It heats up your leftovers and your cold cups of tea and pings to let you know when it’s finished. For most of us, that’s all we know about the box lurking on our kitchen counter. But of course, there's more to it than that. Read on to find out which kind of microwave is right for you.
The higher your microwave’s wattage, the faster it can cook food. That’s the key point to know. While more watts equal more power, they also mean a higher price tag.
So, how low can you go? 320-500-watt microwaves are considered to be very low power. They’re for use in caravans and other generator-powered set-ups. You won’t want one of those in your home.
If price is everything, you can get a 700-watt microwave for £50+. However, in most cases, it’ll be basic and slow. As low-wattage microwaves don’t distribute heat as efficiently as more powerful alternatives, you’ll need to take your food out and stir it for even cooking.
A 1,000-watt microwave should represent both a quality appliance and a reasonable price point. With a bit of luck and a good deal, you should be able to get one for little more than a 700-watt model.
A 1,200-watt microwave would be among the highest-powered for home use. On the top end of the scale, a 1,850-watt microwave would be better suited to a commercial environment.
Microwave wattage and size tend to go hand in hand, so a 1,000-watt microwave is going to be a reasonable standard size.
Types of microwave
It only microwaves, nothing more. This used to be standard, but combinations and microwaves with grills are growing in popularity. Still, a regular solo microwave will do you nicely if you only want to use it to defrost and reheat.
A combination microwave uses a mix of microwave cooking, steaming, a grill and convection heating (circulated hot air) to cook your food. This means that it can roast, crisp and brown dishes like a conventional oven. You can use the functions separately, or at once.
Fans of combination microwaves say they save time and power (no need to fire up the big oven just for a jacket potato), while delivering oven-quality food.
The best combination microwaves come with multi-step programming, which uses the microwave, convection and grill functions in stages to cook food perfectly. They can handle much more complicated recipes than your average heated-up-soup, like flans, meringues, cakes and pies. The steam function is also useful if healthy cooking is a priority for you.
On the downside, they are more expensive than a regular microwave and likely to take up more space.
This is exactly what you’d expect, combining microwaving and grilling functions. You can use the cooking methods together, or one at a time.
As with a convection device, a microwave with an inverter instead of an electric coil or transformer is likely to be more expensive. However, it delivers an uninterrupted flow of power, using less energy and distributing heat more efficiently for even cooking. This means you can use lower heat settings, which will preserve the texture and flavour of food.
Location, location, location
A countertop microwave is the standard. What you lose in counter space, you make up for in simplicity. There’s no need to install it – just unbox it and plug it in.
Over-the-range microwaves take the place of range hoods, removing fumes, steam, smoke and heat from the air. They have a light and a fan built into the base. They are generally more expensive than a countertop model and will probably require a professional installation.
If you can bring yourself to remove the cabinet full of old takeaway containers and ramekins, you might free up enough space for an inbuilt microwave.
While it’s advisable to get a professional installer, if you consider the microwave’s venting needs, you can buy a trim kit and do it yourself. As well as saving counter space, an inbuilt microwave gives a kitchen a high-end look.
Functions and accessories
Flatbed or turntable?
A flatbed microwave has two key advantages over a turntable: you can use more of its internal space as you can fit in rectangular or oval dishes without giving them space to rotate, and it’s easier to clean. However, if the flatbed comes with a grill, this can cancel out the easy-clean aspect as the grill can be a bit fiddly.
The only real disadvantage of a flatbed is price.
Most microwaves will have some auto-cook functions. You're most likely to see the auto-defrost or auto-reheat options. Simply input the weight of your food and your microwave will choose the best programme to prepare it.
Higher end models won’t even require you to enter your food’s weight, instead analysing the steam to calculate power and cooking time.
Combination microwaves also offer auto-cook programmes that choose the correct combination of microwave, convection and grill, for more complicated recipes or to defrost, cook and brown a dish. Newer microwaves may even have a pizza function!
A microwave’s heating capacity is rated from A to E, with E heating food most quickly. Your microwave’s rating will probably be shown on its door. E is the most common rating.
Some microwave manufacturers advertise accessories as a selling point, including steamers for rice and veg, and crisper plates to save pies and pizzas from soggy bases.
In our opinion, when buying a microwave, ignore the lure of extras. It's best to focus on the quality of the microwave itself and on getting the best deal possible. Cooking accessories tend to be inexpensive and easy to find.