Sunday, October 21, 2007

Electrifying Butter

So to preface this, I'm going to be very clear that what I'm writing is not based on any real knowledge I have about how microwaves and chemistry works, and it is 99% based on information I read on the internet from sometimes sketchy websites (the 1% was based on conversations I had with Jeff while he was playing Halo).

So here's the story:
When we were in Michigan we were sitting down enjoying dinner when my sister and brother-in-law told us about a butter sparking problem they were having with their microwave. About a year ago (I think) they were trying to soften some butter in the microwave in a Denby (microwave safe) dish. After about 2 seconds there was a spark that shot across the microwave. They took it out and it didn't happen again until several weeks ago when it started happening regularly, that is, every time they tried to microwave butter.

So the facts are:
- only butter sparks
- they used the dish in the microwave with many different foods without any sparks
- the butter is unsalted (salt is an electrolyte)
- it happens well well before the butter melts, generally after 2 seconds or so
- they didn't leave the butter in long enough to know if it would continue to happen after the butter was soft/melted
- they had probably done it with two different types of butter
- I don't know what kind of microwave they have

We sat at the dinner table and peppered them with questions for the rest of the evening, not able to find anything obvious (we had 4 young well educated people: chemistry, engineering and biology majors sitting at the table, so hopefully our minds were at least asking the right questions). No physics majors though.

So we left without any answers, but I promised to blog about it if my sister showed me. So we went back to their house and stuck a piece of butter in. After about 1 second there was a PPPSSSHHHT! noise but no spark, but sister immediately stopped the microwave, although she was sure it would have sparked if she would have left it going.

So, after a bit of research on the web, here's my own personal crazy theory.
Two things are fairly well documented on the web (life lessons according to the interweb are often dangerous, but keeps things exciting, right?):
1. Microwaves spark on a more regular basis than you might imagine. Usually when this happens it is because it is dirty. It sounds like there is some side panel which is what gets dirty and the oil/food on there burns and sparks. I think that can be cleaned or replaced to solve the general sparking problem. But their problem only happened with butter.
2. Others have reported a butter sparking problem or other one-food related sparking problem. To explain this issue, a little background. Microwaves work by heating up the water in food (more specifically, it's a factor of the polarity of the water - at least according to some website). Microwaves are well absorbed by water, but not well absorbed by ice.

So here's my theory, assuming they don't have a dirty panel (which could cause sparking generally), I think when they start the microwave one bit of the cold butter starts to melt, and the liquid absorbs way way way more microwaves than the rest of the "pat" of butter (this was documented, that it can happen within a second). This large absorption of microwaves in relation to the rest of the butter causes the spark or at least the PPPPPPSSSSHHHHT! noise we heard. In addition, butter itself is a dipole and can get very very very hot in the microwave, so it seems reasonable to assume that in one or two seconds one little bit could melt and start absorbing more waves than the surrounding butter.

How's that for an uneducated guess at butter sparking?

There is also the well-documented experiment of grapes sparking in the microwave (actually, flaming), which is due to some very long complicated explanation which I didn't have the patience to read. So it is also possible that whatever causes grapes to flame might also cause their butter to spark. I'm not sure though. I think the mystery still continues.

But if anyone knows why this might be happening, let me know!

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is odd... This happened to me two nights ago, and it was the second time it happened to me. Only now did I realize that both times it happened with butter.

I was just telling a co-worker so i decided to google it and came up with your site.

What are they putting in our butter these days?

Anyhow, I am a random extra source of data for you......

Anonymous said...

I should also add that both cases it was on a microwave safe plate, with no wrapper, only just butter.

And both times produces many visable sparks, as well as noise.

old_house_fixer said...

Me too! A few weeks ago I tried to make microwave popcorn and ZZZZZZT! and lots of sparks. I took it out and started the unit; no problem, so I heated my tea and forgot about it. I assumed there was something "bad" in the popcorn. A few days ago I tried heating butter - LIGHTNING! SO... Butter and whatever is in the popcorn is no good. My unit is built by Sunbeam - Who built yours?

BETH SIMPSON said...

WE NEED TO IDENTIFY 1. THE BRAND OF BUTTER AND 2. THE BRAND OF MICROWAVE. ALTHOUGH MY GUT TELLS ME IT'S THE BUTTER. I HAVE HAD THIS HAPPEN WITH COSTCO BRAND BUTTER, BUT NOT ANY OTHERS. OTHER BUTTERS MELT FINE, NO SPARKS NO SOUND.

Anonymous said...

Mine did it while I was trying to defrost frozen chicken. Also did it within seconds. Chicken no where near thawed.

Anonymous said...

happened with me too! and costco butter is the brand. hmmmm.... whats going on with costco butter.

Anonymous said...

I am having the same problem with butter that sparks in the microwave as well. It happens when I am trying to melt the butter, and I am only having problems with butter. It has been occurring for several months now. I am using the Wal-mart brand. My biggest concern is there is some type of metal in the butter causing the sparking. Perhaps something being fed to the cows.

DerekV said...

I'm having the same problem, but what is odd is that the sparks are occurring up behind the ceiling panel (which I assume contains the magnetron) and not anywhere near the popcorn. We're using 100-calorie Redenbachers popcorn bags.

Everything else works fine. This is extremely weird.

Anonymous said...

Wow - thats is fascinating! Yes - only butter has been making my microwave spark, smoke and sound like its going to explode!

JR said...

Yesterday Jan 7, 10, we were melting unsalted butter in a microwave safe dish, one quarter lb. stick sliced into 1 inch pieces, no wrapping. Within seconds the microwave began to flash with sparks.

We removed the butter and put water in the same dish and tried it again, no sparks.

Went to another store and got a new lb. of unsalted butter and melted it uneventfully in the same dish the same way. This was a popular brand of butter we have used and bought in the same supermarked for years. The second was another supermarket brand name butter.

Anonymous said...

I am having the same problem and found this site through Google. I was melting a small amount of butter (unsalted, from BJs Wholesale Warehouse) in a ceramic ramekin when I get the sparks. I have used the ramekin in the microwave prior to this with no ill effect.

Here's an additional data point. The butter, although thawed at the time I nuked it, had been previously frozen. This happened to me a few days ago with the same butter (which I don't usually buy) but has never happened with any other butter.

Anonymous said...

this happened to me as well. lol. my butter was salted, frozen and land o' lakes. i thought my microwave was going since it's 12 years old.

Anonymous said...

This happens to me only with microwave popcorn. My concern is whether it has damaged my microwave, i.e. made it unsafe to continue to use. Any answers?

R. J. Corbett said...

I am having the same problem, with Whole Foods organic butter. Like someone else, this was in the freezer before being moved to the fridge weeks ago (perhaps the freezer damages the milk fats?), but I haven't repeated it with fresh butter.

I do not think that it has to do with the difference between liquid and solid butter after they have been in the microwave for a little while. I continued melting the better over a water bath, put the melted butter back in the microwave, and still got sparks.

This is an 11 year-old microwave. Perhaps that is the crucial variable, since it has only started happening in the last month but now happens regularly.

R. J. Corbett said...

Actually, now I'm sure it is the microwave, since now it happens with everything. There is still the question of why it would happen to butter first, but it sounds like it is a dying magnetron.

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Doris said...

The sparking happens every time I use "Can't Believe Its Not Butter" spray. Makes me think twice about eating it. Scarey! I have a 1000 watt oven.

Vashti said...

Finally took the time to look this subject up, and came up with this blog post - land o'lakes butter is sending sparks through my microwave as well - so bizarre. I haven't had trouble with anything else, and the microwave is new. Strange, and scary! I thought there much be metal or something in the butter, but I feel better that I am not the only one experiencing this problem.

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Marge said...

I am much relieved to hear of this happening to others! I tried two kinds of butter,3 brands, even a stick of margarine, it sparked for all. However, this just started a few weeks ago, though my microwave is perhaps six years old. My first thought was like another: some metal in the butter, but after trying different containers,salted, unsalted, even lower power, nothing made a difference. And we never got sick on what I used it for!

Kathy said...

I have had the same problem, and I think it has to do with butter temperature and quantity. If I melt a half stick of butter from the fridge at 1 minute, 50% power, I get sparks. If I microwave it at 40% power, no sparks. The size of the container may also play a role. This never happens when I use a bigger bowl, but in smaller bowls it does. Since this is simply anecdotal, I might just be getting lucky. But it is consistently lucky.

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Anonymous said...

This is truly weird! So glad I'm not the only one. I thought it was my microwave hitting the end of life, but the sparking when I try to melt butter (unsalted from Costco)is the only thing that causes this reaction. It only started about a week or so ago. I've never had this happen before & have melted butter in the microwave for years. What has changed? Is it something in the butter?

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Anonymous said...

I've been using a "gifted" microwave for close to 9 months now. Every time I microwave butter, regardless of brand, power settings, length of time, container used, etc. it sounds like the microwave is going to explode. Never a burnt smell or anything like that, just lots of sparks and noise. Everything else is fine and the microwave works great, otherwise. So, the theory I've developed, against all scientific odds, is that the little demons that make my microwave run just don't like butter at all. Also, for a time, the microwave would turn itself on at random... it seems to have stopped that since i gave it a stern lecture and threatened to leave it unplugged. Bad demons ...

Linda said...

I posted something on facebook about this and a friend linked to your blog. I tried butter (salted & Roundy's brand). I tried a cup of water and that was ok. After reading all of the comments I am now afraid of microwave popcorn.....my grandson makes it all the time. Actually I am afraid to use my microwave at all. IF I do I will stand right next to it. I think I will call the number on the butter container tomorrow. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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I am posting my experience on my blog and linking to yours.