The plasticizers which received the most attention are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, although it is unclear whether other plastic components present a toxicity risk. Other issues include melting and flammability. An alleged issue of release of dioxins into food has been dismissed as an intentional red herring distraction from actual safety issues.
To find the best microwave, we tested 10 microwaves in our Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab, checking how well they melted cheese, "baked" potatoes, reheated food, defrosted frozen food, popped popcorn, and cooked vegetables. We also looked at their ease of use — controls, opening the doors, view-ability inside, cooking alerts, and cleaning. For models with convection and/or grill capabilities, we tested their ability to roast chicken, bake cake, and broil steak, then noted the surface temperatures. Based on our extensive tests, we've rounded up our top-rated microwaves:
Easily mistaken for a small television, this Whirlpool microwave is perfect for small spaces and can be tucked away into a cramped cabinet, thanks to its curved back. Measuring only 0.5 cubic feet, this countertop microwave is one of the smallest and mightiest we’ve found. Many customers were pleasantly surprised to find that it has a turntable that's still large enough for full-size dinner plates. At 700 watts, this model matches substantial power with a small footprint—but keep in mind it's not going to compete with larger models that feature 1,000 watts or more. Reviewers love how it performs all the basic functions you need, although some wished for a full numeric keypad to enter the time rather than pressing the plus button.
Reviewers can’t contain their delight about this microwave’s Genius Sensor, which automatically adjusts the time and power based on the food type. “It feels very futuristic to press the Sensor Heat and let the microwave figure out on its own how long it should cook for. Most of the time, it’s dead-on, too, which is nice,” praises one commenter. “It’s pretty much impossible to overcook something,” writes another. Others note they “have had nothing boil over” and it “cooks super evenly. The days of half-molten-half-frozen food are gone.” Its modern exterior is another strong selling point. “The stainless steel looks very sleek and nice and will fit in with most kitchens,” one says.
The GE JES1656SRSS used to be our main pick, but has been discontinued. Its replacement, the new GE JES1657SMSS, did well in our tests overall. However, we found that at 1.6 cubic foot, it’s too big for most things you’re ever likely to cook or reheat in a microwave. That said, this model would be a good option for anyone wanting a unit large enough to fit a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Like most microwaves we tested, it didn’t defrost meat well, and it lacks a control to silence the beeping.
Though some reviewers found the dial control on this Panasonic microwave “odd” at first, many others think it’s more convenient and easier to use than a keypad. “If you haven’t used a microwave with a simple dial to control the time, try one, you’ll never go back,” raves one reviewer. “The controls are super simple (because of the dial!).” And dozens of reviewers agree that this microwave does its job exceptionally. “This is the best microwave I have owned,” a satisfied customer says. “It feels like this microwave is more responsive to my food and not just zapping it. The lighting on the inside makes it a little harder to see the contents inside, but really, except to assure that something is spilling over the side of the container, it isn’t necessary to see through the door. It has many, many presets for both frozen, reheat, milk, coffee, almost everything that put into a microwave.”
Frequently used microwaves need to be cleaned at least once per week, because any food remnants stuck to the walls can get overheated and cause damage to the microwave itself. A simple trick (courtesy of Wirecutter deputy editor Christine Cyr Clisset) is to nuke a bowl of water for a few minutes on high: The steam will loosen most gunk, and you can wipe it out with just a plain paper towel or a sponge. For cleaning the outside of a microwave, Good Housekeeping recommends spraying cleaner onto a towel and not on the actual surface, where it can get into the perforations and damage the internal elements.
Direct microwave exposure is not generally possible, as microwaves emitted by the source in a microwave oven are confined in the oven by the material out of which the oven is constructed. Furthermore, ovens are equipped with redundant safety interlocks, which remove power from the magnetron if the door is opened. This safety mechanism is required by United States federal regulations. Tests have shown confinement of the microwaves in commercially available ovens to be so nearly universal as to make routine testing unnecessary. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, a U.S. Federal Standard limits the amount of microwaves that can leak from an oven throughout its lifetime to 5 milliwatts of microwave radiation per square centimeter at approximately 5 cm (2 in) from the surface of the oven. This is far below the exposure level currently considered to be harmful to human health.
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We wanted to find microwaves that could cook a variety of foods, including frozen meals, popcorn, and whole potatoes, quickly and evenly. Some models have functions that cook food using preprogrammed time and power level settings. Others use built-in sensors that automatically adjust the cooking time based on the amount of steam emanating from the food. But regardless of the technology used, none of the microwaves we tested were perfect. Some microwaves had a more accurate baked-potato setting, while others were better at defrosting ground beef. We’d recommend choosing a microwave that excels at cooking the food you plan to prepare most often.
In our experience, sensors and other smart features make microwaves more useful than they’ve been in the past. Technology that can detect the moisture in your food or note the size of what you’re cooking – and making cooking decisions for you based on that data – is almost always worthwhile. Just remember to give those sensor cooking features a try instead of ignoring them! It might make your baked potatoes perfect.
The radiation produced by a microwave oven is non-ionizing. It therefore does not have the cancer risks associated with ionizing radiation such as X-rays and high-energy particles. Long-term rodent studies to assess cancer risk have so far failed to identify any carcinogenicity from 2.45 GHz microwave radiation even with chronic exposure levels (i.e. large fraction of life span) far larger than humans are likely to encounter from any leaking ovens. However, with the oven door open, the radiation may cause damage by heating. Every microwave oven sold has a protective interlock so that it cannot be run when the door is open or improperly latched.
Panasonic uses a supposedly superior power-regulating mechanism called an inverter, which can deliver continuous heating at varying strengths—50 percent power, for example, means continuous delivery at 50 percent of the unit’s max. Most other manufacturers use a cheaper and more common technology, a transformer, which means that it delivers 50 percent power by cycling between periods of full power and zero power. Panasonic’s inverter technology is supposed to cook more evenly, but Franke told us, “I’ve never found that [an inverter] necessarily means the oven performs better.” The Panasonic models we tested cooked potatoes and frozen meals well, but they overcooked the edges of frozen ground beef using the defrost mode. In the end, we don’t think paying more specifically for inverter technology is worth it.
Adoption has been slower in less-developed countries, as households with disposable income concentrate on more important household appliances like refrigerators and ovens. In India, for example, only about 5% of households owned a microwave in 2013, well behind refrigerators at 31% ownership. However, microwave ovens are gaining popularity. In Russia, for example, the number of households with a microwave grew from almost 24% in 2002 to almost 40% in 2008. Almost twice as many households in South Africa owned microwaves in 2008 (38.7%) as in 2002 (19.8%). Microwave ownership in Vietnam was at 16% of households in 2008—versus 30% ownership of refrigerators; this rate was up significantly from 6.7% microwave ownership in 2002, with 14% ownership for refrigerators that year.