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How the microwave has evolved

We take microwaves for granted nowadays, but they are still a relatively new technology that didn’t get popularized until the 1970s. They allow us to cook food with the press of a button and often take less than a minute to bring a dish from chilled to piping hot and ready to consume. 

Microwaves have come a long way since the very first commercially available microwave, known as the Radarange, was invented in 1947. They’ve become a lot smaller, the technology has been refined and they’re now affordable household appliances that nearly everyone uses. 

How does a microwave work? 

Microwave ovens use electromagnetic radiation to heat food. These waves are a combination of electricity and magnetic energy. These waves are produced by an electron tube known as a magnetron. Unlike a conventional oven, only the food is heated, not the actual appliance itself — due to the microwaves being reflected by the interior of the microwave oven. 

The food is heated via microwaves, causing the water molecules in the food to vibrate. This is why dishes containing liquid seem to cook much faster than solid food. 

A Brief History of microwaves 

  • In 1945 Raytheon employee Percy Spencer accidentally discovered that microwave beams could heat food. 
  • In 1947 Raytheon made the Radarange, the first commercially available microwave. However, it was over five feet tall, weighed 750 pounds and it cost $5,000
  • In 1952 Tappan teamed up with Raytheon to make the first Radarange that could be used in homes. 
  • In 1955 Tappan made the first microwave truly designed for domestic use. It had features like different cooking speeds, a timer and even a drawer for recipes. It cost over $1,000. 
  • In the late ’60s, a smaller, affordable magnetron was invented, and in 1967 Amana released a 115-watt microwave for just under $500. 
  • In 1971 new regulations were passed that required design changes in microwaves that addressed the issue of past models leaking microwaves. 
  • In the 1970s, microwaves were selling well and even outpacing gas ranges, finding their way into many American homes. 
  • By the 21st century, the majority of American homes had a microwave. 

What to consider when buying a microwave

Countertop microwaves vs. over the range microwaves 

Amazon Basics Microwave bundle with Echo Dot

Countertop microwaves are stand-alone devices that are easy to move around. They sit on the counter, and they are famous for their simplicity. They come in various sizes and prices, and there are many great budget options like the Amazon Basics Microwave Bundle.

GE Profile With Sensor Cooking

Over the range microwaves sit between different cabinetry, freeing up counter space. They also filter the air in and out of the kitchen, keeping the air fresh, but they are not mobile and some people will find them cumbersome to set up and use. An over-the-range microwave like the GE Profile With Sensor Cooking is a fantastic choice that cooks food quickly and evenly. 

Grill microwave ovens vs. convection microwaves 

Another option is to get a grill microwave oven, which is great for grilling food as well as reheating or defrosting food. Heat is radiated from the top or bottom of the oven, as with the Emerson 1.2 CU. FT. 1100W Griller Microwave Oven. This is great for grilling, but you do need to monitor the temperature since the heat is unevenly distributed. You place the food on a grill or rack in the microwave, and it does a reasonable job at mimicking the taste of a traditional grill. 

NuWave Bravo XL Convection Air Fryer Oven Grill

A convection microwave is the king of all microwaves. It essentially combines a traditional microwave with both a grill and an oven. You can still cook food in mere seconds by using the standard mode, but they also possess a convection mode. This allows you to bake or roast food. There is also a fan inside that blows hot air around the microwave, more evenly distributing the heat. A microwave like the NuWave Bravo XL Convection Air Fryer Oven Grill is amazing for people who don’t have a lot of space and want one appliance that can cook everything. 

Don’t forget the Watts

ML-EM45P(BS) Countertop Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor

Watts measure the power flow of the microwave. The original commercial microwaves had much lower wattage, but modern technology has allowed for a much better size-to-watt ratio. Regardless, smaller microwaves still tend to have fewer watts. Modern microwaves tend to range from 500-1250 watts. Smaller microwaves take longer to cook food, and they may not cook food as evenly. However, they do take up less power, so people using them to simply heat drinks or cook a snack might be better off with something between 500-1,000 watts. People who want to cook whole meals will want something over 1,000 watts. Toshiba’s ML-EM45P(BS) Countertop Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor is one of the most popular high-watt microwaves that is made for home use. 

Smaller features to consider when buying a microwave 

Understanding the types of microwaves and technology is crucial, but modern microwaves come with a host of other features that are also worth considering. 

  • Preprogrammed settings are great since many people cook the same thing. It’s convenient to just be able to push a single button to heat a cup of coffee or some frozen vegetables rather than guessing at a cook time. 
  • Child locks are great to have to prevent children from cooking something they are not supposed to. 
  • Panel types are also important to consider. Touchpads are popular, but there are other budget options. 
  • Voice recognition is a popular new trend with microwaves. A company like Amazon incorporates voice recognition into its microwave designs.
  • Price is always a factor. Luckily, there are great microwaves around the $100 range, but for those who want luxury, there are amazing options out there for just a few hundred dollars. 

Top overall microwaves

Toshiba EM131A5C-BS Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor

Toshiba EM131A5C-BS Microwave Oven with Smart Sensor

This simple 1,100-watt countertop microwave is big enough to cook your favorite dishes while not taking up too much of your counter space. It comes with many preset cooking options and a big handle that makes it easy to open, all for one affordable price. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Panasonic Oven with Cyclonic Wave Inverter Technology

Panasonic Oven with Cyclonic Wave Inverter Technology

This is a true luxury microwave that uses a cyclonic inverter to ensure that your food is evenly cooked. There are multiple buying options, and the 16.5-inch turnstile is big enough to handle meals for the whole family. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

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Stephen Morin writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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