What Is the Difference Between Microwaves and Ovens?

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Whether you’re a seasoned home cook or just in the market for a new kitchen appliance, deciding on whether it’s better to invest in an oven or a microwave can often be more challenging than you’d think. Even though these appliances often overlap in purpose and function, there’s enough difference between the two for them not to be interchangeable. 

The main difference between microwaves and ovens is that they utilize different technologies. Microwaves heat food much quicker than ovens by using electromagnetic radiation, while ovens expose food directly to heat. Other differences include size, use, build and potential temperature. 

Microwaves operate through the use of what it’s generally known as “microwave radiation”. Microwave radiation is a form of radiation that does not remove electrons from objects. This removal is usually achieved by waves with ionising radiation and it can be very dangerous to humans. 

Microwaves’ use of non-ionizing radiation is one of the most important factors that has contributed to their popularity. Although radiation is still produced in a microwave, its lack of penetrative power and non-ionizing property makes it particularly safe for home use and mass production.

Ovens also utilize radiation but this variety is notably different from what is produced in microwaves. Ovens create radiation through heat. Usually, a heat source inside the oven is activated and it warms food by transferring heat to the entire space consistently and evenly.

The heat is transferred through infrared electromagnetic waves which are also non-ionizing. Fun fact: this method of heat transfer is actually the same way that heat gets to us from the sun.

This key difference pertaining to their inner workings leads to a plethora of other unique qualities that make ovens and microwaves not interchangeable in any way. As a result, they also differ in use and potential.

What Is a Microwave?

A microwave is a kitchen appliance that warms food using microwave radiation. Unlike traditional ovens, which have been around for millennia, microwave ovens are a relatively new invention, only coming into use last century. 

Invented by Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer, microwaves have slowly become more popular with time. When they launched, they were large, unwieldy appliances that would have set you back almost £40,000 when you adjust for inflation. 

Thankfully the microwaves of today are a lot smaller and cheaper. As a result, they feature in many homes across the country and are essential to daily life.

Microwaves are mostly used to heat cold food. This food could either be cool or completely frozen, although it’s recommended to defrost your food first before you put it in. 

There are two main types of microwaves. First, there’s the standard microwave oven which is what most people own. These are affordable, portable and extremely easy to use.

The alternative is the convection microwave oven. This type of microwave oven tries to combine the best of a standard microwave and an electric oven. They are usually more expensive both in upfront costs and running costs. However, they are more versatile due to their dual functionality. In the context of this article, I’ll mainly be referring to the standard microwave oven.

How Does a Microwave Work?

Microwaves work using microwave radiation. Microwave radiation is a form of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, and the entire interior of the microwave is built to contain and reflect microwaves on the food inside.

A key component to understanding how microwaves work is to realize that the microwave does not create heat. Rather, the radiation produced in the cooking chamber agitates the water molecules within the food.

Since heat is simply a result of increased molecular kinetic energy (vibrating molecules), the water molecules in the food heat up, increasing the food’s temperature.

One thing people get wrong about microwaves is thinking that they are always dangerous. While microwaves can sometimes be hazardous to human health, this can only happen if there’s some type of damage in the device’s body, as the enclosure is built to keep the radiation in.

Even without the risk of radiation, however, microwaves aren’t perfect. Because of how they heat food, it’s very easy for you to get an uneven cook since they agitate molecules rather than produce heat themselves.

Water is usually denser at the center when it freezes. Therefore, you’ll often end up with a dish that’s still cold in the middle while the outside seems warm enough.

Advantages of a Microwave

If you’re in the market for a microwave, here are a few things that might tip the scales in its favor:

Automation

While microwaves are limited by their size, one of the biggest upsides to them is how easy it is to prepare specific types of food. Microwaves these days come with a variety of preset options that immediately handle specific types of food.

Rather than having to guess at the right amount of power and time to leave a plate of cold soup to warm, you can simply select the soup option, and the microwave handles the rest.

Convenience

No matter how nice it is to heat something in the oven, the fact stands that it takes far more time than you might be able to afford from your busy schedule. In the amount of time it takes for the oven to reach your preferred temperature, you’ll likely be done heating the food with a microwave. This level of convenience is hard to replicate, and it reduces long wait times to minutes.

Efficient

If you’re simply heating food up, then you’ll most likely save more money using a microwave. Although microwaves use more energy than ovens, they only work in short bursts, meaning they could reduce your energy bill if you’re not using them for long stretches of time. In short, your food-heating process will become much more efficient both time and energy-wise.

Disadvantages of a Microwave

Along with its wide range of advantages, the microwave also comes with a few downsides:

Limited 

One of the biggest problems with microwaves is that they are extremely limited when it comes to function. Although they have presets for a range of cooked dishes, the ways you can cook are limited.

For example, you cannot pop a dutch oven into them to make a casserole the same way you could with a conventional oven. While microwaves excel in speed, they sometimes leave much to be desired when it comes to their results.

Not only are they limited by size, but they also come up short when you need to apply different cooking techniques. Many other limitations show up if you have a particularly active kitchen life, so if you cook a lot, a microwave might not be the best choice for you.

It Does Not Heat Food Evenly

Since food does not freeze evenly, some parts need more attention than others. This unevenness can leave part of the food cooked and some other parts uncooked.

The technology microwaves utilize can also leave you with a soggy result if there’s a lot of moisture. When it comes to liquids like soups and stews, they can become extremely watery.

Microwaves Need Specific Containers

Suppose you’ve forgotten a metal utensil in the container before putting it in the microwave. In that case, you probably already know how sensitive microwaves can be to what goes into them.

Aluminum foil, metal utensils, and metal plates are all bad for microwaves. Therefore, not all types of materials can go into a microwave, and you have to use ‘microwave-safe’ containers.

What Is an Oven?

An oven is a device that applies heat using thermal radiation. Ovens are mainly used in kitchens for baking and grilling. However, there are some non-kitchen varieties, such as furnaces used for industrial processes.

Although ovens are generally thought of in terms of the kinds in kitchens, they date back quite a bit. In fact, ovens date as far back as 29,000 BC, a long way from any modern invention.

The reason ovens date so far back is because of their ease of use. Unlike the complicated equipment we have now, antique ovens were relegated to covered holes in the ground where you could put the food you wanted to cook.

However, with time and technology advancements, ovens went through a series of improvements. What started simply as covered holes in the ground, developed into kilns, then fireplaces, and eventually gave us the kitchen ovens we have now.

It’s important to remember that the ovens you have at home are not the only types of ovens available. Ovens can be used for a wide range of activities, and cooking is just one of them.

Some examples of the different types of ovens are:

  • Earthen ovens
  • Gas ovens
  • Electric ovens
  • Masonry ovens
  • Ceramic ovens

How Does an Oven Work?

Ovens work by using an energy source to heat a confined space. The primary form of heating applied in ovens is thermal radiation which is how heat affects objects when it has no medium to move through. However, some ovens also have fans that set up a convection current.

Radiation is simply the movement of heat from one point to another without a medium. Usually, the medium heat moves through to get to its destinations defines what type of heat transfer occurs. 

When it moves through solids, it’s called conduction. If it passes through fluids (air or liquid), it’s called convection, and, as mentioned, when there’s no medium at all you have radiation. Of the three, only the last two are applicable to ovens, with radiation being more common.

Ovens apply heat differently depending on their build and heat source. However, the most common type of oven is the electric oven. Electric ovens produce heat using electricity and resistive heating. Resistive heating is a little difficult to fully understand without a proper grasp of physics, but the basics are a lot easier.

Essentially, when electricity passes through any material, the atoms in it receive energy and start to move, bumping into each other. This bumping produces heat, and the higher the current passing through the material, the more heat is produced. This is the effect that heats most ovens and is a core component of other appliances as well (like pressing irons).

Advantages of an Oven

Here are some of the biggest advantages of owning an oven:

Versatile

The versatility of ovens is one of their biggest selling point. Since you have such a large space to cook, there aren’t many things you can’t make with it. Gas ovens especially are extremely versatile because they’re usually larger than their electric counterparts.

Furthermore, the different types of ovens available mean there’s an even wider range of cooking techniques you can use them for. 

Cheaper for Prolonged Use

If you need something to use to cook time-consuming dishes like a slow-roasted cochinita pibil, or a perfect turkey, then you’d be far better served with an oven. 

Ovens are more efficient than any other cooking appliance. They are inefficient for short-term meals, due to how long they take to heat up. However, once they get to the goal temperature, they become incredibly efficient since you need a lot less energy to maintain it.

Higher Quality Results

An oven is one of the best ways to cook complex meals. Its heat distribution, size, and ease of use usually gives far better results than you’d get with a stovetop or microwave. Most foods that require slow cooking, or a steady, even heating over longs periods come out far better in an oven.

Disadvantages of an Oven

Higher Upfront Costs

While ovens are efficient for meals with very long cook times, they are still expensive if you want to do something simple like boil rice or heat some food. Along with the ongoing costs you’ll pay in gas or electricity, the initial cost of a good oven is also pretty high.

On the other hand, ongoing costs can vary depending on how and when you use your oven. However, if you’re strategic about it, you might end up lowering your electricity bill.

It Wastes Heat

The large size of the oven, which is one of its main strengths, can also be a weakness. Since ovens work using heat and heat will always spread out until it has evenly filled a space, ovens require a lot of energy to get to their required temperature.

The large size means that a lot of heat is wasted, especially if you’re cooking something small relative to the oven’s size. 

Size

As mentioned, the size of the oven is one of its biggest strengths. However, for many, it can also be a dealbreaker. Ovens are usually quite large and require considerable space to set up. People with small kitchens, can find it difficult to find enough room for their oven in their limited space.

What Are the Differences Between Microwaves & Ovens?

Now that you understand how microwaves and ovens work, it should be a lot easier to better notice the differences between them and make a well-informed decision. 

Working Principle

The primary difference between microwaves and ovens is based on how they work. First, microwaves work using microwave radiation to move water molecules and generate heat. On the other hand, ovens work using good, old-fashioned direct heat. 

You can’t put metal in the microwave because it interferes with the radiation, ionizes the air, and causes sparks that look like mini lightning bolts.

On the other hand, ovens can handle a wider range of materials. However, they’re held back because you need to wait for the entire space to heat up to your desired temperature before you can use it.

Versatility

Although ovens are slower, they’re a lot more versatile. Portability and size are some of the microwave’s biggest strengths. However, it lags behind ovens when it comes to the number of techniques you can use it for.

Because of the size of their heating chambers and the way heat is distributed throughout the space, ovens are a lot better to use for things like baking and grilling. Moreover, since quite a few recipes require high temperatures and long cooking periods, the microwave falls short here because of how much electricity it needs to work for that amount of time.

Choices

Ovens are far more diverse than microwaves. There are different types of microwaves, but most are used for the same thing. On the other hand, ovens provide various options depending on your needs. 

For example, the most common types are gas and electric ovens. However, there are also kilns that you can use for pottery and furnaces for smelting.

Speed

Microwaves are more convenient than conventional ovens because of how easily they warm up food. With microwaves, you simply set the power and time you want to use, set a timer, and you’re done.

However, with ovens, there’s a lot more waiting involved. Since the chamber is much larger, you’ll have to wait a while since the entire space has to rise to a uniform temperature.