By Eric Levin
July 25, 1988 12:00 PM

Every so often Robert Schiffmann looks around the laboratory on the top floor of his Manhattan brownstone and wonders, “Am I nuts?” On one side of his lab—actually a large kitchen filled with computers, testing devices, digital scales and 11 microwave ovens—a home economist pours batter into rows of cupcake molds. Across the room, a computer expert carefully incises the bottom of a bag of popcorn to insert a slender, temperature-sensitive probe.

In nearly 30 years as a chemist, food consultant and microwave maven, Schiffmann, 53, has analyzed, dissected and torture-tested mountains of pastry, sauces and pizza. “Sometimes I think, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ” he confesses. “But to me, it’s not just doughnuts or popcorn, it’s science.”

Schiffmann, now one of the foremost authorities in the field, fell in love with microwaves in 1962, when, as a young chemist fresh out of Purdue, he was working at a doughnut company studying batter buoyancy and other problems in the physics of deep-fat frying. One day a co-worker entered the lab and put a sandwich on a paper plate inside a huge, chrome-plated machine. Schiffmann, who had never even heard of a microwave oven, was fascinated. “When the guy took the sandwich out, it was warm,” he says, “but the plate was cool, and so was the air in the oven. I couldn’t get over it. I started spending all my time studying microwaves.”

Seven years later, he was granted his first patent, for a microwave doughnut fryer. Schiffmann and a colleague also developed a retail system that used an in-store microwave to thaw frozen doughnuts. This led to his first triumph as a microwave sleuth.

“A jelly doughnut is what I would call a three-phase system,” Schiffmann explains. “You’ve got jelly, cake and glaze. When we tried to thaw one in the microwave, boiling jelly exploded out of the doughnut and the glaze melted, but the dough stayed frozen.” The problem was that the jelly and glaze were loaded with sugar, which absorbs microwave energy rapidly. After months of tinkering, Schiffmann perfected a low-sugar formula—and the microwave-thawable, three-phase jelly doughnut was born.

“Microwaves are my friends,” says Schiffmann, who earns more than $100,000 a year from royalties and consulting fees. “I imagine them bouncing around inside an oven and think about how the product in there looks to them.” He also never worries about his pals’ power. “The biggest hazard from a microwave oven,” Schiffmann insists, “is that you could drop it on your foot. People talk about zapping or nuking their food. But microwaves are a low-energy form of radiation, like TV. All a microwave oven can do is heat things. Someone once said it’s like worrying about getting a burn from moonlight.”

If that sounds a bit too poetic for a guy in a lab coat, Schiffmann admits his personality has always been split “right down the middle between the scientific and the artistic.” Raised from age 14 in the same New York City brownstone where he now lives—his parents ran a rooming house there when he was a kid—Schiffmann was a ballet dancer before devoting himself full-time to food consulting in the early ’70s. He once toured the country dancing highlights from Les Sylphides, and his hobbies today include playing classical piano. Downstairs in his own kitchen, Schiffmann also indulges another passion—cooking the old-fashioned way. He and wife Marilyn, 50, a computer-installation expert, are as offended by the gray-beige sight of microwave burgers and cakes as every other food-loving American.

Schiffmann, however, has not given up hope for the perfectly crusted, 25-minute microwave roast. Reaching underneath a lab shelf, he pulls out a covered potlike device he calls a universal cooker. Newly patented by Schiffmann and Senior Associate Howard Roth, who plan to market it next year, the contraption is a microwave accessory designed to brown foods placed inside it. Confiding the operative principle, he swears a writer to secrecy. But it can be said the thing whirs as it works—and it does work, producing two crisply appetizing apple turnovers from two frozen tan rocks in just 12 minutes.

With the browning dilemma solved, Schiffmann recently turned his attention to another microwave mystery—those annoying unpopped kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bag. To learn the internal popping temperature, Schiffmann borrowed a drill from his dentist, bored a tiny hole in a kernel and inserted the wirelike end of a fiberoptic probe connected to a $12,000 digital thermometer. One thing he discovered is that fresh popcorn pops at a lower temperature than stale popcorn—320°F as compared with 400° or more. So don’t let the stuff sit around.

A greater challenge is Schiffmann’s ongoing search for an edible microwave cake. The various formulas filling the cupcake cups laid out in his lab have so far produced nothing more promising than pale, pocked globs. “It doesn’t look like much now,” Schiffmann allows, hefting one sad result, “but if you’d seen where we started, you’d recognize this as a great leap.”

Nonetheless, when one of his home economists, Claudette Moustakis, celebrated a birthday recently, Schiffmann called in a cake from a local bakery. “Maybe next year we’ll bake our own,” he says. Maybe next year he’ll remember to buy candles too. Finding none in the lab that day, he lit a bunsen burner. “It looked nice,” he recalls, “but Claudette found it a little hard to blowout.”