Microwaves are not just for reheating and popcorn anymore—they have become an essential appliance in every kitchen. Some new features like convection technology have made the ovens more versatile while others like SpeedCook have made it possible to reduce cooking times dramatically. Aside from the cooking technology, there are a lot of features to consider when buying your next Microwave oven. Pronto’s Microwave Oven Buying Guide simplifies shopping so that when you make your decision, you know you’re getting what you need.
For the most capacity and power, choose a countertop microwave. If space is a concern, over-the-range microwaves free up your counter, but provide less effective hood ventilation for your range. Want the best of both worlds? Purchase a microwave that can be mounted under a cabinet.
Higher wattage means faster cooking times. Look for a microwave with a minimum of 800W. Capacity typically ranges from 0.5-2.3 cubic feet. Singles, couples and infrequent users will be okay with compact models under 1 cubic foot. Larger families or those who cook large quantities should opt for models with at least 1.25-1.5 cubic feet.
If you intend to cook often in your microwave, invest in a model that offers convection cooking. The physical size of the microwave will be bigger, but you can roast a chicken and crisp fries easily and skip heating your traditional oven on hot days.
Your microwave should have a minimum of three power levels for basic heating, defrosting and simmering. You’ll pay a tiny bit more ($10-50) for auto-sensors that stop cooking when food is hot enough, but the investment is worth it. Turntables that can be shut off make cooking with odd-shaped dishes or casseroles easier.
Look for the pre-programmed options you know you’ll use, plus a few more. If you’re buying a SpeedCook oven, choose a model with pre-programmed recipes that work with the drastically reduced cook time. Always look for controls that you understand and can use easily.
Microwaves are RF waves, more commonly known as radio waves. Microwave ovens heat food by emitting RF waves that penetrate the food and cause the water, fats, and sugars contained in the food to vibrate. As they vibrate, they produce heat. Microwaves have difficulty in penetrating thick pieces of food, such as a whole turkey, so using a microwave to cook thick food items isn’t as effective as using an oven.
A magnetron is the part of the microwave oven that generates microwaves. At its core, it is a vacuum tube; the size of the tube dictates the frequency of the microwaves.
In convection microwave ovens, convection technology functions using a heating element and a fan, as in a convection oven. This varies from the basic microwave in that a traditional microwave does not use a heating element to heat the food, but RF waves. Convection technology will help you get a crisp skin and brown foods.
SpeedCook microwave ovens function by combining the heat of halogen or quarts bulbs with traditional microwaves to heat the food. Because of this dual-approach to heating, SpeedCook microwaves are able to cook food anywhere from 3-8 times faster than a conventional oven, depending on design.
Traditional turntables are round pieces of glass on a motorized loop that rotates the food in a microwave as it is heated. This helps the microwaves to penetrate evenly and heat the food more evenly and efficiently.
Microwave power is measured in watts. Microwaves can range from as low as 600W to as high as 1300W. More wattage means faster cooking time, but the difference of a hundred watts in either direction is negligible. If you’ll be doing more than reheating in your microwave, look for models that offer at least 800W, which is the bare minimum recommended for many recipes.
The capacity of a microwave is measured in cubic feet and can range from .5 to over 2 cf. Singles, couples and people who use a microwave for occasional reheating and defrosting will be fine with compact models which generally range from 0.5-0.8 cubic feet. For frequent microwave users or cooks who rely on the microwave to cook larger quantities of food on a regular basis, mid-sized microwaves (0.9-1.6 cf ) and full-sized microwaves (1.7-2.3 cf) are the better option. Typically, the larger the interior capacity, the larger the overall physical dimensions with the exception being microwaves that double as convection ovens. The fan used in convection cooking adds to the size of the microwave and a convection microwave with .9 cf capacity will be larger than a basic microwave with the same .9 cf capacity. Beware too, advertised capacity ratings, as manufacturers often include corners in their cubic feet rating which doesn’t contribute to useable space.
Today’s microwaves fit in your kitchen in a variety of ways. As their name suggests, countertop microwaves sit on your kitchen counter. While they take up more physical space than over the range (OTR), built-in or under-the-cabinet microwaves, they usually offer more useable cooking space inside. If you have room on your countertop or a utility cart, a countertop microwave will give you the most cooking capacity and is the best choice for frequent users who rely on the microwave for a lot more than the occasional reheat.
Over-the-range models get the microwave off your countertop, but don’t hold as much inside. It is important to know that OTR models come with a built in range hood vent. The hood vents found in OTR microwaves don’t work as well as standard range hood vents, in part because they don’t provide coverage for the front burners. If you use your range a lot, what you gain in counter space will be lost in ventilation. Is something always simmering on the stovetop? Don’t give up a full-sized hood vent in exchange for an OTR microwave. Instead, consider a microwave that can be mounted under or inside of a cabinet. It offers the same interior capacity as OTR microwaves without the hood vent drawbacks. If you don’t need a large-capacity microwave, or don’t have space on the countertop for a microwave, an under-the-cabinet model is an excellent space-saving choice.
Be sure to choose a microwave that offers you a minimum of three power levels. Generally, these are High, for regular cooking (100% power); Medium for simmering (50% power) and Low or Defrost (usually about 10-30% power). If the model you’re looking at comes with more levels, that’s even better—it won’t necessarily add to the cost.
Microwaves with convection technology include a heating element and a fan. The fan circulates the air, which helps crisp skins and brown foods (no more chewy leftover pizza!). Convection technology adds significantly to the price of a microwave ($100-200) and the fan adds to its physical size. If you turn to the microwave more than you turn to your oven, the convection technology is worth the investment for the versatility you’ll get, not to mention the option of not heating your standard oven on hot days.
You’ll also find microwave ovens today that feature SpeedCook technology. SpeedCook microwaves use halogen or quartz lights to heat food, which may call to mind the EasyBake Ovens from your childhood. However, you won’t have to wait an hour for a cupcake: cooking with a SpeedCook microwave can be up to three times faster than your conventional oven, plus you don’t have to preheat it! If you’re a heavy microwave user now, you may want to invest in a SpeedCook microwave for the ultimate in convenience and time-saving meal preparation.
Some microwaves offer new, inverter technology which keep the power level constant during the cooking process versus the traditional microwave method of cycling power on and off. Inverter technology is billed to help microwaves cook food more evenly, but if you’ve got a turntable and are familiar with your power levels, you won’t see a large difference with the promise of inverter technology.
Microwave cooking functions run the gamut from the basic defrost to advanced sensor technology that prevents overcooking. Next to reheating, defrosting is the most frequent use for the microwave. Using your microwave to defrost meats and frozen leftovers can shave hours off meal preparation. Look for microwaves that feature a timed defrost option or defrost which will automatically turn off when the defrosting is finished.
Advanced sensor technology turns your microwave off when it senses the food is too hot, which prevents overcooking during the reheating process. These sensors add to the cost of the microwave ($10-50), but experts say the sensors do work. If you’ve removed one too many rubbery dishes from your microwave, spend the dollars and be happier with your end results.
No matter which microwave you purchase, you’ll want it to offer a turntable to ensure even cooking and reheating. Traditional turntables are round pieces of glass on a motorized loop that rotates the food in a microwave as it is heated. This helps the microwaves to penetrate evenly and heat the food more efficiently. Some microwaves now replace traditional round turntables with rectangular slabs that slide side-to-side. Another feature to look for is turntable control. If you regularly cook with oversized or oddly shaped dishes, you’ll benefit from a microwave that gives you the option of an off/on button for the turntable. When the turntable is off, you can fit oversized or oddly-shaped dishes into the microwave.
Microwave controls are now as varied as microwaves themselves, but microwaves with advanced controls are only as useful as your ability and tendency to use them. Most manufacturers offer pre-programmed controls for popular functions, like popcorn or a baked potato, which you may use often. Other microwaves offer a delayed-start option, which makes it easier to time meals when you’re using the microwave for only a course or two. SpeedCook microwaves often come with pre-programmed recipes, which is useful because SpeedCook times can be much faster than traditional oven preparation times. Purchase a microwave with the minimum of control features you need, plus a few more you think you might use. If you have small children, look for models with child locks that prevent the microwave turning on without items in it.