, though, arrive meekly at my front door, both of whom have spent the last five years turning up to the opening of absolutely anything for the free canapés. Instead, I present them with Tesco Sausage and Mash. The potato is more shiny than a TOWIE cast member’s forehead, and the skin slides off the sausage but at least it’s a decent flavour and, according to journo friend Gordon, “isn’t stingy with the onions”.

Next we try Sainsbury’s Classic Cod in Parsley Sauce. It has a strangely institutional smell to it. “Like eating a tweed jacket,” Gordon says. “Mary Whitehouse would approve of this — it’s so austere,” Sam adds. An M&S Chicken and Vegetable Hotpot garners plaudits for the satisfyingly unctuous lentils mixed in with the gravy (and the fact it only contains 7.6g of fat) but Waitrose Smoked Haddock in Cheese Sauce is so boring that while eating it I imagine it spending its lifetime working as some kind of sub-aqua estate agent.

Wanting to know why microwave meals can be so disappointing, I consult Jennipher Marshall-Jenkinson, chairman of the Microwave Technologies Association.

“There’s a huge compromise between health and safety and taste,” she tells me. “The two truths you need to know are that firstly you can put metals in your microwave these days and secondly, health and safety rules dictate that all microwave food must be cooked at a 75 degree heat. We can only eat it at 50 degrees though so we’re always overheating things. Microwave heat penetrates fat, sugar and water in that order. This means that with something like a sausage roll the meat in the centre gets way hotter than we need it to be and so the steam makes the pastry soggy.”

So what sort of ready meals should we be buying?

“I would always say that carb based meals are best suited to microwave cooking,” she says. “Anything with pasta or rice heats up very well. The other tip is don’t ignore the standing time instruction. In the frozen section some of the newer meals are now coming with a metal base as well which helps make the heating more even and penetrates through the top, bottom and the sides. For chicken and beef dishes always look for the meals packaged in this way — don’t worry, your microwave won’t explode!”

Day 4: Lucky Dip “There’s just something horribly wrong about microwave cooking,” says Sally (not her real name), a London restaurant chef who is happy to vent spleen about it as long as her name isn’t mentioned. “You won’t die from eating microwave food but food is supposed to give you a rich, soulful satisfaction and it should be enjoyed with friends. Microwave cooking is meant for solitary dining and it manages to take everything enjoyable out of food and leave you with sustenance that will keep you alive but in a state of energy-sapped apathy. I just can’t put it any more clearly than that.”

Suitably chastened, I settle down to a solitary evening of Tesco Finest Chicken and Prawn Paella. It’s a clumsy but well intentioned effort with a decent heat from some chorizo but peppered with some stubborn, unyielding prawns. Waitrose Chicken and Prawn Jambalaya is a delight however, with spicy, large prawns, meltingly tender chicken and a caressing tang. Flirtatious rather than bold with the heat, this is as sophisticated as ready meals get, and certainly an improvement on the Tesco Jerk Chicken with Rice and Peas which, with its absurdly sickly and sweet gunge of a sauce, is a visit to Jamaica by way of Gillingham.

For the record, Sally’s restaurant does have a microwave in it, although she told me, “If customers knew that they would stop coming as we’ve got such a high reputation. I resent it but the bosses insist it’s there — in case of an emergency. I’d rather close the kitchen than use it.”

Day 5: Chinese It only takes one bite of my first Chinese dish, the Sainsbury’s Sweet and Sour Chicken with Rice to completely understand what spoof website The Onion was thinking when they released a story that microwave meals for one were to come with suicide prevention tips on the boxes.

This dish has a staggering 50.7g of sugar in it making it probably the least healthy dish I’ve eaten all week. It almost goes without saying that it’s horrible too — the clash between the blandness of the rice and the jammy goo of the sauce is the ready meal equivalent of finding Lady Gaga in bed with Nick Clegg.

Morrisons Black Pepper Chicken with Baby Corn and Red Pepper is an improvement, the actual crunch of the corn going a long way to alleviating the wateriness of the sauce. A further decent stab at Anglo-Chinese relations is made with Waitrose Chicken with Cashew Nuts which, although the colour of a 1970s scatter cushion, is dark and brooding despite its low calorie count (356kcal), but the ginger flavouring threatens to dominate the dish.

M&S Shanghai Beef Noodles, though, are annoyingly glutinous and under seasoned and the Tesco Ken Hom Chicken Chow Mein is a blandly inoffensive creation that leaves me uttering little other than a slightly disgruntled sigh.

Day 6: Recovery My ordeal is over. I have a craving for fresh fruit, an acute embarrassment of cardboard and plastic packaging and a strange acidic smell seems to have permeated my entire flat.

So much for the short-term effects, what about the long-term ones? “Anything that makes our lives easier is bound to be popular,” Professor Jane Wardle, at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, says. “The problem is that, as a biological organism, human beings aren’t very good at living in an environment where there’s lots of food and not end up overeating.”

Professor Wardle doesn’t blame microwave meals for the weight we’re putting on as a nation. “It’s more about self-regulating. There’s definitely a link between the rise of the microwave meal in the early eighties and the rise in obesity but that doesn’t mean ready meals are to blame. It just means that we need to start figuring out how to battle our propensity to overeat. The only other option is to make food less accessible and more expensive than it is now and that’s not a vote winner — and never will be.”

The evolution of the microwave

1950s A Raytheon RadaRange, an early commercial oven. Launched in the US in the 1940s, microwaves were first sold here in 1959.

1960s In the late 1960s, the first countertop, domestic microwaves went on sale, like this Litton Series 500.

1970s Cheaper and safer, sales of microwaves outstripped conventional ovens for the first time.

1990s In 1999, the NCR Corporation attempted to capitalise on e-commerce with a new hybrid oven that doubled up as an internet hub. It was named the Microwave Bank.