a microwave oven with a bowl of salad in front of it

Image credit: Whirlpool.

Microwaves: More than Popcorn

When it comes to cooking, it seems like there should be two different eras. There’s the long era of B.M — Before Microwaves! – and the wonderful era of A.M., meaning After Microwaves. Before microwaves, bringing a single cup of water to a boil meant putting it in a pot, getting that pot on the stove, applying heat, and waiting. Nowadays, you just fill the cup with water, put it in the microwave for a minute, and press a button. Microwave ovens work by firing electromagnetic radiation at foodstuffs to excite and generate thermal energy from the inside out. They’ve revolutionized cookery. Today’s microwaves are far more powerful and sophisticated than the clunky behemoths that inaugurated the A.M. era. If you’re in the market for a new microwave, keep the following in mind to make your best purchase.

Kitchen Placement

You have three options for where your new microwave oven can go. Countertop microwaves rest on any available kitchen countertop. The door will open to the left; all you need is access to a three-hole outlet.. The advantage of the countertop microwave is portability. The disadvantage is that they have zero provision for ventilation. If all you’re doing with the microwave is heating water or making popcorn, there won’t be much of a ventilation problem.

Microwaves can also be built into your kitchen cabinetry. These built in models tend to have drop-down doors that open like a conventional oven. Some, though, may have doors that open to the left. These built-in units may even fit above your kitchen range, or be paired to match a wall oven. Your range hood will provide excellent ventilation.

Finally, some microwaves designed to go underneath your wall oven or countertop. These might even slide out on runners. What’s good about these models is how easy it is for kids to use them. No spillage. What’s bad is that very young children could insert cookware that is not microwave-safe, and unwittingly cause a fire. Be cautious making your selection; no one knows your household as well as you do.

Size and Power

Just as you’re the best judge of safety in your household, you’re the best judge of how big your microwave needs to be and how much power it needs to deliver. Microwave power is measured in watts.The higher the wattage, the greater the cooking power. Compact models may be as modest as 600 watts. Large ovens can go up to 1,600 watts or more. The difference of a thousand watts is substantial. A hundred watts, not so much. You know best how much and what kind of cooking you’ll do in your microwave. For reheating, pre-packaged dinners, popcorn, and the occasional cup of tea, lower wattage could be just fine.

Similarly, you don’t need a huge microwave interior unless you’re an ambitious cook. Bring your most common microwave-safe dishes and cookware with you when you shop, to be sure that they fit in the microwave that you’re considering. Modern microwaves may have interior shelves; check that your most common coffee cup can fit under or above the shelving. Also, microwaves ensure even heat with either a rotating circular plate, or a tray that gets moved from side to side inside the cooking compartment. Your cookware may function better in one configuration than another.

Controlling the Cooking

Your first microwave probably had a spinning dial that worked as a timer, and maybe another dial to set power from zero to ten. Things have changed. Push button controls allow you to set time, temperature, and even the specific type of food being cooked or defrosted with the press of a key. A button that allows you to add an additional thirty seconds or a minute of cook time to whatever you’ve already heated can be very convenient. The most sophisticated microwaves now have with moisture sensors for automatic shut off, the ability to circulate air (convection cooking), brown the top of whatever you’re preparing, and even grill. Try before you buy, or least read reviews and evaluations by chefs whom you trust. Though the technology continues to improve, make sure that these features deliver the performance you’re looking for if you’re going to make the investment.

Extra Points

It’s not just the cooking, it’s the cleanup. The newest microwave need nothing more sophisticated on their interior than a damp cloth. They’re that easy. Steel exteriors look great with a little window cleaner and a paper tower. They’re also more durable than plastic, which may crack with lots of use.