Microwave shopping for information – how you can purchase a microwave – goodhousekeeping.com
We all know that microwaves are super-convenient appliances for quick food preparation. But, if you thought they were just for reheating leftovers and ready meals, you might be surprised what some machines can do.
You have straightforward solo microwaves that will do the basic heating and defrosting tasks. Then there are combination models – some with integrated grills and others that work as a countertop oven.
There’s a lot to consider before you choose the right microwave for you, and we’ve put all the information together in one place to help you make the decision, as well the machines that came top of the GHI’s rigorous tests.
Think about where the microwave will sit. Bear in mind that it needs a gap of 15cm above and behind it for ventilation. This is particularly important for a combination oven, because a lot of air is expelled when using the dual function. Microwave ovens can be hung on the wall using special brackets to save space. If a microwave is built-in to a kitchen, you will need a ventilation kit, available from the manufacturer.
What were the types of microwave oven?
Solo microwaves are the ultimate for simple tasks, but make sure you do your homework before buying: high price and high wattage does not necessarily equate to high quality. Solo’s tend to be cheap, compact, easy to use and less bulky than their combi cousins, meaning you shouldn’t need much space on your kitchen worktop. On the downside, they generally have a smaller capacity and limited functionality, although with many of the latest models you should find an array of auto-cook programmes as well as the standard heating and defrosting settings. You will also find they don’t crisp or brown your food as well as a regular oven, so are better suited as a speedy alternative to heating or cooking than an overall oven replacement.
When shopping for a solo microwave, make sure to look for one with adjustable heat settings. Although most microwave tasks are performed on a ‘high’ power setting; lower power levels are more suitable for tackling delicate tasks like softening butter or melting chocolate, or for defrosting frozen foods.
The GHI’s top solo microwaves
Best solo microwave
Russell Hobbs RHMD804CP Solo Microwave
This simple solo is intuitive to use and its compact size makes it ideal for small households or people with limited space. It cooked jacket potatoes thoroughly and heated soup evenly. It didn’t struggle with chilled or frozen ready meals and it gave us perfectly defrosted minced beef, with no cooked parts. It has enough functions for your daily needs and there are eight auto-cook menus to choose from. The copper effect finish isn’t for everyone, but it stands out in a market dominated by black and white appliances.
Runner-up solo microwave
Samsung MS23H3125AK Solo Microwave
Sleek, simple and easy to use, our experts found this microwave performed at its best for evenly cooking fluffy jacket potatoes and defrosting meat without cooking any of it. It has six power levels, including a useful steam-clean function. The deodorising feature also diminishes those unwanted smells that usually linger after cooking. But the door window is rather small, which makes keeping an eye on your cooking a little hard. We found the design user-friendly and intuitive to use, though.
Sharp R274SLM Solo Microwave
With a similar compact size to the winner, this model still leaves you enough room for a reasonably sized dinner plate (it has a 20-litre capacity). It’s a basic microwave that does a good job at most tasks. In our performance tests, it defrosted mince, heated soup and cooked jacket potatoes without any issues. It has ten auto-menu programmes as well as weight defrost, time defrost and eco settings. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use microwave that doesn’t take up much space in your kitchen, this should do the job.
Russell Hobbs RHM2017 Solo Microwave
Another top model from Russell Hobbs, this has a mirrored glass front window, which feels sturdy when opening. We like its simplicity and how well it performed when cooking fluffy and light jacket potatoes and heating soup through the bowl. It calculates cooking times for you thanks to auto-cook settings, including pizza, potato, meat and fish, among others. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite reach acceptable temperatures when used to cook chilled and frozen ready meals, so we had to pop them back in.
Russell Hobbs RHRETMD706 Solo Microwave
This retro-inspired Russell Hobbs solo microwave was a solid performer. It defrosted minced beef without cooking it in any areas, heated soup through and cooked light and fluffy jacket potatoes. We did find that our chilled lasagne ready meal wasn’t quite hot enough when following the pack instructions. This model is a couple of centimetres deeper than the winning one so it doesn’t need loads of space. It comes in three colours, with matching kettles and toasters available (it’s also available with manual controls).
Combination microwaves go beyond the features of a regular solo microwave, some of which have functions that may rival your regular oven. When a combi microwave features a grill, you will get all of the regular features of a solo microwave, but with the added benefit of an internal grill. By using a heating element together with normal microwave cooking, your food will be browned as well as cooked, giving it a greater appearance and texture. Bear in mind, however, that the grill element is likely to be less powerful than a conventional grill, so toasting may be slower and foods can become drier.
Many combination models can also be used for baking and roasting. Some have more specialised functions too, including steaming. If you like to batch-cook and pre-prepare meals for the week ahead, a good defrosting programme will also be important. Not all combination microwaves will have all of these features, so it is important that you know what you want from your combi microwave beforehand, to ensure that it meets your requirements.
The GHI’s top combi microwaves
Best combi microwave
Sharp R959SLMAA Combination Microwave
The grill and convection oven in this Sharp combi microwave impressed us with great results in almost all our performance tests. Jacket potatoes were fluffy with crispy skins, mincemeat was defrosted well, cupcakes were well-risen and golden, and ready meals (both chilled and frozen) were evenly-browned and cooked. You can use the convection oven from 40°C-250°C. Its large capacity means it’s possible to use this model to for all your convection cooking needs but it’ll take up a lot of counter space.
Runner-up combi microwave
Panasonic NN-CD58JS Combination Microwave
This Panasonic is a powerful combination microwave and convection oven; it can grill, bake and function as a regular microwave. There are plenty of auto-cook programs, including those for fresh vegetables, jacket potatoes and roast lamb and beef. The grill produced sausages with well-browned, crispy skins and moist centres. The microwave and grill combi-function quickly cooked a ready-made macaroni cheese. The convection oven preheated in just over five minutes and baked a batch of fluffy, golden fairy cakes. When used in combination with the microwave, we roasted a whole chicken in 45 minutes.
Best budget combi microwave
This is an easy-to-use microwave and grill, but there’s no convection oven program. There are plenty of auto programs, including those for rice, fresh fish and a variety of ready meals. There’s also a handy keep-warm function and you can use the microwave and grill together in combination mode. It defrosted minced beef without cooking it and the grill browned food evenly, but there’s only one temperature setting. It made jacket potatoes that had crispy skins and soft, fluffy insides and bowls of soup were evenly heated too.
Best built-in combi microwave
Panasonic NN-CS894SBPQ Combination Steam Microwave Oven
This microwave can be freestanding or built-in. It’s versatile, with a large selection of settings covering all culinary ground from roast potatoes, chilled and frozen meals and automatic steam settings for fish, chicken, rice and vegetables. It has three shelf positions which are ideal to maximise cooking space and the drop-down door is useful for resting hot or heavy dishes. On test, we found our jacket potatoes overcooked on the bottom and undercooked on top but. But the steam functions are simple and salmon fillets cooked using the auto steam setting turned out perfectly.
Best budget built-in combi microwave
Indesit Aria MWI 3213 IXUK Built-in Microwave with Grill
This is ideal if you don’t want a full combi but would like a microwave that can grill and brown foods. It’s not an oven replacement, though. Despite being only 750W, this microwave excelled in most of our tests. It did well with soup, jacket potatoes and frozen ready meals. The weight defrost program also thawed 500g of minced beef in under three minutes. But it wasn’t as good when heating chilled ready meals. The combi setting with grill function did produce good results – we heated and browned a bubbling macaroni cheese.
Key features to look out for
Seemingly simple, microwaves have come a long way since the days of pressing a button and waiting until your food is hot enough. Here are some of the key features to look out for when buying a microwave.
This generally varies from about 17L to over 32L. For larger families, look for at least 27L, which will have a larger turntable and more interior height so you can cook more than one dish at a time. When you’re comparing models, the turntable size and interior height are more important than capacity. During our microwave tests, we consider the widest size plate that can fit through the door and sit flat on the turntable inside. For family use, ideally the turntable diameter should be at least 30cm and the interior height more than 20cm to accommodate larger plates and portions of food.
Microwaves come in a whole range of sizes, from compact countertop models to larger machines, so it’s worth asking yourself how much kitchen space you can reasonably afford to give up. Solo microwaves tend to be smallest while some combination models can be double the size, so if countertop space may be an issue you may wish to choose a solo model.
The size of the door is also worth considering. Doors that are wide-opening make it much easier to remove hot or heavy dishes, which can be especially useful if you have reduced strength or mobility. Some combination models also have a drop-down door, which can be a handy place to rest your hot dishes on when the door is open. This feature is particularly useful if you have a built-in model at eye level.
You will also need to consider clearance space – no matter the microwave, all models will require some space around them for sufficient air ventilation. Check the clearance space required for the model before you buy and ensure there is a power outlet close to the area you intend on housing your microwave.
When it comes to microwaves, wattage equals power. Wattages range between 650W-1950W and in general, the higher the wattage, the quicker the cooking time.
Some combination ovens only have pre-set programmes for combination cooking. This means the microwave power level and convection temperature are fixed – medium microwave and 180°C/350°F, for example. A model that allows you to select your own settings is the most versatile.
The heating category simply reflects the wattage, with A being the least powerful and E being the most powerful. As a result, you can assume that the more powerful categories further down the alphabet means the faster your food will cook.
Turntable vs Flatbed
Solo microwaves and many combination microwaves have a turntable inside, which automatically rotates food to ensure even cooking. These can be removed for easy cleaning. Some models have a setting allowing you to turn this feature off so it remains stationary, much like a flatbed, depending on the size and shape of your dish and cooking requirements.
Flatbed microwaves use a different technology which evenly distributes heat like a turntable but without the rotation. With a flatbed you get extra cooking space and it offers greater versatility to place dishes of any shape inside the microwave, without having to account for extra room for rotation. There are also less dirt traps than microwaves with a turntable, although you can generally expect to pay more.
How we test microwaves
Every microwave is put through a series of cooking trials to see how they fare and to find out how they perform in real life, just like they would be used at home.
For solo microwaves, our rigorous tests involve heating soup, cooking ready meals (both chilled and frozen), making jacket potatoes and defrosting mincemeat. With combination microwaves, we conduct the same tests as solo microwaves in addition to using the grill setting to cook pasta bakes, sausages and macaroni cheese, roasting a whole chicken and baking fairy cakes. Not every combi microwave will have every type of cooking setting – for instance, some only have a grill feature – so we test each one accordingly.
We also look at their ease of use, which includes whether the controls and microwave overall is easy to operate, if there are sufficient power levels and if the interior is easy to clean. We look at the design of each; assessing the size of the turntable plate, if the programme controls are clear and they are of a good build quality. Clarity and depth of the instruction manual is also considered.
Other features and specs to look out for
Auto cook programmes
Microwaves with pre-programmed settings take away the guesswork of preparing your favourite meals. Input the type and weight of the food and the microwave will automatically calculate the power and length of cooking time required to cook your food safely. Most microwaves also offer an auto-defrost setting that works in a similar way, using bursts of low heat to defrost food based on the type and weight.
Using this feature allows you to program different modes of cooking in a sequence which will automatically change during the cooking process. For instance, starting with defrosting your food and then switching to cook it.
Some combi-microwaves feature a grill only, which are just like a solo microwave but with the added benefit of an internal grill. Grilling bulbs are set behind a metal mesh, making the grill quick to heat and easy to clean. Quartz grills are less powerful than using a grill function in a conventional oven grill, but do a similar job and are suitable for surface-browning food.
Great for cooking thicker foods, such as pork chops, the radiant grill in your microwave will require preheating before use and is less powerful than a conventional oven grill.
This detects the level of moisture in food and the oven’s humidity, and adjusts power levels and cooking time accordingly for best results.
Families with young children will benefit from a microwave with a child lock feature. This will prevent children from accidentally starting a programme or tampering with the cooking timings. They are easy to use and usually involve pressing a sequence of buttons before being able to continue operating the appliance.
You may want to pay attention to the control panel, which can vary depending on the microwave type and model. With push-button controls, larger buttons and icons are more clearly labelled with a larger font and it’s easier to select the intended program rather than the button next to the one you require; unlike control panels with smaller buttons that are closer together. Some models have touch-panel controls instead, which are easier to clean than panels with buttons or knobs. Microwaves with digital displays should be bright enough to read properly.
Are microwaves energy efficient?
No matter the wattage of your microwave, if you use it at full power it will consume the stated wattage. If you use lower power settings, including functions that require less power, such as a defrost setting, it will consume less power than the listed wattage. It’s also worth bearing in mind that even on standby mode, your microwave will be using some energy. If you are concerned about energy efficiency, look at models with an energy-safe mode, which will reduce the amount of power used.
How to clean your microwave
Without a regular wipe down, microwave ovens can end up covered in dried-on food stains and cling onto the odour of yesterday’s lasagne. Here are some of our top tips to avoid your microwave housing dirt and grime.
To remove microwave odours and loosen dried-on stains, add some slices of lemon or several tablespoons of vinegar to a bowl of cold water, ensuring the bowl is no more than half full. Heat on high until the water boils and windows get steamed up. Leave to cool for about 15 minutes before opening the door. Wipe dry with absorbent kitchen paper. Don’t forget to wipe down the dials and knobs and the top of the microwave, if they are exposed.
If you have a microwave with an acrylic or painted interior, wipe it with a cloth and a solution of warm water and washing-up liquid. Never use anything abrasive. Clean the glass plate regularly – these can usually go into the dishwasher but check the manufacturer’s guidelines for your specific model. Don’t forget to clean the rubber seal with a damp cloth, as dirt can become trapped. Clean the window with a mixture of half vinegar and half water, then buff dry.
Combination microwaves generally have stainless-steel interiors and as such can get coated in burnt on grease like any conventional oven. Regular surface cleaners will clean the inside of your microwave, but will leave behind a fragrance which can mingle with your food so if you’ve got one of these, we recommend using a specialised microwave cleaning spray. Make sure to spray on to a cloth first to avoid it getting into vents. For our detailed expert cleaning guide, click here.
Safety and cooking top tips
Always use microwave-safe containers and tableware. Ceramics, glassware and some plastics are fine, but don’t use anything metal – even a metal trim or twist-ties. Consult user instructions for more details.Covered food should be vented during cooking to allow steam to escape.Stir food or rotate dishes during cooking to ensure even heating.The outer edges of food will cook first in a microwave oven. Place thicker parts of food at the outside of the cooking container and thinner parts in the centre.After heating, always check food is piping hot throughout. If you have a food thermometer check it reaches 70°C in the centre.When a recipe specifies standing time, it is important to follow the advice exactly. The heat within the food continues to cook it even when it has been removed from the oven, and standing time is calculated to take account of this.Take care when removing cooked food from the microwave and when peeling back any covering. The container may not be hot, but the food inside it and any steam released will be.Don’t operate your microwave oven when it is empty – the microwaves will bounce off the interior and could damage the oven.Check with your doctor if you have a pacemaker. Modern pacemakers are protected against interference, but some older ones make be adversely affected when in close proximity to a microwave oven.
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