Microwaves are some of the most versatile and necessary pieces of equipment in modern life. In the Western World, there are very few households that do not have a microwave - and for a good reason.
Not only can microwaves cook simple meals like popcorn with startling ease, they can also cook complex things like baked chicken and cakes. Plus, they make defrosting a quick and painless process - not a 24 - hour ordeal watching a turkey melt.
Since you're probably on the search for a new microwave, we've set up a thorough guide to help you make the best possible choice in microwaves.
What are the different types of microwaves?
As familiar as you probably are with microwaves, you may not be aware of the various types of microwaves available. Let's get started with the most common, the Countertop Microwave.
Countertop Microwaves are typically the most suitable models for the majority of homes. They typically require little to no setup and come ready for use out of the box. Most times, you don't even have to set your microwave clock before jumping straight into use.
Countertop microwaves come with only the most common features expected in a microwave, namely things such as:
- Auto defrost
- Defrost by Weight
- Add 30 Seconds
- Cook by Time
- Power Levels
If you're looking for a microwave that can provide a bit more versatility, or help you with pre-cooking, rotisserie or baking, you'll want to look into over-the-range, built-in models or convection microwaves which tend to be more feature-rich.
An over-the-range microwave is a combination of a microwave with a range hood that is designed to sit "over a range" of other cooktops. A range hood, in a nutshell, is a typically cone-shaped device that contains a mechanical fan that sits above a cooktop or stove. The fan allows for the easy removal of smells, airborne grease, smoke, cooking fumes, and even steam that are all created during cooking.
Over-the-range microwaves are extremely useful in homes that have minimal counter space. They do tend to be more expensive than their countertop cousins, but the utility of a range hood and the greater number of features available in these microwaves can make up for that. You will need a professional to install this microwave type.
Built-in and Drawer Microwaves
Built-in and drawer microwaves operate on a similar principle to over-the-range microwaves when it comes to space-saving. They are usually installed in a kitchen cabinet or wall freeing space on the counter. Whereas built-in microwaves are primarily installed at the eye-level and often above an oven, a drawer microwave is installed at the convenient, lower heights.
A big advantage of a drawer microwave type is that it can be easily reached by children, and they can heat the food up without your help. Both types of microwaves usually require professional installation and can be more expensive to maintain.
Turntable vs. Flatbed
You probably take it for granted that your food is rotated when you set the timer on your microwave and press start. As you well know, this is to ensure that your food is evenly cooked. Now imagine - in a parallel universe somewhere - that your food can be evenly heated without being rotated. That's the basis of a flatbed microwave.
Instead of the usual "turntable" method of heating, which involves rotating your food, flatbeds utilize different technology to ensure that your food gets evenly cooked or heated. Flatbeds are sometimes more energy efficient and are suitable for those who may want more options when it comes to microwave cooking. Flatbeds allow for a variety of containers in a variety of sizes to fit all at once into your microwave.
If you're someone who prefers the more traditional methods of food prep, like baking, cooking on an open fire, or rotisserie, then a convection microwave could be ideal for you. Convection microwaves use the combination of the fan (to circulate the hot air) and radio waves for cooking food. These microwaves often come with a number of features like grills or rotisserie skewers, not to mention a bevy of cooking functionalities.
Convection microwaves provide far more variety when it comes to texture and flavor in comparison to all other microwaves. These microwaves are ideal for those who would love the flexibility and ease of use of traditional microwaves, without sacrificing the flavor and functionality that could come from other kitchen utilities.
What size of microwave do I need?
Once you have an idea of the kind of microwave is most suitable for your situation, you should consider the space it'll take up in your kitchen. If you're living in an apartment that won't allow for major installations, a countertop model is probably necessary. On the other hand, if you're building a house or remodeling a kitchen, then a built-in or over-the-range microwave could be ideal for you.
If you're strapped for space, then consider choosing a countertop microwave with an internal volume of .5 cubic feet. This size of microwave is on the smaller end but can accommodate common dinner plates (10-inches in diameter) as well as other common dishes like cereal bowls and cups.
Most microwaves range from 1-2 cubic feet in volume, so you won't have to worry too much about larger cooking dishes fitting properly. However, if you're trying to figure out if a particular size of microwave is optimal for you, here are a few tips you can use:
- Take one of your typical dinner plates to your store of choice and see if it fits
This may seem silly, but actually sizing your microwave's interior with a plate, in your local point of purchase can go a LONG way to making sure you don't waste money or need to return a microwave that you ordered online.
- Take a ceramic baking tray or another cooking dish you typically use in the microwave
If you're looking to use your microwave for more complex processes than a simple microwave dish, then take whatever cooking dishes you expect to use along with you and repeat the process with them.
- Measure out the necessary space on your countertop with visual markers, like a dry erase marker or masking tape.
It's a more effective use of your time to actually "draw out" the space your microwave may take up instead of just eyeballing it or making an assumption. By measuring out the physical space (including a couple of inches of clearance for ventilation), you'll be able to anticipate problems you may not have thought of, like friction against a low cabinet or a leaning countertop.
Be sure to account for electrical outlets as well, since it would be incredibly awkward to map out a space that has nowhere to plug in your microwave. If you're purchasing an over-the-range or built-in microwave, then consult the professional performing your installation for detailed instructions on designating your space.
Also bear in mind, machines tend to vary when it comes to their external dimensions. Two microwaves that both have two cubic feet of internal volume can have very different external dimensions. So, mapping out space can help eliminate certain microwaves from your list of options, simplifying your decision making.
What microwave features should I get?
Now that we've figured out sizing and what type of microwave to settle on, let's take a quick look at what features you can include in your purchase.
Auto-reheat - Many microwaves have basic reheat functions that allow for ease of use when reheating leftovers. Some have specific settings for different foods.
Auto-defrost - Auto defrosting is an almost mandatory feature in every microwave. Having a microwave that can defrost 2 lbs of meat at the touch of a button can save hours of waiting on a natural defrost. Some microwaves come with built-in scales to make defrosting even more precise.
Power levels - Being able to adjust your microwave's output is not only convenient but sometimes necessary. Some microwaveable meals have specific requirements for cooking food properly, which may require adjusting of your default microwave heat.
Sensors to detect food temperature - Some microwaves come with sensors that can detect food temperature and shut off once your food is ideally warmed or cooked. This can prevent food "explosions" that tend to happen due to foods being wildly overheated and can save you from excess energy usage.
Removable Racks - Racks are useful if you're a dedicated microwave chef or simply want the flexibility to cook more meals than one at once.
Rotisserie Skewer - These typically come with convection microwaves, since it isn't really possible to rotisserie in a traditional microwave, but if you're getting a convection microwave, having a rotisserie skewer is a must.
Basic Timer - Having a basic kitchen timer can be far more useful than you think, and it's a feature that won't necessarily carry the pricing up on your microwave, we recommend getting one if possible.
Buttons you're used to using - Finally, make a solid effort to ensure that your new microwave comes with buttons that offer a similar level of convenience as your old one. If you're used to using the "add 30" button - check for that. The same goes for other convenient buttons like auto-defrost, popcorn or pizza.
What wattage should my microwave be?
The wattage of your microwave will - outside of unique model-specific technology - largely determine how effective and quickly your microwave will cook food. A good baseline to work with when choosing a microwave is 1000 watts. This will ensure that your microwave will be able to perform most functions optimally.
Having a 1000 watt or higher microwave doesn't mean that your cooking options are limited. For example, meals that require "medium" heat aren't now off-limits, higher power microwaves can also come with adjustable power. If you're used to cooking on medium heat or prefer some versatility, selecting a higher-wattage microwave with power options is your best bet.
A Quick Recap
- Countertop Microwaves are typically the most suitable models for most homes
- An over-the-range microwave is a combination of a microwave with a range hood that is designed to sit "over a range" of other cooktops
- Built-in and over-the-range microwaves help you save space
- Be sure to check the features that come with your microwave
- Make sure the buttons available match the ones you're used to
- Convection microwaves give you a wide array of cooking options
- "Fit" your microwave of choice with dinner plates or larger cooking dishes to ensure that you have enough room to cook
- Pay special attention to the features you choose