Microwaves come in a wide variety of brands, sizes and styles. Because wading through the full selection of microwaves can be time consuming, it helps to have a general idea of what you want before you start looking. Then you can compare models from competing manufacturers and make your choice based on available features, price, and how the microwave will fit into the layout and design of your kitchen.
All microwaves essentially provide the same function: quick reheating, defrosting and cooking using conventional microwave technology. However, many available combination microwaves feature a variety of functions, while other manufacturers have improved performance, making microwave cooking faster, more powerful and more precise.
When shopping for a microwave oven, you have a few basic options to begin. The different categories of microwaves include countertop, over-the-range and built-in models. In terms of size, compact through luxury-size microwaves are readily available. Looking at performance, microwaves differ in the output of power, technology used and in application. Another distinguishing characteristic is the fact that many microwaves offer special cooking, warming and/or ventilation features. Whether you want a basic appliance or one that features advanced performance, you can practically custom match a microwave to your specific needs.
Looking at countertop microwaves first, these are among the most common. Intended for placement upon a counter or underneath a cabinet, countertop microwaves come in all sizes, from compact to full size. In terms of capacity, the cooking cavity of a countertop microwave ranges from about 0.7 to 2.0 cubic feet. Available almost exclusively in black, white or stainless steel finishes, countertop microwaves feature a side-swing door, a vertically-aligned side control panel and a sleek exterior design.
Next, over-the-range microwaves are designed for installation directly above an oven cooktop, keeping the controls and cooking cavity at eye level. Over-the-range microwaves feature a built-in ventilation system for the cooktop below capable of venting up to 300 CFM. Some models feature a light that illuminates the cooktop. Lastly, built-in microwaves are meant to be installed into a kitchen cabinet such as with a wall oven. This installation method saves space and allows you to fully integrate the microwave into the layout of the kitchen.
Size and Specification
Compact microwaves typically offer a cooking cavity of 1.0 cubic foot or less, while full-, family- and luxury-size units offer up to 2.0 cubic feet or more. Most microwaves feature a squared-off interior compartment, but a few manufacturers including LG offer units with a rounded cooking cavity. Not only does this design feature make cleaning easier, but it also allows for larger cooking dishes to be used without getting stuck. Microwaves nearly always feature a removable glass turntable. Powered by a separate motor, this component keeps food moving when the microwave cooks. As the food rotates during the cycle, hot and cold spots are minimized as the microwaves are able to penetrate the food from all sides. When using bigger cookware, there is a chance that it will get stuck when rotating, so you have the option with some microwaves to switch the turntable off.
Power and Performance
Microwaves come equipped with a heating element of a particular power output. Commonly, elements from 700 to 1200 Watts are used. GE Profile produces a speed cooker with an 1800-Watt element, so it all depends on the model. Specialty units such as combination convection microwaves often include a second, more powerful element for use when convection cooking.
While conventional microwaves use standard technology to cook, reheat and defrost, Panasonic microwaves use inverter technology. This works by effectively slowing down the microwave pulses which creates a consistent output of power. Even without a convection cooker, inverter microwaves cook food more evenly and precisely, all while maintaining its taste and texture.
Over-the-Range and Built-In Microwaves
These microwave styles are distinct in that they are integrated into the kitchen schematic, whether installed in a cabinet or above a range. Over-the-range microwaves, as mentioned, are at minimum 2-in-1 appliances, for they double as a cooktop vent. More advanced models are actually 3-in-1 appliances, adding a convection cooker to the mix. Also called microwave hoods, LG over-the-range units, for instance, feature the QuietPower ventilation system with an Extenda vent, a wider alternative that vents all 4 burners instead of just 2. LG models also feature a cooktop light and an interior warming lamp.
Built-in microwaves more often than not require a trim kit to finish out the edges of the appliance once it's in place. Many countertop microwaves may be installed into a cabinet with an optional kit. Built-in units come with different entry methods. Many feature the traditional side-swing door, while others including models by KitchenAid and Whirlpool offer built-in microwaves with pull-down doors, resembling a single oven. An alternative style offered by Sharp is a microwave drawer that installs below a wall oven or underneath a counter.
Among the most versatile kitchen appliances are convection microwaves. These units, produced by numerous manufacturers including Bosch, GE, Amana, Viking, Sharp, Dacor and Haier just to name some, offer not only standard microwave settings, but they function as convection ovens as well. This allows you to produce fast, effective results when baking, browning or roasting foods. Combination cook settings are possible as well which combine the microwave and convection capabilities for even faster cooking. With an included wire rack, roasting, grilling and multi-dish cooking are possible with convection microwaves. Due to their capabilities, convection microwaves are more expensive than standard units, but they are doubly effective.
Some of the more common features of microwaves include electronic touchpad controls, digital display, multiple power levels and sensor cooking options which use a humidity monitor to automatically adjust time and power level. One-touch cook settings, whether for popcorn, melting and softening or other foods are common as well. Auto and timed defrost, add-a-minute button and a kitchen timer are other basic features.
Prices for microwaves vary wildly, with compact units available for as little as $40. However, depending on the brand, style and performance features, you can spend $1,700 or more on a home microwave oven. Commercial microwaves found in restaurants, cafes, break rooms, convenience stores and elsewhere can cost several thousand dollars.