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Microwave Ovens

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Which microwave fits your needs best?

Microwave ovens have come a long way since they first hit the market in the late 1960s. Those bulky silver boxes with rotary dials offered fewer features than today's appliances and cost more. For $150, you now can pick up a mid-size microwave in a variety of colors and configurations. Step up in price to a 1100-watt, top-of-the-line model, and you may find a scrollable help screen, humidity sensors that measure the moisture in food for precise cooking times, and even a message reminder function.

Types and sizes

Microwaves can sit on the countertop, go over a range, or be built into a wall. You can also buy a microwave oven that either sits on a counter or is installed over a range or in a wall or cabinet. Microwaves come in three general sizes: compact, mid-size, and family size. Microwaves also come in an assortment of colors, allowing you to coordinate with your cabinets or kitchen appliances.

The most popular style of microwave is the countertop, which comes in all sizes. This type has finished sides and is portable. If counter space is at a premium, optional installation kits are often available to install your unit under cabinets. Some manufacturers have introduced "space saving" microwaves, which are the width of a standard microwave but not as tall. They can be mounted under a cabinet.

An over-the-range microwave is positioned above the cooktop. It has finished sides, requires installation, and includes a cooktop light. It frees up countertop space and contributes to a neat, upscale kitchen design. Most are midsize or family size. They cost twice as much as large countertop models. These ovens are often not as deep as countertop models, so their turntables are smaller than large countertop models. Several manufacturers overcome this drawback by letting you deactivate the turntable when you want to heat a large dish. Over-the-range models give you two exhaust options: one connects a fan to ductwork to exhaust odors and smoke from the range to outside, the other re-circulates and filters smoke with a ductless installation.

If there's no room over the range and you're tight on space, a built-in microwave may be the solution. It can be installed into a kitchen cabinet or wall. These models have unfinished sides, are often family size, and may include convection ovens or browning features. Microwave-convection oven combos, generally family size, combine the speed of a microwave with the browning capabilities of a convection oven.

Cooking power measurements

The higher the wattage, the faster food will cook. Higher wattage generally yields better results with foods such as popcorn. The most popular microwave ovens range from 700 watts to 1100 watts. Although more watts generally cost more, today's shopper for a family-size model will get higher wattage and shorter cook times than five years ago. That's because manufacturers have been steadily cranking up the cooking power. The wattage for a typical family-size microwave jumped from 700 watts in 1993 to as much as 1100 and higher today.

Cost and power

Microwave oven manufacturers offer shoppers a variety of price points, ranging from $70 or less for a 700-watt model to up to $900 for an 1100-watt model.

Countertop models are generally less expensive than built-in or combo units. With prices on microwave ovens dropping, you can pick up a compact unit with 700 watts for $70 to $170. Midsize countertop microwaves cost roughly $150 with 800 watts or more and offer lots of features. A family-size countertop can sell for $300 with 1000 watts. A midsize over-the-range microwave with 1100 watts typically costs $500. Built-in models with 1100 watts of power cost about $800. Microwave/convection ovens with 1100 watts cost as much as $900.

Factors to consider

What size do you need? This depends on two things: cooking needs and available space. If you plan to prepare large dishes in the microwave, you'll want a sizable turntable. Shopping by capacity size alone can be misleading. Not all the space in a microwave is usable. If all you'll do is warm coffee or leftovers, a compact model will do. If you have a small family or a utility kitchen with no room to spare, consider an over-the-range model.

What kind of cook are you? If you like to experiment in the kitchen, check out models with a favorite recipe feature, which lets you program into the microwave your most-used recipes. How many watts do you want? If your microwave will only be used for reheating, a 600-watt to 800-watt oven will do. But if you expect to cook from scratch, more watts may come in handy.

Are you a technophobe? If you're not one to tinker with extra features go with a basic model. Some units pack in many features that are more complicated to decipher than bare-bones models. When buying a microwave/convection oven, study the control panel. On some units, the controls can be difficult to understand. The reason: the controls for both appliances are often on one panel.

Features

Look for a control panel that's and has large, legible type. Automatic cooking pads let you reheat or cook certain foods for a predetermined length of time, so there's no need to input the time. Some microwave oven controls can be adjusted to the quantity of food, so that, for instance, you press the pad once for one potato, twice for two. Quick start is another time-saver. One touch starts the oven for 30 seconds or one minute. This is ideal for adding time at the end of cooking if food isn't hot enough.

  • Automatic weight defrost: defrosts at preset power levels after entering an item's weight and category
  • Self-returning (or boomerang) turntables: return to their starting position, so you can easily grab items such as a coffee mug without having to reach to the back of the oven cavity

Installation

If you're buying a countertop model, measure the width of your space. Installation of a countertop model requires a three-prong outlet. You don't have to have a dedicated outlet, but it's often recommended. Since older kitchens have 120-volt outlets, several appliances in use on one circuit can cause the fuse or circuit breaker to trip. To work around this problem, avoid simultaneously running several high wattage kitchen appliances such as toasters or coffee makers, rearrange your small kitchen appliances to use other circuits, or buy a microwave with low wattage.

If you're buying a built-in microwave, measure the height and width of your kitchen cabinet or wall opening before shopping. To install a built-in unit, you'll probably need to call an electrician.

Over-the-range microwave ovens typically come in 30-inch widths to match the width of your range or hood opening, so there's usually no need to measure the space. To mount and connect your unit and/or fan, you'll likely need to call a professional.

Microwave ovens and cancer

Federal regulations have established strict limits on the amount of energy that can be emitted by microwave ovens. These standards are much lower than the level at which any adverse health effects are believed possible. Even if an oven leaks, you may feel some warmth but you won't be at risk for cancer.

Glossary

A – C

Additional time settings: Touchpads that let users add from 30 seconds to 10 minutes of cook time - or a programmable amount - at one touch.

Adjustable sound levels: A volume control for the alert signal at the end of cooking time.

Air filter: Found in over-the-range microwaves, the air filter and the built-in exhaust fan help to reduce smoke and odors produced by cooking foods on the range below.

Approximate manufacturer's price: To calculate the approximate manufacturer's price, brandwise researches the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) and the minimum advertised price (MAP) through retailers nationwide. When we are able to collect it, brandwise uses the MSRP; if not, we resort to the MAP. In the absence of both prices, brandwise displays the highest price charged by a brandwise retailer for that specific product. Because of that, the price consumers end up paying may be slightly lower or higher than what they see on the site, depending on which merchant is selected, sales in progress, special offers and other variables.

Auto defrost: Automatically uses pre-determined times and power levels to defrost food according to food category and weight.

Auto nightlight: A light installed on the bottom of over-the-range microwaves that illuminates the surface below and is programmable to go on and off at certain times.

Baked goods option: A pre-programmed touchpad for heating, cooking, or defrosting baked goods.

Bi-level cooking rack: A rack that lets you cook more than one item at the same time.

Browning element: An electrical heating element that causes food to color or brown and crisp during operation. Built-in: A microwave that is intended to be installed in a cabinet or wall in locations other than above the range.

Capacity: The volume of the oven cavity measured in cubic feet.

Casserole/stew option: A preset feature that heats up casseroles or stews.

Child safety: Design feature intended to prevent child accidents by locking the control panel.

Combination oven: An oven that combines the cooking functions of a microwave and a convection oven; also called a microwave/convection oven.

Convection oven: An electric oven that uses a fan to circulate hot air, allowing food to brown and crisp.

Cook sensor: An electronic sensor that measures the steam or humidity released by food in the microwave and automatically determines cooking time as needed.

Cooking complete reminder: An alert that sounds when cooking has finished and continues to sound at intervals until the door is opened.

Cooktop light: A light on the bottom of an over-the-range microwave that illuminates the cooking surface below.

Countertop microwave: A microwave designed to be used as a standalone unit on a flat surface.

Cubic feet: The units used to measure the capacity of a microwave. The capacity of microwaves ranges from 0.6 cubic feet to 2.0 cubic feet.

D – G

Defrost sensor option: A sensor that measures the steam or humidity frozen food lets off and automatically determines defrosting time.

Delay start: A feature that lets you pre-program when you want the oven to begin operating.

Demo function: In the display window, this shows a tutorial and examples of how various options and functions operate.

Display: The area where the time of day, cooking time or other information is shown. This varies from a simple time display on some models to scrollable operating instructions on others.

Distribution: The way the oven distributes microwaves in the cooking cavity. There are three types: single emission (where one port shoots the microwaves), dual (two ports) or multiple (three or more).

Door swing: Whether the door opens to the left or the right.

Exhaust fan: A fan built into an over-the-range model that is designed to reduce odors and smoke from cooking foods on the range below.

Exhaust or recirculation: Found mostly in built-in or over-the-range models, the user is given two installation options: connect the exhaust fan to ductwork to exhaust odors and smoke outside the home or recirculate and filter smoke with a ductless installation.

Food index menu: A list of foods whose cooking times have been pre-programmed into the control panel in some models.

Fresh vegetable option: A preset feature that cooks fresh veggies to optimal doneness.

Frozen food option: A pre-programmed touchpad for cooking frozen foods.

H - P

Help function: A guide for users that varies from model to model. It may provide helpful instructions for certain functions or let users program certain options.

Hot liquid option: A preset feature that heats up liquids such as coffee, tea, soup or water.

Internal light: The light inside the microwave that goes on when the door is opened or the unit is in operation.

Meat option: A preset feature that cooks meat, according to weight, to an appropriate doneness.

Message reminder function: A programmable feature that lets a user leave messages and/or keep track of appointments and events by entering alert notices into the control panel.

Multi-lingual function: A feature that gives prompts in English, Spanish or French.

Over-the-range: A built-in microwave, equipped with an exhaust fan, that is designed to be installed above a range or cooktop. Generally, over-the-range microwaves offer both ducted and ductless venting options (see Exhaust or recirculation).

Popcorn preset option: A touchpad with pre-programmed times to cook a bag of microwave popcorn.

Popcorn sensor:  A device that measures the amount of moisture released by a bag of microwave popcorn and shuts the oven off when the popcorn is properly cooked.

Power levels:  The settings on the microwave that control the percentage of power output, commonly given in 10-percent increments ranging from a low power of 10 percent to a high power of 100 percent.

Pre-programmed dishes:  Foods such as pizza or frozen entrees for which times are already programmed into the control panel so the dishes can be cooked or heated at the touch of a button.

Preheat/warm option:  A preset feature that will provide low-level heating to food or plateware.

Quick start option:  A way to quickly start the microwave oven without pressing the start pad. There could be a pad called quick start or a number pad serving as the quick start option.

R - Z

Rack: A shelf inside a microwave oven or a combination microwave/convection oven that is designed to support cookware and increase cooking flexibility.

Recipes menu: An option that lets a user program cooking times into the microwave for favorite or frequently cooked recipes; the term varies by brand.

Reheat: An option on some units that allows food warm-up at the touch of a button. Some models employ a cooking sensor for this; others offer pre-set times.

Repeat function: Automatically repeats the last cooking command entered.

Safety compliance: A label stating that the oven has been tested and determined safe by such organizations as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Electrical Testing Lab (ETL) and has passed microwave performance standards set by the FCC and the DHHS (Dept. of Health & Human Services).

Self-returning turntable: A feature that ensures that some area of the turntable returns to its original position upon completion of cooking; used mostly for coffee mugs and small items.

Time presets: Pre-programmed cooking times usually ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

Turntable: A rotating device in the center of a unit that promotes more uniform cooking by allowing the food to be cooked evenly on all sides without stirring. Turntables are raised or recessed.

Turntable on/off: An option that allows the unit's turntable to be turned on or off; with the turntable off, the oven will accommodate larger dishes.

Under-the-counter: A microwave oven that can be installed under the countertop.

Wattage output: An electrical unit of measure describing the amount of microwave electricity effectively delivered while the oven is operating. The higher the wattage, the faster the microwave cooks.

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