[12/8/2013: This article was modified for clarity.]
For about 10 years, I sold appliances, among other things. While model-specific knowledge has passed me by, I’m still familiar with many points relating to technology, applications, useful features, features to avoid, and user errors which create some problems.
For my Chinese in-laws, I sometimes suggest appliances which may be helpful to them, but which may not be common in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In such cases, I write ‘helpful hints’ emails to assist them in finding equivalents. In many cases, they must educate the Chinese sales people with whom they deal, who themselves may not be familiar with Western-style appliances which we take for granted. (As an example, only 1% of Chinese households have automatic dishwashers, and sales people are usually unfamiliar with how to use them effectively and safely, let alone what features are useful for solving a customer’s needs or desires.)
Below my bullet points, I’ve pasted some examples. If you live outside the United States, you will probably have to look for comparable domestically-available units.
- For safety reasons, be sure to note minimum safe clearance for sides and back of any unit you buy. Risks of damage and fire may result from ignoring these requirements. (Clearance of 2-3 inches on a side and the back – say, 7-10cm – are usually the minimum recommended.)
- For safety reasons, NEVER turn on an empty microwave! This can damage it. At the very least, you should have about 1 cup (~ .25L) of water in it.
- For safety reasons, NEVER put aluminum or any other metal in a microwave. There are exceptions to this rule, but the safest course is JUST DON’T DO IT!
- For safety reasons, make sure that any cookware, plates, etc. which you put in a microwave are microwave-safe. ESPECIALLY IN CHINA, do not simply assume that this is the case.
- For safety reasons, not all plastic is microwave (MW ) safe. Melting is only one of the problems you may face if plastic is not MW-safe. Some plastics which appear okay may still leech potentially unhealthy chemicals into the food.
- Greasy/oily food gets really hot in a MW. The hot grease may itself damage cookware. It can also cause a splatter problem, requiring difficult cleaning inside the unit. Gain experience with particular foods before going to full power.
- Do try to get a unit with a turntable. In MW ovens, shape and other variables of the food affect cooking. This is a main reason that many MW food packages tell you to rotate dishes after a period of cooking time. Having the option of turning off the turntable is also useful for some large, odd-shaped items.
- Do try to get a unit with auto-cook features and a ‘cooking sensor’. These sensors work by sampling the moisture (and perhaps the temperature) inside the unit. These features and sensors, while very useful, are not perfect. They may require some experimentation with certain foods. (For example, I once tried cooking fresh cauliflower on the “Fresh Vegetable” setting, and it was way over-cooked. It turned out best on the “Canned Vegetable” setting.)
- I strongly recommend nothing less than 900 watts of cooking power. IMHO, 1000 watts is ideal. Higher power cooks faster, but always remember that microwaves cook from the outside, inward. Larger items at higher powers may cook the outside thoroughly before the core is even hot. So, a 1200-1500 watt unit might end up being used mostly at reduced power anyway, making it a waste of energy, and more complicated to use.
- Small, compact microwaves are usually in the 500-600 watt range. Less power means longer cooking times. In other words, you’ll have to wait longer for your coffee, tea or soup to reach desired temperatures.
- For convection microwave (C/MW) combos, I strongly recommend a stainless steel interior (which may be the only option anyway) to facilitate cleaning.If your convection microwave will be the only (i.e., ‘Primary’) oven in the house, I suggest that you get the biggest one you can afford. (The smallest I’ve pasted below is 1.5 cubic feet. They may come as large as 2.0 cu. Ft.)
- I’ve never heard of a self-cleaning C/MW unit, so internal oil splatter is to be avoided to the greatest degree possible.
- Convection microwaves are great for baking breads, cakes, etc. Frozen dinners and casseroles are perfect for this kind of unit. Meats are okay for roasting or reheating, but it’s important to keep them covered to prevent splatter.
- I’ve never tried the combo cooking option (i.e., heating with microwaves while cooking with convection heat). I guess I’m just an old fuddy-duddy. But there is no reason it won’t be great for some applications.
- Microwave technology alone will NEVER brown foods (although there are devices to aid in doing so), whether they be meats, breads or casseroles. Microwave cooking works by heating water molecules in the food . You cannot effectively heat anything in a microwave which has little or no water content. (E.g., many insects you see in a microwave will not be killed by simply turning it on. There isn’t enough water in their bodies.)
- To brown foods in a microwave, you need to have microwave technology joined with either convection baking or halogen heating.
- I strongly favor MW/Convection units over halogen combos, but I don’t know what may be available in other countries, like China. Halogen browns and bakes, but it’s inferior (IMHO) to convection because heat stratifies inside the oven, causing uneven cooking. It may also be more energy-intensive.
- ‘Reduced power’ cooking: Microwaves alone are ideal for heating frozen or canned vegetables, ‘baking’ potatoes, ‘steaming’ corn-on-the-cob, and reheating refrigerated foods. It can also be used for ‘steaming’ foods, with the proper tools, and may be more energy-efficient for this purpose, if the results are acceptable to you..
- Standard microwave ovens cook at reduced power by alternating full power, on-and-off, at intervals. (E.g., 50% power at 5 minutes means the food is actually being heated at full power for a total of 2 1/2 minutes.)
- “Inverter Technology” means that a microwave’s power is actually reduced, and it is cooking continuously for the full cooking time. “Inverter Technology” is usually more expensive, but if you want to cook at reduced powers (better, e.g., for cheese, milk, butter, margarine, eggs, etc.) it will yield better results. But it still does not brown foods by itself.
- “Convection Microwaves” use microwaves and/or heating elements for cooking. The two can be used together for ‘fast’ or ‘speed’ cooking with some browning.
- The ‘convection’ part means that the heated air inside is blown around for faster, more even cooking. (I.e., no hot or cold spots on the food.)
- Without convection, you get normal heat stratification, so some spots cook faster or slower than others. (This is an issue I have with halogen/MW combo ovens, IMHO.)
- I’ve never seen a Halogen/MW unit which also has convection.
- As a related aside, if you are looking for an over-the-range vent hood, consider getting instead an over-the-range microwave. Most inexpensive vent hoods only vent at 150 cfm (cubic feet per minute). This is rarely adequate. On the other hand, most over-the-range microwaves (except for the very cheapest) vent at 300 cfm. To get a vent hood with more suction than that, you get into some real money. So, the over-the-range microwave/vent combo is often a best-value
- Good hunting! Let me know if you have any questions
THE UNITS LISTED AND DEPICTED BELOW ARE NOT RECOMMENDATIONS. THEY ARE MERELY REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLES. YOU WILL HAVE TO SHOP AND DECIDE ON YOUR OWN. ~ Mike
Panasonic NN-CD989S “Prestige” 1.5-Cubic Foot, 1100 Watt Stainless Steel Convection Microwave Oven, Inverter Technology