Microwaves are handy items to have in any kitchen, for anything from reheating leftovers to defrosting a chicken. Whether you're upgrading an ageing microwave or buying one for the first time, this guide will help you find a microwave with the features you need.
A microwave is a handy kitchen appliance that cooks, reheats and defrosts food relatively quickly. As the name suggests, microwaves use a magnetron that produces microwaves. The microwaves are reflected inside the metal interior of the oven, which is then absorbed by the food and causes the water molecules in the food to vibrate. This process generates the heat needed to cook, reheat or defrost your food.
Will a microwave save you money?
A microwave can speed up your cooking time, but it can also help you be more sustainable and save you on your energy bill. Microwaves are more energy-efficient than stovetops and ovens in most types of cooking, and their running costs can be as low as $10 a year.
You can also save more money by switching off your microwave at the power point when you're not using it. Yearly standby costs for microwaves aren't high – generally only a few dollars (or less) – but it's a simple way to reduce your household energy consumption. And while microwaves are a great way to defrost frozen food, you can save even more energy by defrosting food in the fridge. It'll take a bit longer and require some forward planning, but if you're not in a rush it's an easy change to make.
Many kitchens now have a dedicated space for a microwave, so you'll need to measure that gap and look for something that fits while still allowing space for air circulation.
If you don't have a spot carved out, the microwave is going to take up your precious bench space, so think about how much you're willing to sacrifice.
Most microwaves are around 50cm wide, 30cm high and 40cm deep. They'll need about 10cm space around the sides for ventilation, and 20cm at the top where the vents are usually located.
Interior dimensions are important, too. Will your microwave-safe dishes actually fit inside? Don't be shy about taking them into the store to check.
Built-in microwaves and trim kits
Having all your appliances integrated on one wall seems to be a trend for complete kitchen renovations and new builds, and a built-in microwave could fit right in.
If you decide on a built-in microwave (which range in price from $500 to over $3000) it's important to follow the cut-out dimensions recommended, as adequate ventilation is required. Some microwaves with a grill or convection function require a 20 amp or single-phase connection which an electrician will need to install.
Remember, if you ever need to replace your microwave you'll need to consider the replacement size, as it needs to be the same dimensions with similar ventilation requirements and electrical capacity to avoid a major cabinetry replacement.
Microwave trim kits ($150–500) fit over the faceplate of the microwave and sit on a pedestal inside a cabinet to give you the look of a built-in. Rear ventilation is required and must reach the full height of the cabinet with no obstructions.
Trim kits are model-specific so not all microwaves can accommodate one. Standard width is around 600mm, but the height may differ to fit different size cabinets. This is to match the width of a wall oven to give a uniform look. Remember if you need to replace your microwave you probably won't be able to use the same trim kit.
An inverter microwave works by heating, reheating or defrosting food at a constant power level for the duration of the cooking time. A normal microwave on medium power will heat on full power for half the time, then turn off for half the time, whereas an inverter will continually heat using 50% of its power and won't need to turn off.
Look for easy-to-use controls and good instructions on the display. The best microwaves won't require you to refer to the instruction manual. Some have a quick-access user guide inside the door, which can help.
A bright interior light and large transparent viewing window will let you check your food as it cooks. Many models have poor visibility through the door. Where possible, ask the store to power up the microwaves you're considering buying to make sure the visibility is good.
Check there aren't too many gaps or crevices inside or outside the microwave that could trap food and grease. Control pads are easier to clean than dials and buttons. Stainless steel may look flash but it's harder to keep clean.
Automatic defrost prompts you to enter the weight and type of food, and the microwave then calculates the defrosting time.
Sensor programs take automatic functions one step further by measuring vapours emitted by the food to control the cooking time. No weight required.
This is a single button that delivers a 30-second or one-minute burst of 100% power, which can be increased in increments. Particularly handy for reheating.
This lets you increase or decrease the programmed time without stopping cooking.
This setting performs a sequence of functions, such as defrost, cook and then leave to stand.
Child safety lock
This gives you a sequence of buttons to activate and deactivate the microwave.
The digital timer can be used to time other kitchen tasks or cooking times.
Keep in mind that all microwaves beep during or at the end of operation – and most keep on beeping till you open the door to remove your food. Some also have cooling fans that can continue operating when cooking has finished. A few microwaves have the ability for you to adjust the noise levels, which we've started recording in our most recent tests.
In our latest microwaves test, models range in price from around $48 up to $549, and up to $2899 for a built-in model. It's a big price range, so what are you getting for those extra dollars? Usually it's a brand name, a larger cooking capacity, and design elements.
If those are important to you, prepare to front up the extra cash. Of course, you don't want it to fail in its first five years, so reliability is also important.
So which brand of microwave should you buy? We've identified the best of the bunch based on our test results for 100 microwaves over the past five years and feedback from our members on satisfaction and reliability.
How the brands stack up
While several microwave brands achieved impressive averages for their CHOICE Expert Ratings, there was no standout winner when all the categories we rate our Best Brands on were taken into account, so none of them were eligible for the top spot in 2021.
LG, Kmart, Breville, Sharp, Panasonic and Samsung all have very good customer satisfaction, and very good to excellent reliability.
LG won the Best Brand Microwave two years in a row, in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, it was still the highest performer overall with a Best Brand score of 88%, and the brand enjoys a 100% CHOICE Recommended ratio, meaning we've recommended all the models we've tested in the past five years.
However, LG's latest reliability score based on our 2021 survey results was 89%. This is slightly below the 91% average reliability score for all brands (in 2019, LG's reliability score was 92%).
After LG, Kmart was our second-highest performer with an overall Best Brand score of 81%. Kmart's test scores were above average and the brand enjoys an excellent reliability score of 96%. However, customer satisfaction at 81% was slightly below the average of 83%.
Equal third were Breville and Sharp with Best Brand scores of 78%. While Breville technically met our criteria for Best Brand with average (rather than below average) test, reliability and satisfaction scores, its overall Best Brand score was still 10 percentage points below LG's and it wasn't a clear winner in any category.
To find out which specific microwave models we recommend based on our test results, and to make sure you buy the best, click on the 'Recommended' box in the filters section of our microwave reviews.
It's important to note that the performance of specific product models may vary quite significantly, so don't assume that one brand's products are the best across the many different features, functions and price points.
Are microwaves dangerous?
Microwave ovens are a safe method of food preparation if used correctly, and the food is just as nutritious (more so in some cases) as any other cooking method. The electromagnetic waves stop as soon as you cut off the power and open the door, and they don't remain in the food and make it radioactive.
The allowable limit for microwave leakage is 5mW/cm2 at a distance of 5cm, and the radiation leakage spot tests we've conducted on microwaves are well below this level.
All microwave ovens sold in Australia must pass specific requirements about leakage in accordance with relevant Australian standards. Leakage is possible if you have a poorly fitting or damaged door, so you should have it inspected by a qualified technician or return it to the manufacturer for repair.
If a microwave is in good working order, it should be perfectly safe, but it's good practice to stand 30cm away from it when it's in use.
Microwaves can get dirtied with splatters and odours but the good news is you don't need to spend too much time or elbow grease to get them clean. For regular cleans, you can wipe out the microwave with warm soapy water. For built-up grease, our home economist Fiona Mair says you can clean and deodorise your microwave in minutes using a lemon.
Place a small, microwave-safe bowl of water with a few slices of lemon into the microwave and heat on high for two minutes. Then simply wipe the walls, door and ceiling of the microwave with a dry microfibre cloth.
Since the wattage of microwaves varies we'd recommend following the manufacturer's instructions in the first instance. If your microwave has a specific auto cook or sensor cook function for rice, it's worth using.
For a 1000W microwave:
- Place 2 cups of rice in a large microwave-safe bowl or container and fill with water.
- Wash the rice with your hands and pour out the starchy water, keeping the rice in the bowl. Repeat this until the water runs clear (approximately 3–4 times).
- Once clear, add enough water to cover the rice by approximately 2cm (to measure, place your index finger on the top of the rice and add enough water so it reaches the first joint).
- Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and cook on high for 5 minutes, stir, continue to cook at 50–60% power for a further 10 minutes. (Note: Some water may bubble over, but the turntable should catch any spills and can be cleaned at the completion of cooking. The steam in your microwave makes for the perfect time to clean it.)
- Remove the rice from the microwave and keep covered for 5 minutes so the rice can continue to steam. Then fluff up the rice with a fork
- Check the consistency. If it's not ready, pop it in the microwave again, covered for 1-minute increments until done.
Keep in mind that brown rice will take a little longer. If you have a 800–900W microwave, increase the first stage of cooking on high by 2 minutes.
If your microwave no longer works, and it can't be repaired, it's time for an upgrade. But don't forget you can keep it out of landfill by recycling it. Useful materials in a normal microwave include glass, galvanised steel, copper, aluminium and ferrite, as well as trace metals.
Microwaves that use inverter technology are generally lighter and use fewer materials (this is because they use an inverter circuit board instead of a conventional power transformer) but metals such as copper from these boards can also be recycled. Visit recyclingnearyou.com.au/whitegoods for locations near you.
Stock images: Getty unless otherwise stated.