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NEW WAVES : New technology and new products promise to make flash cooking the wave of the future.

July 14, 1988|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

It's the year 2001. You're driving on the maddeningly crowded freeway joining the morning rush. There was absolutely no time to cook and eat breakfast at home so you automatically had to grab a cassette-like packet of 'heat and eat' bacon and eggs from your selection of instant breakfast meals.

Zap! You pull this packet from the little microwave oven built into your dashboard and voila --your hot meal is ready. Zap again! Your steaming cup of coffee comes out of the unit, all set to perk you up on this busy day. Vision impossible? No.

The Campbell Microwave Institute predicts that at about that time in the future, 25% of cars will have microwave units. "The idea is not goofy," said Bill Piscek, manager of marketing research for Campbell Soup Co., claiming that they've already received a call from a Ford representative who heard about their idea of putting a microwave in the glove compartment of a car.

The two-year old research institute also projected that around that future time period, microwave ovens will be found in eight out of 10 homes and will be the major driving force in the food-related marketplace.

"Years ago, you were known as a weirdo if you owned a microwave" said Piscek. "Now you are a weirdo if you don't own one." The institute's latest study shows that microwave ownership is now 66%, up 10% in the past year. Piscek disclosed that "there are about 60 million microwave ovens in today's kitchens, more than dishwashers or VCRs."

By 1990, 50% of all cooking will be done via microwave, he added. Advances in packaging technology have made possible a startling variety of "zappables." Just take a look at your grocer's shelves today. They're filled with a tidal wave of convenience food cartons that say 'microwaveable.' The gamut runs from frozen entrees and vegetables to shelf-stable cake mixes and frostings.

Last year alone, 284 microwave food products were introduced, according to Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd. A promise of double that amount in the next year or so would not be at all surprising.

The number of women joining the work force has led to the successful proliferation of instant meals as well as instant snacks for latchkey children. Adding to their frozen food line of microwave breakfast and dinner sandwiches, Hormel has just rolled out chicken and steak breakfast biscuit sandwiches in addition to fish and chicken dinner sandwiches on sesame yeast rolls. Past selections include flame-broiled hamburger sandwiches with varieties of cheese and bacon.

Popcorn alone is big, big microwave business. According to Sherri Pfefer, media consultant for Sharp Electronics, retail sales of microwave popcorn totaled $350 million in 1987, 44% of the total unpopped popcorn sold. Convenience and taste appeal have contributed to the popularity of these microwave popping corn products.

The only problem is uneven popping results caused by different microwave ovens. "A lot of people scorch popcorn," Pfefer said. To combat this problem, Sharp has introduced the ESP oven featuring an electronic sensory processor. The new unit senses power levels and cooking times for popular foods such as popcorn, baked potatoes, soft and hard fresh vegetables, frozen vegetables and dinners, bacon, hamburger, chicken pieces and fish.

One of the newest hot summer treats is the microwaveable hot fudge sundae from Steve's Homemade Ice Cream Inc. A 30-second exposure to microwave energy excites and melts down the fudge-topping molecules while the ice cream stays cold.

Now being test-marketed is Campbell's Souper Combo, which combines an 8-ounce bowl of soup that can be reheated in about 7 minutes and a sandwich that only takes 30 seconds.

Considered a wet heating system that's great for high-moisture foods, the microwave oven has limitations; it doesn't produce crispy foods. Working on a project that will turn out a crisp coating product for microwaved foods, Campbell's Piscek said: "We're still a way off; that's a toughie. The microwave is more of a steamer, not a fryer."

Other major food companies are already a step ahead in the "crisping" technology. Pillsbury has developed aluminum-layered "susceptor plates" in their microwave pizza packaging for browning crusts. The presence of the metallic film traps microwaves and raises the temperature around the food to browning stage. Lean Pockets, a low-calorie pizza product, has "micro-sleeves" that use the same metal energy technique.

Newly introduced is the Microwave Bacon from Hormel, which has four micro-ready bacon slices set on a tray lined with materials that absorb grease. Co-created by 3M Corp., the plastic bag puffs up upon heating to allow an internal high heat that "fries" the bacon strips.

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