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How to buy the best microwave

This handy kitchen appliance can save you time and money. Here's how to pick a good one.

How to buy the best microwave

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 the a microwave with the features you need.

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How much do microwaves cost?

In our latest microwave test, there's a range in price from around $48–349, and even more 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 (who knew red paint was so expensive?). 

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.

Will a microwave save you money?

A microwave can speed up your cooking time, but it can also 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.

Microwave sizes

Many kitchens now have a dedicated space for a microwave – 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. It will 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.

Key features to look for

Controls

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.

Visibility

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 to make sure the visibility is good.

Cleaning

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

Automatic defrost prompts you to enter the weight and type of food, and the oven then calculates defrosting time.

Sensor cooking

Sensor programs take automatic functions one step further by measuring vapours emitted by the food to control the cooking time. No weight required.

Quick boost/start

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.

Time adjust

This lets you increase or decrease the programmed time without stopping cooking.

Multi-stage programming

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.

Kitchen timer

The digital timer can be used to time other kitchen tasks or cooking times.

Noise

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.

Built-in microwaves and trim kits

Built-in microwaves

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 (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 will require an electrician 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.

Trim kits

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.

What is an inverter microwave?

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.

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 with 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.

How to clean a microwave

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 it 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.

How to cook rice in a microwave

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.