While some of us treat our microwaves like low-quality burrito machines, new technology has made it easier to cook a wider range of foods than you might expect. You can cook an entire meal with your microwave if you wanted, and many people consider them a kitchen necessity even if they only use them to heat up leftovers and coffee.
But just because we use our microwaves a lot doesn’t mean we understand them — which becomes clear when people go to buy a new one. There’s a huge range of features and specs to think about, and choosing the right microwave starts with knowing how you’ll actually use it. If you’re in the market for a new microwave, here’s a guide to everything you need to think about in order to choose the right one.
The different types of microwaves
Your first decision is what type of microwave you need:
- Countertop. Usually the cheapest option, this is designed to sit on top of your kitchen counter and plug into a wall outlet. It takes up precious counter space, but can be moved about as needed.
- Over-the-range. Microwaves can be attached to a bracket under kitchen cabinets and over the stovetop. This makes sense, as it keeps all your heat-based cookery in one spot. If replacing an existing microwave, make sure that you know how the old one was installed — there’s typically a metal bracket that’s doing the heavy lifting of holding it in place, and you want to be sure your new one will fit the existing bracket or provide a new one. Over-the-range models also usually hook into your kitchen’s exhaust and ventilate while you cook.
- In-wall. These microwaves are designed to be embedded in the wall, and are usually finished and trimmed-in to give them a finished look. You might need a contractor to install these if you’re not handy. A consideration here is to choose a common size and shape — you can find oddball “tall” microwaves, but if you opt for one you’ll be locked into that oddball profile for a long time.
- Drawer. Usually the most expensive choice, a drawer microwave sits down among the lower cabinets of your kitchen where a drawer would normally be, and they pull out like a drawer as well. These keep your counters clear and can be easier to use because you’re not reaching up for sizzling hot bowls and stuff. Also, drawer microwaves can be finished to match your cabinetry, hiding the appliance until you need it.
Your choice of microwave type might be limited by your existing setup, of course, but if you’re renovating, this is your chance to have some agency.
How much different kinds of microwaves cost
There’s a pretty broad range of microwave prices, so knowing your budget goes a long way towards narrowing down your choices. Generally speaking, here’s what you can expect to spend on different types of microwaves:
- Countertop: $50 to $500, though the low end includes underpowered ovens (see Wattage section) that won’t be useful for much more than the occasional snack.
- Over-the-range: $200 to $600.
- Built-in: $400 to $1,000 (not including installation and trim work).
- Drawer: $1,000 to $2,000 (not including installation and finishing).
Consider the size of your microwave
When it comes to the size of your microwave, there are two considerations: Inside and out.
- Interior: All microwave capacity is measured in cubic feet and range from .5 cubic feet to about 2.2 cubic feet on the high end (often called “Large Capacity” microwaves). The smaller models are big enough to fit a single dinner plate or a bag of popcorn, but that’s about it. The largest microwaves can accommodate larger cookware and more items. Most people need something in-between, typically around 1.5 cubic feet. If you find yourself microwaving a lot of large dishes, go big. If you occasionally toss in a single bag of popcorn, you can go small.
- Exterior. You should also consider your exterior dimensions. Most over-the-range models are designed to sit over standard oven sizes, but if you’re replacing an existing oven you should measure first to be sure of the dimensions you need. If you’re opting for a countertop model, it depends entirely on your space needs. Tiny microwaves designed to fit in corners exist, but if you have the countertop space to spare you can go bigger. This is a chance to consider how well your current microwave works on your counters and make adjustments as needed.
Microwave wattage is important
Another core aspect of a microwave is how powerful it is. You might notice that the microwaveable foods have different instructions based on your wattage — the more watts, the more power, the faster things get hot — and according to Robust Kitchen, a 700-watt microwave can pop a bag of popcorn in about two minutes and 15 seconds, while a 1500-watt oven can serve that to you in less than half the time. Of course, the more watts, the more expensive, too.
You can get some wild microwaves that go up to 2400 watts — in the commercial arena. For your home, the highest you’ll find is about 1,250 watts. Generally, you’ll want to stay above 700 watts, with 900-1000 being the sweet spot for most cooking applications. But by all means — if you have the money and the need to shave 45 seconds off that popping session, go bigger.
The most common and important microwave features
Finally, the modern microwave comes with a plethora of options. In fact, even basic models come with pre-programmed buttons for popcorn, baked potatoes, or reheating travel mugs of coffee. No matter how expensive your microwave is, reading the manual at least once to de-mystify some of the features it comes with is time well spent. Other options that you should consider:
- Multipurpose: You can find microwaves that combine with other oven technologies like convection ovens, toasters, rotisserie cookers, or air fryers, giving you a 2 (or more)-for-1 advantage. This is especially great if you have limited space, or if you cook elaborate meals.
- Child lockout: If you have children who like to open things and investigate, a child lock feature can prevent them from opening the microwave and burning themselves when you’re just a bit too slow retrieving something after the ding.
- Optional rotation: Microwaves cook food by slamming radio waves through it, making its molecules vibrate, and most rotate the food in order to even out the effect. But if you have a large plate or pan that fits in the microwave but won’t turn easily, you might want the ability to turn off the rotation and manually turn your dish.
- Racks: Cook a lot with your microwave? Having the ability to insert a rack so you can cook two items at once can be a huge time saver.
Microwave ovens are incredible inventions. Buying too much (or too little) oven, or buying an appliance that doesn’t fit your cooking space can blunt the advantages that a microwave offers, so be sure to consider each aspect of your needs before you commit.
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