in Podcasts

How to bake bread in a microwave oven

bread coverSay you wanted to bake bread in a microwave – I can’t think why, but say you did – you could go online and search the internets for a recipe. And you would come up with a few. Just reading them over, they didn’t seem all that appetising. One, for example, warned that you had to serve the bread toasted. What’s the point of that? Anyway, that didn’t deter Ken Albala, a professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, but rather than search the internet, he turned to ancient Egypt for inspiration. In thinking about ways in which the material culture of food might change in the future, for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, he came up with not only the plate that keeps crispy things crunchy, but also a way to bake bread in a microwave. Not great bread, but acceptable bread.

Why? Well, partly because it is hot where Ken lives, and he doesn’t like putting the oven on just to bake bread. And partly because he foresees a future in which space is at a premium, cooking, maybe, is deskilled, and ovens, where they exist, are used for storing stuff, not baking.

Turns out, though, that there’s method to Ken’s madness. I’d always thought that microwaves heat water molecules and that’s that. Apparently not, as I learned from Len Fisher at Bristol University. Apparently some ceramics absorb microwaves and others don’t, and if you have a ceramic that absorbs microwaves, watch out. It can get very hot. Hot enough to turn bread dough to toast in less than 7 minutes.

Len admitted that he didn’t fully understand the physics of different ceramics in the microwave, which means there’s no chance for me and you. But he did think he’d invented something along the lines of Ken’s bread mould. Turns out someone had already patented it, although as far as I can tell the patent has lapsed and nobody ever did anything with it. Or did they? If you’re aware of a container designed to bake bread in the microwave, please leave a comment.

Notes

  1. Ken Albala blogs and has an interesting Facebook page.
  2. Len Fisher also has a website, and it is well worth exploring.
  3. Intro music by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com.

Comment

Comment

  1. I have baked both bread and cakes in a microwave using the plastic tubs that some ice cream is sold in here in Scotland. Some tubs collapse a bit but many don’t and the baked item is no worse if it does. I find this easier than trying to gauge the effects of a particular ceramic pot.

    I very much like this site and will continue to follow it. Many thanks.

  2. I gotta say that I love bread maker machines. Not everyone today can take the time to lovingly prepare their own bread by hand which is very satisfying but at least withthe machines they can experience home cooked loaves without all the additives that the shop bought loaves tend to have.

  3. I think if one looks at how a loaf of bread bakes conventionally, it is possible to come closer than mentioned in the interview with a microwave.

    In it’s most simplistic form two separate but related actions happen when a loaf of bread bakes. The outer surface is dehydrated and browned via non-enzymatic browning. The outside temperature is much hotter than the interior and browning occurs in areas directly exposed to the radiant energy of the oven or the conducted energy of surfaces the outside is in contact with. Because the dehydration happens early in the baking, the outer surface forms a seal that traps moisture inside the loaf. As the interior becomes hotter, the trapped gases expand, and the holes that make bread soft enlarge. Additionally, the gluten proteins denature and cross-link, giving the bread structure.

    The common belief that you can’t put metal in a microwave is not totally correct. It’s not wise to put small pieces of metal in a microwave, such as the twist-tie on a plastic bag. Large pieces are another issue. I’ve been putting large stainless-steel bowls in my microwave ever since I worked in a restaurant in Switzerland in 2002 where we regularly warmed items in 2-liter metal bowls. The metal actually acts as a reflector, reflecting radiant energy from the magnetron tube into the food in the bowl. If a bowl material could be found that would absorb some of the radiation, then it may be possible to produce a crust from the bowl, although not on the top surface.

    Other issues with a microwave ovens are radiation distribution and cycle time. Conventional microwave ovens use a rotating waveguide and a rotating bottom platform to attempt to distribute the energy evenly. How evenly, I can not really tell, and it seems to vary widely from one oven to the next. Power in the oven is controlled by cycling the magnetron tube on and off. I suspect using a low power with as much off time as on will help even out the heating and create less significant hotspots. One of the reasons bread in a conventional oven bakes the way it does is the heating of the proteins is somewhat limited by heat transfer. This may not be as easy to control with dielectric heating.

    It certainly is possible to bake a version of sponge cake in a microwave; there are a number of YouTube videos demonstrating the process. Even in my ancient, low-power microwave oven that lacks a rotating bottom platform, I was able to come up with a tasty, if not attractive gâteau de Savoie au parmesan (http://xrl.us/bpvnwo). I was unable to prevent large bubble from forming due to the unevenness of my oven.

  4. Hey Guys, The only reason I dismissed the bread machine is that it really doesn’t do anything else and takes up space. I’m very much against single purpose gadgets, or giving people a recipe and making them buy another machine. Most people in the US already own a microwave. I think tweeking the recipe it would work in any microwavable clay vessel with a lid, so there wouldn’t need to be anything patented or sold. I’ll report the results. I think a little fat in the dough might really make a difference.

  5. Ken might like to try a bread machine, which bakes a credible loaf without one heating the oven. Very
    unexciting, until you find you can make a Moroccan spelt and wheat flour loaf flavoured with fennel and sesame seeds, or a plain white loaf …anything you want. And by the way, the spelt bread makes good toast.

    • I agree Caroline. I did try and suggest a bread machine, used as oven, not for the whole kneading thing, but Ken dismissed that idea. I think that for the eco-conscious they are a very good idea.

  6. Really great interviews. Great subject! Thank you.

    Regarding Len’s commentary. The internal temperature of a loaf when it is fully baked is in the range of 200F (93.3C). It can be plus a few degrees but not much more than that. Thus, as the microwave boils water — 212F (100C) — there is plenty of heat to bake a loaf.

    I don’t own a microwave but have been thinking of getting one and I must say that Ken’s bread baking experiment is pushing me to get one sooner than later. The point that I take away from Ken’s experiment is that with essentially no fiddling he baked a credible loaf.

    I think that question, does a microwave bread equate exactly with a gas, electric, or wood fired bread is a question that is constrained from a viewpoint in which there is one right approach to bread. I think we need to let go and ask not whether a microwave bread is “as good as” or “the same as” in flavor, crust, and crumb than a loaf baked in a bath of hot air but rather, can we transform bread dough in a microwave into something wonderful. I think it is pretty clear from Ken’s comments that that is more of the direction of his experimenting.

    I think that his mention of the Summer weather is also important to thinking about this technology. I would pair that with the busy person who wants fresh bread for dinner, has made the dough, but ran out of time bake in a hot air oven. I am a firm believer in a catholic aesthetic and in unfreezing what I see as an often frozen culinary culture.

    As for having to toast a bread before eating it, that isn ‘t outside of our culinary culture. We toast what we in the US refer to as “English muffins” and crumpets prior to eating them — always. I will also confess to having baked many loaves of bread that were sticky on the inside when I needed it the crumb not to be and so I have resorted to toasting very fresh (too fresh) loaves in order to render them palatable. If a microwave bread might need toasting, like a crumpet, I don’t see that as a fault.

    I look forward to a revisit of this subject in ten years time. Perhaps there will be more microwave experimenters by. Sounds like a great subject for a bread book.

    William Rubel

    • Thanks William for your very thoughtful comments. I agree that the dough might cook in a microwave, but part of the joy of bread is what higher temperatures do to the dough, and that’s what is currently missing. If you do then get the crispness, the browning Maillard reaction and all that by putting cooked dough into a toaster, I suppose that’s fair enough.

      Personally, I quite like my English muffins untoasted, but I agree a crumpet needs to be toasted. I’ve never had one fresh off the griddle though.

      As for exploiting the strengths of the microwave, rather than merely trying to replicate “conventional” methods of cooking, I think you are absolutely correct. I’ve never owned one, so I can’t speak from experience, but I believe there are people doing innovative and exciting things with a microwave, rather than, say, making “omelettes” in a plastic bag.

Webmentions

  • Podcast: “How to Bake Bread in a Microwave Oven” | Dr Len Fisher September 23, 2013

    […] Listen to the podcast […]