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Microwaves are no longer just for heating up last night's leftovers. Those who are energy-efficiency minded now even use the microwave as a main cooking appliance and not just for frozen TV dinners either. Here are the types of microwaves you'll find on the market:
From whiteware to stainless steel, countertop models come in compact, midsize, and large sizes.
Size: Compact models are as small as 18 inches wide, 13.5 inches deep, and 11 inches high. Midsize models average 17 inches wide, 20.5 inches high, and 12 inches deep. Large models average 24 inches wide, 14 inches high, and 18.5 inches deep.
Capacity: Can range from 1.1 cubic feet (small) to more 2 cubic feet (large)
Who it's best for: The budget shopper who has plenty of counter space
These models mount underneath a cabinet or counter or above a stove range. Often these models are paired with an appliance set.
Price: $200-$1,100; up to $2,000 with convection
Size: Same as countertop models
Capacity: Ranges in capacity up to 2 cubic feet
Who it's best for: The style-conscious shopper who is short on counter space
These models provide ventilation for your stove range and also save on counter space. They are often paired with an appliance set for a consistent look and feel for the whole kitchen.
Size: 17 inches high; 30 inches wide; 15.5 inches deep
Capacity: Ranges up to 2 cubic feet
Who it's best for: Homeowners who want a stove hood and microwave combo
The convection models are advanced versions of the standard microwave. They cook quicker than a regular microwave--a convection oven has internal fans that circulate air, thereby cooking food quicker and more evenly. You can even use these models for roasting a bird, baking, or browning. However, they are often more expensive.
Size: 15 inches high; 24.5 inches wide; 19 inches deep
Capacity: Ranges up to 2 cubic feet
Who it's best for: The home chef who wants time-saving shortcuts
A new option is the microwave drawer. It's also built-in, but it is at an easy-to-reach height. Drawer microwaves can also keep food warm up to 30 minutes if you don't pull it out and serve right away.
Size: 17 inches high; 24 to 30 inches wide; 15.5 inches deep
Capacity: Up to 2 cubic feet
Who it's best for: Homeowners who want a more modern, built-in appliance
Using both microwave and light technology, speedcook microwaves cook food in traditional methods but faster--four to eight times faster, according to some manufactures. Speedcookers not only microwave but also bake, broil, brown, roast, and grill quickly with no preheating. For example, a speedcook microwave cooks a whole chicken in 20 minutes versus a conventional oven time of 120 minutes in most cases. Or a frozen pizza can take 5.5 minutes versus 23 minutes. Most advanced models are also a convection and warming oven and can be built-in. They are also more energy efficient than conventional ovens.
Size: 19 to 21 inches high; 25 to 29 inches wide; 15.5 to 21 inches deep
Capacity: Most allow turntable rotation of a 9x13 casserole dish
Who it's best for: Time-pressed cooks who still want that home-cooked feeling
When it comes to microwave features, it's mostly about exploring the autocooking settings that will make your life easier. Along with that, here are the main features you'll find:
Beyond defrost, cook, and fresh vegetables, now you can find other preprogrammed settings to cook food items such as popcorn (the microwave item that's most likely to burn), pizza, baked potatoes, frozen dinners, chicken breast, melt/soften (for those nachos?), soup, or sauce, or "add 30 seconds" for one-touch extra heating.
Time and power levels:
All models have standard cooking timers. Some also have a delay start so you can preprogram when to start heating an item. Microwaves cook via wattage--the average microwave offers 650 to 1,300 watts of cooking power. The higher the wattage, the more power you use to heat your food. Most basic models come with 10 power levels.
Child safety lock:
Like most modern appliances, many microwaves now come with a lock or code to prevent children from opening the door.
Racks and more:
It's common for microwaves to come with a rotating turntable to help food cook more evenly, or a sliding rack to make it easier to place dishes into the microwave. Some come with removable racks to cook multiple dishes at once, or they include browning pans.
Microwaves can be noisy. If sound reduction is important to you, check out the "sones" rating. The lower the number, the quieter the cooker--with one sone being about as noisy as a running refrigerator and four sones being the equivalent of human conversation.
Though most models have already evolved beyond just offering a timer and power levels, here are some features offered by the most advanced models:
Preprogrammed recipes: Speedcookers and convection models can come with preprogrammed recipes. One GE model, the Advantium, comes with 100 preprogrammed recipes and the capability to store your favorites, too.
Digital displays: Microwaves have always been ahead of the game with digital displays. Now some even offer scrolling displays to program personal settings or recipes.
Sensors: With most advanced appliances, sensors are a major component. With microwaves this means sensors that can determine when the food is done automatically and turn the oven off, which prevents overcooking or undercooking the food and means there are fewer buttons for you to push. Also, sensors enable one-touch cooking for preprogrammed recipes or food-cook times.
Cleaning: If you've ever exploded a bowl of soup in a microwave, you know that with their convenient cooking times, microwaves can also become a bit messy if you don't keep an eye on your food. Now models tend to come with more features to make cleanup easier, such as removable turntables, nonstick interiors, and grease filters. Speedcookers also come with stainless steel interiors.
Warming: Some models come with a warming lamp to keep food toasty at temperatures ranging from 100 to 200 degrees F for 30 to 90 minutes.
Toaster: Pressed for counter space? The LG LTM9000 combines a toaster with your microwave and has nine toaster levels.
Microwaves do not have an Energy Star rating. Generally, a smaller microwave is probably more energy-efficient than a larger one. Here are some more considerations:
Know your wattage: Different-size microwaves are rated at varying levels of power. Compact or small microwaves are rated at 600 to 800 watts. Midsize and large ovens are typically rated at 850 to 1,650 watts.
Sensors help: If you buy a model that includes sensors, you'll cook food more efficiently (and save on messes). Features like sensors and variable power settings can reduce cooking time even more.
Use your oven less: Microwave cooking times are drastically reduced compared with conventional ovens, and that's how microwaves save on your energy bill. Some experts say a microwave uses half to one-third the energy of a conventional oven.