Can you break a microwave oven by running it with nothing inside?

My mother used the time cook setting as a timer and after a while of running it completely shut off. There was nothing in the microwave to cook. So I guess what I would like to know is, did she burn up the microwave? — JR, Hanford, California

When you run a microwave oven without any food inside, there is nothing to absorb the microwaves and they build up inside the cooking chamber. Eventually, something has to absorb them and that something is the oven’s microwave source—its magnetron. The magnetron isn’t good at handling excessive power that returns to it from the cooking chamber and it can be damaged as a result.

In all my years of experimenting with microwave ovens, I’ve only killed a magnetron once. But then again, I haven’t run a microwave oven for more than a minute or two without anything inside it. If the oven works again after cooling down, then you’re probably OK. The oven may have thermal interlocks in its microwave source to prevent that source from overheating and becoming a fire hazard. If the oven fails to work after an hour of cooling off, then you’re probably out of luck. The magnetron and/or its power supply are likely to be fried and in need of replacement.

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