Smart Shopping: Microwave Ovens

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Getting Started l Types l Features

Speed is being joined by smarts as the big brands heat up their microwave oven lines. Many now have sensors that automate cooking for more than just popcorn. Sales-hungry manufacturers are also adding convection cooking and other features aimed at homeowners who want a second oven without having to remodel.

GETTING STARTED

The major brands are adding more automation of various cooking chores to their microwaves. They're also increasing capacity without increasing overall size by using recessed turntables and smaller electronic components and by moving controls to the door. As you'll learn in this microwave oven guide, some manufacturers are exaggerating capacity by counting wasted space in the corners. Usable space may be 50 to 60 percent less than claimed, so bring a large platter to the store to see whether it fits inside an oven you're considering.

Pick a type and size Countertop models cost the least and are best for kitchens with lots of counter space. Compact models can cost very little. Midsized and large models add capacity and features, but they typically eat up 2.8 to 3.2 square feet of space. You can hang some countertop models below a cabinet, though that often leaves little working space below the oven. Over-the-range models are often bought as replacements or when remodeling a kitchen. But venting isn't very good, and installation might require an electrician.

Be realistic about extras Decide whether you'll really use grilling and browning features, convection cooking, and other added functions before paying extra for them. None consistently provided the results you'd get in a regular oven. A sensor is a convenient feature, but think twice about shortcut and defrost settings for foods you don't eat. Use this microwave oven guide to help with your purchase.

TYPES

There are three types of microwave ovens. Most microwaves still sit on the countertop, but more consumers are mounted them over the range, especially in kitchens where counter space is at a premium. Others are mounted within custom cabinetry, either over counters or in island or wall units.

Countertop microwaves
These models are best for kitchens with lots of counter space. You can hang some below a cabinet, though that often leaves little working space below, and some fit within microwave cabinets, if your kitchen is so equipped.

Pros: Countertop microwaves tend to cost less than over-the-range models.
Cons: The midsized and large models we tested take 2.8 to 3.2 square feet of counter space.

Over-the-range microwaves
Often labeled as OTRs, these models are often bought as replacements or when a kitchen is remodeled. They can be vented to the outside, but don't expect an over-the-range microwave to vent as well as a range hood that extends over the front burner.

Pros: Over-the-range microwaves leave the counter workspace clear.
Cons: Installation might require an electrician.

Built-in microwaves
Often bought as replacements or when a kitchen is remodeled, built-in microwaves are installed within custom cabinets or over counters but flush with the bottoms of flanking cabinets. Typically, built-in models will not have finished sides, nor do they have vents, though some (over-the-counter types) do have finished sides and work lights.

Pros: Built-ins keep counters clear, and allow you to have a range hood, which works better at venting than over-the-range microwaves.
Cons: Installation might require an electrician.

FEATURES

Manufacturers are adding more and more bells and whistles to their microwaves. When considering microwave oven features, think twice about investing in shortcuts and conveniences you might not use.

Power rating

The magnetron, which generates the microwaves, is the heart of the oven. Midsized and large ovens are rated at 850 to 1,650 watts; compact ovens, at 600 to 800 watts. More watts mean more heat. But differences of 100 watts or so don't matter much.

Sensor

It measures emitted steam to determine when food is done; that helps prevent over- or undercooking.

Shortcut keys

Earlier microwaves had just an automatic popcorn setting and perhaps a few others. Some now have 18 or more auto settings for foods such as oatmeal, pasta, stew, grits, and souffles, as well as for reheating or defrosting. That eliminates the need to worry about time and power settings; just press the appropriate button.
Smart Shopping: Microwave Ovens
Numeric keypad Use it to set cooking times and power levels. It's easier to use than a dial.

A 1-minute or 30-second key

It extends the preset cooking time, maintaining whatever power level was selected. It also allows quick adjustments to your previous settings--pushing the button more than once multiplies the time extension.

Turntable vs. tray

A microwave oven must keep food moving for uniform heating. Most microwaves have a turntable that rotates the food. Some replace the turntable with a rectangular tray that slides from side to side. An elongated platter that's too large to rotate might fit on a sliding tray.

Convection cooking, grilling, and browning

These features are aimed at homeowners who want a second oven without having to remodel. But none of the tested models consistently provided the results you'd get in a regular oven.

Removable racks

These let you cook several foods at once. Even a coffee mug is too high for some models unless you remove a rack.
Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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