Of microwaves because both used a rigorous methodology for testing ovens for reheating and defrosting performance. However, Good Housekeeping’s latest article on microwaves disappoints; editors highlight only three new models with two-sentence write-ups. And, while editors say the over-the-range Whirlpool g2microven GH9177XL “roasted a chicken in 47 minutes,” editors say little else about their test results.
We like the review at Consumer Reports much better, where experts test nearly 30 models, checking for evenness of heating, reheating, defrosting, and to a lesser extent, popping popcorn; its report segments the category into full-sized, mid-sized and over-the-range units. Another review that we found to be interesting was from Australia’s Choice Magazine. Choice includes considerations for people with physical limitations—no other publication addresses such issues, and we find Choice’s sensitivity helpful and refreshing. Other reviews we found to be notable and helpful were from Men’s Health and Popular Mechanics magazines.
There’s been plenty of buzz lately about combo models that function somewhere between microwaves and convections ovens, sometimes called speed cookers. It’s hard to put these contraptions in a category, since they aren’t quite microwaves, and they fall short of the functionality of full-fledged ovens. Most of them are about the size of a microwave, and either mount over a range or sit on the countertop. They use a myriad of heating devices to bake and roast—functions beyond the range of your basic microwave. Combo cookers and speed cookers get a lot of press, but if you’re thinking about buying one, experts say you might want to think again.
One combo model, the Toastmaster Ultravection Oven was heavily advertised to cook just about everything “up to 60 percent faster than conventional ovens!” But testers at Men’s Health magazine were unimpressed. While the food cooked up by the Ultravection was judged to be tasty, it didn’t prove to be a dramatic time saver. “Indeed frozen and raw foods cooked in half the time they’d need in an oven. But the machine has to preheat, which negates the benefit,” writes Brian Good. This model has since been discontinued, but other models have been introduced with similar speed-cooking features.
The Kenmore Elite 6379 over-the-range unit includes halogen lights, which are used to help speed cooking and add browning to baked good and roasts. But experts say cooking items traditionally prepared in a range did not take significantly less time and did not justify the added expense. In addition, speed-cooking microwaves are much smaller than an oven—too small to bake whole pizzas or large casseroles—you’ll still need your oven for that.
There are plenty of full-featured, top-performing microwaves on the market that cost only a fraction of the price of a speed cooker. Reviewers say that until the technology is perfected and prices fall, speed cookers are probably not worth the money.
Several experts, including Consumer Reports, note that cooking performance for microwaves hasn’t improved much lately; in fact, most microwaves do just fine reheating leftovers and popping popcorn. The main advances have been in the areas of convenience and design. A few more dollars won’t buy you more a lot more cooking power, but it will get you a larger array of features. Rotating turntables, touch controls and one-button defrosting and reheating are fairly standard now. The majority of mid- and full-sized models also offer delay timers, child locks and sensor technology, which determines when food is done by measuring vapors, and removes the guesswork involved in deciding whether to reheat that meatloaf for 30 seconds or two minutes. You can now also find microwaves in a larger variety of finishes, such as stainless steel, to match popular refrigerator and range designs.
Among full-sized microwave ovens—the kind that can heat dinner for an entire family at once—experts say the GE JE1860 has nearly every feature you could want. Its 1.8 cu ft. interior accommodates large dishes and casseroles easily. This 1100-watt oven has a delay timer, a child lock, ten power levels, automatic defrost and a cooking sensor. The GE has a large, 14-inch turntable, which can be turned off for heating larger rectangular items. The GE comes in either white or black; a stainless steel finish costs more.
One of the newer models to the market making a splash in the Panasonic Genius series of countertop models, significantly the NN-T993, which comes in stylish stainless steel. But experts say this model’s performance matches its sleek design, with a roomy 2.2-cubic foot interior. The Panasonic uses an inverter to re-organize the units cooking elements—which means you get more interior space in a more compact unit. Although the Panasonic has the same physical dimensions as the GE above, you get a little extra interior space, particularly a larger 16.5-inch turntable, so you’ll be able to fit larger items in the Panasonic Genius. The Panasonic has all the standard functions, along with a popcorn button, delay start and keep warm function. The extra interior space allows for a Although reviewers particularly like the top-of-the line Genius NN-T993, the line also includes several smaller models, also in stainless steel.
Reviewers advise buying the largest models you can (larger models perform best in general), but if your space and budget are more limited, the mid-sized Kenmore 6325 takes up less space without sacrificing cooking ability. This 1200-watt oven has a heating sensor, delay timer, 14-inch turntable and child lock. The Kenmore comes in either white or black.
You may have also seen the Sharp Half Pint R-120D advertised—it’s design has been compared to an iMac computer, and in fact, it hardly looks like a microwave at all. Intended for dorm rooms, the .5 cubic foot Half Pint only has enough room for a couple of coffee cups or leftover mac and cheese. But this model finished at the bottom of the heap in testing. Though it may look cute in a co-ed’s room, you’ll get better performance from the Kenmore in Fast Answers.
Over-the-range models have been gaining in popularity lately, since they save countertop space and often have a sleek look. They are more expensive because the microwave must also vent the range below it, necessitating dual fans. These units weigh 55 pounds or more, which can make attaching them to a cabinet above the stove a challenge, and they require a dedicated electrical outlet in the cabinet, which means you may need to consult an electrician.
The Whirlpool Gold GH8155X is a top performer if you want a microwave that mounts under the cabinet over your range. This 1000-watt full-sized model has a capacity of 1.5 cubic feet, and ships with a 4-speed exhaust fan to vent your cooking area. The Whirlpool has all the standard features—multiple cooking cycles, a keep-warm cycle, and the usual timers, plus a sunken turntable and included rack for optimizing space
Despite the similarity of features, experts agree that there are certain features you should shoot for when buying a microwave oven.
- Models with a sensor are worth the extra. Experts say that cooking sensors really do work, preventing overcooking and reheating. They raise the overall price by a couple of dollars, but reviewers say it’s money well spent.
- Get a turntable. Microwaves are not inherently good at even heating. That’s because the heating waves only penetrate a certain depth beyond the surface of the food. A turntable keeps the food evenly exposed to heat for meatloaf that gets hot all the way through.
- More wattage generally means faster cooking, but differences of 100 to 200 watts don’t make much difference.
Aside from issues of individual features and overall quality, experts agree that the biggest decision consumers have to make when shopping for a microwave oven is what size is appropriate for their needs. The choices break down roughly like this:
- Compact ovens have a capacity of about 0.8 cubic feet or less. They’re appropriate for single people or college students who don’t have much room to spare and tend to prepare simple meals or reheat leftovers.
- Mid-sized ovens have a capacity of roughly 0.8 to 1.1 cubic feet. These models take more shelf space, but can cook relatively complex meals and can accommodate enough food for a medium-sized family, which is why these are sometimes classified as “family-size.”
- Full-sized ovens have a capacity of over 1.1 cubic feet. They’re best for folks who spend lots of time in the kitchen, have counter space to spare, and regularly prepare food for several people. Microwaves with inverters usually offer a bit more interior space for the size.