From auto-defrost to energy labels, we talk you through common microwave features and terms so you be clear on what's right for you.
Over the years, we've tested hundreds of microwaves from a range of brands and in different price brackets. From our testing, we know what features are worth looking out for, as well as what you should expect from your microwave.
Auto-reheat buttons allow you to enter the weight of the food and will calculate how long it should take to cook.
The better ones let you select what it is you're cooking, rather than giving one cooking time for every type of food.
Using auto-defrost is easy: you simply input the food's weight and the microwave sets the best program.
Built-in microwaves range from basic solo models to top-of-the-range combination microwaves. The phrase 'built-in' simply refers to how it's fitted into your kitchen. Built-in microwaves are more expensive than typical standalone models, but have the advantage of freeing up kitchen worktop space.
Combination microwaves use convection heating (fanned hot air) and also come with grills. So you can use microwaves, grilling and convection heating to both cook and brown food. This means that you can produce good results, even on more complicated meals such as a roast dinner.
It's important to use the right cooking containers. Heatproof glass, pyrex or plastics labelled as microwave safe are ideal. You can also use paper plates and paper towels. Pottery, ceramics and earthenware are suitable as long as they are not porous.
Avoid containers from frozen or chilled food (such as margarine tubs) because their low melting temperatures may leave contaminants in the food.
With fast-food foil containers there's a danger of sparking if foil gets too close to the sides, and the food can heat unevenly because the foil shields it from the microwaves. So transfer last night's Chinese or curry into another container.
All microwaves will help you to defrost food. You can do this by using auto-defrost, as mentioned above, which is easy: you simply input the food's weight and the microwave sets the best program. Alternatively, you can program the defrost yourself by setting the power level and time based on instructions in the microwave's manual.
Success with either approach can vary considerably among different microwaves, so try both options to discover which method works best on your microwave. In general, you might find better results programming the microwave yourself, using lower power settings and defrosting slowly.
For the past 15 years, microwaves have been labelled according to their heating category – from A for the least powerful, to E, the most powerful. This gives consumers a rough guide to how powerful their microwave is and how long to heat food for.
We test the performance of microwaves against their power ratings, and have found they’re not always accurate – differences of 5% to 10% are commonplace. So always make sure your food is hot enough to eat before tucking in.
If a microwave lacks a turntable it is called a flatbed. Flatbed microwaves use different technology to allow for the even spread of microwaves, and therefore heat, through your food.
An advantage of a flatbed is that you can fit oblong or bulky containers into your microwave without fear of them being dislodged, as they might if rotating on a turntable. A further plus is that the lack of turntable means the inside is less fiddly to clean.
Although flatbed microwaves have been around for a few years, there are fewer to choose from than the traditional type with a turntable. They tend to be more expensive, too.
Grill microwaves use a heating element, along with normal microwave cooking, to brown food and give it a more attractive appearance and texture.
A microwave’s heating category is a rated from A to E, which is designed to show you how quickly or slowly your oven will heat food. Microwaves in category E will heat your food more quickly than microwaves rated A. You’ll find your oven’s rating on the front, usually on the door. E is the most common rating.
All the microwaves we've tested have been given a heating category of E by the manufacturer, which means they're supposed to cook at between 741 and 800 watts, but this isn’t always the case.
Sometimes called 'solo' microwaves, these basic microwaves are great for simple tasks, such as warming up soup, cooking jacket potatoes or heating ready meals. You can also use them to defrost food.
But basic microwaves can't brown food, so they are unable to compete with built-in ovens and cookers when it comes to everyday jobs such as grilling or roasting meat. If you want this from your microwave, you need to consider a combi or grill microwave.
Many of the microwaves we've tested have a function (a button or an item on a 'menu') for cooking or reheating pizza. These tend to work better on grill microwaves rather than solo microwaves, because the grill helps to crisp the pizza and brown the top.
Some microwaves include crisper plates, which you cook pizzas on to help crisp their bases. They can also be used for quiches. You tend to get better results if you use a frozen pizza and pre-heat the oven and plate for four or five minutes before use.
In addition to microwaving, roasting, baking and grilling, some microwaves come with a vegetable steamer. They can be tricky to get to grips with, but after a bit of practice it's a fast and healthy way to cook vegetables.