A microwave oven (commonly referred to as a microwave) is an electric oven that heats and cooks food by exposing it to electromagnetic radiation in the microwave frequency range. This induces polar molecules in the food to rotate and produce thermal energy in a process known as dielectric heating. Microwave ovens heat foods quickly and efficiently because excitation is fairly uniform in the outer 25–38 mm (1–1.5 inches) of a homogeneous, high-water-content food item.
The development of the cavity magnetron in the United Kingdom made possible the production of electromagnetic waves of a small enough wavelength (microwaves). American engineer Percy Spencer is generally credited with inventing the modern microwave oven after World War II from radar technology developed during the war. Named the "Radarange", it was first sold in 1946.
Raytheon later licensed its patents for a home-use microwave oven that was introduced by Tappan in 1955, but it was still too large and expensive for general home use. Sharp Corporation introduced the first microwave oven with a turntable between 1964 and 1966. The countertop microwave oven was introduced in 1967 by the Amana Corporation. After microwave ovens became affordable for residential use in the late 1970s, their use spread into commercial and residential kitchens around the world, and prices fell rapidly during the 1980s. In addition to cooking food, microwave ovens are used for heating in many industrial processes.
Microwave ovens are a common kitchen appliance and are popular for reheating previously cooked foods and cooking a variety of foods. They rapidly heat foods which can easily burn or turn lumpy if cooked in conventional pans, such as hot butter, fats, chocolate or porridge. Microwave ovens usually do not directly brown or caramelize food, since they rarely attain the necessary temperature to produce Maillard reactions. Exceptions occur in cases where the oven is used to heat frying-oil and other oily items (such as bacon), which attain far higher temperatures than that of boiling water.
Microwave ovens have a limited role in professional cooking, because the boiling-range temperatures of a microwave oven does not produce the flavorful chemical reactions that frying, browning, or baking at a higher temperature produces. However, such high heat sources can be added to microwave ovens in the form of a convection microwave oven.