The 5 best microwaves we tested in 2021

  • The best microwaves cook food evenly, quickly, and feature useful preset buttons.
  • We consulted experts, researched popular and well-rated models, and tested five products to find the best microwaves you can buy.
  • The Panasonic NN-SN65KB Microwave Oven is our top pick because it’s powerful, moderately-sized, and has many helpful presets.

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

When microwave ovens were first introduced in the late 1940s, they were more than 5 feet tall, weighed about 750 pounds, and cost thousands of dollars. Thankfully, microwaves have come a long way since their inception – they now fit on your countertop and many households use them every single day to reheat or cook food.

A good microwave should heat your food safely, quickly, and evenly. In addition to our research and testing, we spoke with Bob Schiffmann, a microwave heating expert and president of the International Microwave Power Institute, as well as Jared Lodico, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at UCLA, to better understand how microwaves work and what to look for when shopping for a microwave.

We shortlisted to five popular microwaves and put them through a series of tests, starting with the marshmallow test – an actual industry-standard experiment to check for hot and cold spots by heating marshmallows for a set period of time. We also used each microwave to reheat beverages and cook frozen foods and tested every model’s presets (like Popcorn and Sensor Cook). Finally, we used the microwaves for several days throughout a normal routine, evaluating how easy they were to use and how well they cooked. You can read more about our methodology here.

The best microwaves you can buy in 2021

The best microwave overall

Panasonic microwave

The Panasonic NN-SN65KB Microwave Oven packs 1,200 watts of power to cook food quickly and evenly. It’s compact, yet has a spacious interior, and comes with many helpful preset buttons for easy cooking.  

Pros: Five useful preset buttons, 1,200 watts of cooking power (more than most microwaves), includes a child-safety lock button

Cons: Fingerprint smudges are visible, the light inside isn’t bright enough to check food while it’s cooking, it’s loud, Frozen Foods feature doesn’t cook accurately, doesn’t have Express Cook buttons

At 1,200 watts, the Panasonic NN-SN65KB Microwave Oven  packs a punch and cooks food fast. The microwave heats remarkably evenly, which we saw during the marshmallow test. The marshmallows all expanded evenly, and at the end of two minutes, there was only a bit of burning in the very center of the marshmallows.

The microwave’s power levels start at P10, the highest cooking level, and go down to P0, the Keep Warm level. P10 is the default setting and the one I used regularly for heating and cooking.

If you’re using this microwave to simply reheat leftovers, the Sensor Reheat feature works well. Once cooking, it detects the humidity level of the food inside and starts counting down the cooking time. I also tried the more niche preset buttons like Popcorn and Coffee/Milk preset, and both worked better than the presets on other microwaves I tested.

That said, I was less impressed with the Frozen Food preset that categorizes food groups into numbers, much like Sensor Reheat. I used this when making frozen mac and cheese and found that the microwave grossly overestimated the amount of time needed to cook it. 

A few other minor downsides: the light inside the microwave is dim, so it’s hard to monitor the food while it’s cooking, and fingerprints are highly visible on the control panel. However, this is overall a great microwave that balances power and size with easy-to-use features. 

Best microwave on a budget

Commercial Chef microwave

The Commercial Chef Microwave is bare-bones, but dead simple to use. It’s moderately powerful, well-priced, and compact enough for small kitchens.  

Pros: Simple to use, compact, quieter than most models, heats evenly

Cons: Doesn’t have a clock, can only set cook time by the minute, not very powerful (only 600 watts), too small for large dishes or plates over 10 inches in diameter

Editor’s note: Commercial Chef has an updated model of this microwave with digital controls, at a lower price point. We’re currently looking into testing it.

At less than 18 inches long and 11 inches deep, The Commercial Chef Microwave is super compact and well-sized for small kitchens or dorm rooms. In many ways, it resembles an old-school toaster oven, and even “dings” like one when cooking is complete. Its controls consist of just two rotary knobs — one for power level and one for cook time. Unfortunately, you can’t set specific seconds if you’re zapping something quick, like warming a piece of bread, heating a mug of coffee, or melting butter. It also doesn’t have any special features or buttons.

That said, if simplicity is what you’re after, this model has it. It’s easy and intuitive to use, and heats relatively evenly. When I did the marshmallow test, I noticed a few browned pieces on the outer edges where the marshmallows expanded more, but overall no major hot or cold spots. 

At just 600 watts, it’s a little underpowered. In the absence of any preset buttons, I just used the package instructions to cook frozen mac and cheese. After the four minutes recommended on the package, it was warm throughout but not hot. You’ll likely have to add a minute or two to any package instructions when cooking in this microwave. 

If you want a no-frills microwave that reheats and cooks food in a simple, quick manner, this is a great option, especially if you don’t have much kitchen space to work with.

Best convection microwave

Toshiba microwave

If you’re looking for a microwave that does it all, the 1,000-watt Toshiba Microwave Oven with Convection, cooks, reheats, bakes, and even roasts food quickly and thoroughly. 

Pros: Quiet, many quick-touch preset cooking buttons, a multi-functional appliance that can bake and roast, includes a child-safety lock

Cons: Heavy and bulky, convection feature heats up kitchen quickly

If you’re trying to condense the number of kitchen appliances in your home, then the Toshiba Microwave Oven with Convection is a good multi-functional appliance to have. Not only does it work as a traditional microwave, but it also bakes, roasts, and toasts. It’s also the only microwave we tested that has an Express Cook feature, which allow you to quickly start the microwave by just pressing numbers one through six on the number pad.

At 1,000 watts, the Toshiba microwave oven is powerful. I definitely saw the results when I did the marshmallow test: the marshmallows in the center of the tray burned after two minutes, and there was a lot of moisture buildup on the tray underneath the parchment paper. Aside from the burning in the middle, I didn’t notice any hot or cold spots. It also cooked frozen mac and cheese thoroughly.

One of the unique features of this microwave is that it also works as a convection oven, so you don’t need to buy a separate toaster oven. To test out the convection oven, I warmed up some frozen French fries, which typically comes out soggy and flabby in a regular microwave. The heating options were confusing, so I had to refer to the cooking chart in the manual to see what level to cook the French fries. I was pleasantly surprised to see the fries turned out as crispy as they do in my air fryer (though it took twice as long and the settings were a bit more complicated).

You can also make toast with the convection setting. When I tried this, I found it toasted very unevenly and the results were paler and flabbier than a regular toaster, so I don’t recommend this microwave for that use.

Overall, this microwave heated well, the buttons are easy to use and smudge-proof, and the microwave beeps loud and clear. The only major downside is you will need plenty of countertop space to accommodate this large oven, and at nearly 50 pounds, it isn’t easy to move.

Best large capacity microwave

Panasonic microwave 2

This microwave, which can also be installed as a built-in, is large enough to fit two plates at a time and features an easy-to-use dial to heat and cook your food.

Pros: Quiet, powerful 1,250 watts, the dial is easy to use, comes with useful preset buttons, includes a child-safety lock, can be installed as a built-in microwave 

Cons: You can’t see the food well while it’s cooking, dial only goes up in 10-second increments

The Panasonic NN-SD975S Microwave Oven is large in both size and capacity; with a 16.5-inch turntable, it’s ideal if you’re cooking for a family.

One dial controls the cooking time and it only goes up or down in 10-second increments; a minor inconvenience, but otherwise operates smoothly and easily. You can also use the dial to input weight for food you’re defrosting by turning the dial clockwise to increase or decrease until you get to the proper weight. 

At 1,250 watts, it’s the most powerful microwave we tested, and it overcooked frozen mac and cheese when I cooked it according to package instructions. You’ll likely need to decrease cooking time by a minute or two from any package instructions with this microwave. However, it heated very evenly. When I did the marshmallow test, it produced the best results of any microwave I tried with no hot or cold spots, even in the center. 

Like other microwaves we tried, you can program up to three stages of cooking, and the display screen will let you know where you are in the cooking process. If you’re using the multi-stage cooking feature, you can use the Keep Warm setting as your final stage.

While it’s a powerful microwave with lots of helpful features, it’s extremely large and bulky, so best suited for large kitchens or households with many members who will take advantage of its larger capacity. This microwave can also be built into a cabinet or other static feature in your kitchen, though I left it on my countertop for easier testing.

Best smart microwave

GE Smart Microwave Oven Review 2021 lead image

GE’s Smart Microwave Oven is Alexa- and Google Assistant-enabled, so you can cook your food using voice commands or from your smartphone.

Pros: features smart technology and scan-to-cook technology at a reasonable price, heats food quickly, spacious yet compact enough to fit in a small kitchen

Cons: doesn’t cook food as evenly as other microwaves we tested, doesn’t come with a trim kit to mount over the stove or underneath cabinets, the voice commands are finicky.

The GE Smart Microwave Oven looks like any ordinary microwave on the market. It’s sleek and relatively compact, but a dinner plate still fits nicely inside. Its defining feature is its smart connectivity.

To see how well the microwave heats food, I cooked marshmallows in the microwave for two minutes on high to see how they heated. I noticed some hot spots and the outer edges and center cooked more quickly than the rest of the marshmallows. I also microwaved frozen mac and cheese according to the package instructions. At 900 watts, this microwave isn’t the most powerful, but it heats up pretty quickly. 

The best part of having a smart microwave is that you can control the settings and check the status of your food from your smartphone or by using voice commands with a virtual assistant like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. I tested the microwave with my Google Home Mini, and I was able to use voice commands to perform basic functions including start/stop, pause/resume, set the microwave for a specific amount of time, add time (but I couldn’t subtract) and ask how much time is left (I can also check this from my smartphone.)

Frankly, most people don’t need a smart microwave. However, the hands-free technology makes cooking easier when you’re multitasking, and it’s more sanitary since you are reducing the amount of times you touch the microwave. 

It also features a scan-to-cook function where you can scan the barcode on a package of food using your smartphone, and the cook time and settings automatically display. All you have to do is press or say “start.” 

Other smart microwaves on the market can be upwards of $300, so for the price and reliability, this is a great microwave. It’s a good option if you’re budget-conscious but are in the market for a smart microwave.

Read our full review of the GE Smart Microwave Oven here.

Testing methodology

Microwave Methodology

In addition to speaking with Bob Schiffmann, a microwave heating expert and president of the International Microwave Power Institute, and Jared Lodico, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at UCLA, I put all the microwaves through a standard set of tests, evaluating how well they cooked food, how easy they were to use, and any special features or extra buttons. Here’s how I tested microwaves: 

Marshmallow test: The first test I performed with every microwave was the marshmallow test, an industry-standard way to check your microwave for hot and cold spots. To conduct this test, I cut parchment paper to the size of each microwave’s glass tray and completely covered it with mini marshmallows, leaving no blank spaces. I cooked the marshmallows in the microwave for two minutes on high to see how they expanded and cooked. The marshmallows that expanded first revealed the microwave’s hot spots, while marshmallows that still appeared raw showed the cold spots. Colder spots are potentially dangerous because they can mean your food is undercooked and possibly unsafe to eat in those areas. A good microwave produces even cooking across the entire surface — no burnt or uncooked marshmallows.

Frozen meal test: I also cooked frozen mac and cheese in each microwave, using the same brand and cook time and checking for evenness, or burnt or cold spots.

Ease of use: I looked at how easy and intuitive the microwaves were to use, and how much space they occupied on my counter. I also evaluated how much noise they made during cooking and how loud and persistent their alarms and beeps were. 

Presets and additional functions: Where applicable, I used and tested each model’s preset buttons according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This included Popcorn, Reheat, Sensor Cook, and Keep Warm buttons. I evaluated how well these settings performed their intended function and how easy they were to use.

What we’re testing next

What we look forward to testing Microwave

Here are some models that we’re looking forward to testing in the future:

GE Smart Microwave with Scan-to-Cook ($67.97): An updated version of our current best budget pick, this model features digital controls, a compact footprint, and a low price point. We’re looking into testing it and will report back soon with our findings.

Whirlpool 1.9-cubic-foot Over-the-Range Microwave ($619.99): This over-the-range microwave appeared as a pick in the previous version of this guide. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test it this round because my kitchen isn’t outfitted to accommodate an over-the-range unit. However, if you’re in search of a microwave that sits over the stove, this may be a good option. This model is both a convection oven and a microwave, and according to reviews, it’s spacious, easy to use, and easy to install. We hope to test it for a future update of this guide.

How microwaves work

How microwaves work

While microwaves may seem mystifying to some, at their most basic, they’re not much different than stoves, ovens, or grills in that they use energy to cook food. “Generally speaking, the process of putting energy into something is pretty much how we heat/cook all food, it just depends on how we do it (such as on the stove, in the sun, or with a microwave),” said Lodico. 

The difference is that microwaves generate energy in the form of electrical and magnetic rays. “Microwaves generate ‘microwaves,’ which is a form of electromagnetic radiation,” Lodico said. “This electric field transfers energy to the food as the waves pass through it.” The energy transfer causes water molecules in the food to vibrate, producing heat that cooks the food practically from the inside out. Because of this, foods that are high in water content, like potatoes or other fresh vegetables, cook much faster in the microwave than they do in other appliances, like the stove.

What to look for in a microwave

What to look for in a Microwave

We consulted experts on what to look for when purchasing a microwave. Here are the major qualities you should consider:

Power: The biggest consideration when shopping for a microwave is power. How much power you’ll need depends on what you primarily use the microwave for. If your household is only using the microwave to reheat food, then you can look for a cheaper model with less wattage, said Schiffmann. “Around an 800-watt oven works [for reheating], and popular ones are between 800 to 1,000 watts,” he says. 

Today, microwaves can do a lot more than just heat up cold food; they can defrost, cook, roast, bake, and more. If you want a microwave that actually cooks your food rather than simply reheating it, expect to spend a little more for a quality oven with more than 1,000 watts of power. 

Presets and additional functions: It’s also worthwhile to consider how and when you typically use preset functions. Many consumers are fine primarily operating a microwave with the number pad or Express Cook buttons. However, if you’re someone who does a lot of cooking or defrosting, you may find preset functions helpful.

If you’re in the market for a microwave that can also replace a toaster oven, opt for a model with convection settings, but keep in mind that this functionality often comes at a higher price and the technology can be hit or miss. 

Price: Schiffmann said you should expect to spend between $100 and $150 on a good 800 to 1,000-watt microwave, and a bit more as wattage increases. You’ll also pay more for extra features, like convection settings or lots of presets. While Schiffmann says you don’t have to spend a lot to get a quality microwave, he cautions about considering microwaves under $100. “Anything cheaper will most likely break down and be unstable,” he said, so you’re better off investing in a machine that costs a little more but will last longer. 

Safety features: If you have young children, you will want to purchase a microwave with a child-safety lock feature. “Many toddlers can get injured when reaching in the microwave, but many manufacturers have a digital lock now where you put in a combination of numbers to lock and unlock the microwave,” Schiffmann says. Out of the microwaves we tested, all but the Commercial Chef microwave have the ability to lock itself. Note that this feature prevents the microwave oven from operating; it does not lock the microwave door. 

FAQs

Microwave FAQ

Does standing near a microwave put me at risk for radiation exposure?

You may have heard that standing too close to the microwave while it’s operating can expose you to radiation, but according to experts, that’s a myth. “Microwaves are very safe — as long as they aren’t damaged,” Lodico says. “The metal housing and mesh screen on the door act as a shield from the radiation that is generated inside. As the radiation approaches the wall of the microwave it induces a current and magnetic field that cancels out the incoming wave.” While there was once some concern about operating a microwave if you have a pacemaker, the FDA says this is no longer an issue with modern pacemakers, though individuals with pacemakers should always check with their doctor first. 

Why are there holes in my microwave door?

According to experts, these small holes are another safeguard against radiation, canceling out incoming electromagnetic waves just like the metal housing in the microwave does. Lodico said holes are only a concern if they’re very large, which these intentional holes are not. “In fact, the holes on the door are actually 10 times smaller than what they theoretically need to be. But, it makes sense to make them smaller in case the door is damaged in some way,” Lodico said. “Rule of thumb: If there is a hole in your microwave greater than three millimeters in diameter, it’s time to get a new microwave.”

Should you defrost meat in the microwave?

We’ve all been there: You forgot to put the frozen meat for dinner in the refrigerator to thaw out. The defrost feature on a microwave can come to the rescue. Defrosting sets your microwave’s power between 30% to 50% so it thaws your food without cooking it. Although it’s recommended to safely thaw meat in the refrigerator, you can use your microwave’s defrost button to thaw meat in a pinch as long as you cook it immediately after you thaw it. According to the FDA, microwaves may heat food unevenly which could result in harmful bacteria growth if the food isn’t cooked immediately after defrosting.

While we know from the marshmallow test that many microwaves have natural hot and cold spots, defrosting presents an additional challenge for microwaves because the waves don’t penetrate or heat frozen foods as effectively as thawed foods. “So there is a dilemma: Once the meat starts to defrost somewhere, it will continue heating there. But the frozen parts will heat up more slowly, leading to non-uniform temperatures,” said Schiffmann. “I break up the defrosted ground beef with a fork since it has usually softened, then I continue the defrost cycle for another minute or two, breaking up any softened, but completely melted parts.”

Schiffmann also said it’s important when cooking or defrosting food in the microwave to keep an eye on food temperature. “When cooking your food, measure several places with a food thermometer to avoid undercooking or underheating,” he said. According to the FDA, a safe final cooking temperature for poultry and ground beef is around 165 degrees Fahrenheit while roasts and steaks are safe around 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

What foods should I cook in my microwave oven?

“Microwave ovens are really poachers or steamers, so those foods that fit that profile do well,” says Schiffmann. “They’re great for cooking fish, vegetables, and chicken, but don’t expect dry foods to crisp or brown.” Any food with high water content does well in the microwave, like potatoes or fresh vegetables, and you can also use them as a shortcut when making boiled foods. For example, you can put dry pasta in a bowl of water and microwave for the cooking time on the pasta package. The pasta will cook perfectly and you don’t even have to wait for the water to boil. 

Check out our other small appliance buying guides

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Scientists suggest US embassies were hit with high-power microwaves – here’s how those weapons work

cuba john kerry us embassy
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry and other dignitaries watch US Marines raise the US flag over the newly reopened embassy in Havana, August 14, 2015.

  • The mystery ailment that has afflicted US Embassy staff and CIA officers in Cuba, China, Russia and elsewhere over the last four years appears to have been caused by high-power microwaves.
  • The truth of what actually happened and why might remain a mystery, but the technology most likely involved comes from textbook physics.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The mystery ailment that has afflicted US embassy staff and CIA officers off and on over the last four years in Cuba, China, Russia and other countries appears to have been caused by high-power microwaves, according to a report released by the National Academies.

A committee of 19 experts in medicine and other fields concluded that directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy is the “most plausible mechanism” to explain the illness, dubbed Havana syndrome.

The report doesn’t clear up who targeted the embassies or why they were targeted. But the technology behind the suspected weapons is well understood and dates back to the Cold War arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. High-power microwave weapons are generally designed to disable electronic equipment. But as the Havana syndrome reports show, these pulses of energy can harm people, as well.

As an electrical and computer engineer who designs and builds sources of high-power microwaves, I have spent decades studying the physics of these sources, including work with the US Department of Defense.

Directed energy microwave weapons convert energy from a power source – a wall plug in a lab or the engine on a military vehicle – into radiated electromagnetic energy and focus it on a target. The directed high-power microwaves damage equipment, particularly electronics, without killing nearby people.

Two good examples are Boeing’s Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), which is a high-power microwave source mounted in a missile, and Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR), which was recently developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to knock out swarms of drones.

Cold War origins

These types of directed energy microwave devices came on the scene in the late 1960s in the US and the Soviet Union.

They were enabled by the development of pulsed power in the 1960s. Pulsed power generates short electrical pulses that have very high electrical power, meaning both high voltage – up to a few megavolts – and large electrical currents – tens of kiloamps. That’s more voltage than the highest-voltage long-distance power transmission lines, and about the amount of current in a lightning bolt.

Plasma physicists at the time realized that if you could generate, for example, a 1-megavolt electron beam with 10-kiloamp current, the result would be a beam power of 10 billion watts, or gigawatts. Converting 10% of that beam power into microwaves using standard microwave tube technology that dates back to the 1940s generates 1 gigawatt of microwaves. For comparison, the output power of today’s typical microwave ovens is around a thousand watts – a million times smaller.

The development of this technology led to a subset of the US-Soviet arms race – a microwave power derby. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I and other American scientists gained access to Russian pulsed power accelerators, like the SINUS-6 that is still working in my lab. I had a fruitful decade of collaboration with my Russian colleagues, which swiftly ended following Vladimir Putin’s rise to power.

Today, research in high-power microwaves continues in the US and Russia but has exploded in China. I have visited labs in Russia since 1991 and labs in China since 2006, and the investment being made by China dwarfs activity in the US and Russia. Dozens of countries now have active high-power microwave research programs.

Lots of power, little heat

US Embassy in Havana, Cuba
The US Embassy in Havana where diplomats suffered from an unusual set of symptoms.

Although these high-power microwave sources generate very high power levels, they tend to generate repeated short pulses. For example, the SINUS-6 in my lab produces an output pulse on the order of 10 nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.

So even when generating 1 gigawatt of output power, a 10-nanosecond pulse has an energy content of only 10 joules. To put this in perspective, the average microwave oven in one second generates 1 kilojoule, or thousand joules of energy. It typically takes about four minutes to boil a cup of water, which corresponds to 240 kilojoules of energy.

This is why microwaves generated by these high-power microwave weapons don’t generate noticeable amounts of heat, let alone cause people to explode like baked potatoes in microwave ovens.

High power is important in these weapons because generating very high instantaneous power yields very high instantaneous electric fields, which scale as the square root of the power. It is these high electric fields that can disrupt electronics, which is why the Department of Defense is interested in these devices.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]

How it affects people

cuba sonic attack us embassy
Staff within the US embassy facility in Havana, September 29, 2017.

The National Academies report links high-power microwaves to impacts on people through the Frey effect. The human head acts as a receiving antenna for microwaves in the low gigahertz frequency range.

Pulses of microwaves in these frequencies can cause people to hear sounds, which is one of the symptoms reported by the affected US personnel. Other symptoms Havana syndrome sufferers have reported include headaches, nausea, hearing loss, lightheadedness and cognitive issues.

The report notes that electronic devices were not disrupted during the attacks, suggesting that the power levels needed for the Frey effect are lower than would be required for an attack on electronics. This would be consistent with a high-power microwave weapon located at some distance from the targets.

Power decreases dramatically with distance through the inverse square law, which means one of these devices could produce a power level at the target that would be too low to affect electronics but that could induce the Frey effect.

The Russians and the Chinese certainly possess the capabilities of fielding high-power microwave sources like the ones that appear to have been used in Cuba and China. The truth of what actually happened to US personnel in Cuba and China – and why – might remain a mystery, but the technology most likely involved comes from textbook physics, and the military powers of the world continue to develop and deploy it.

Edl Schamiloglu, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Associate Dean for Research and Innovation, School of Engineering, University of New Mexico, University of New Mexico

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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