Microwaves come in three varieties – solo, which offer straightforward heating and are usually affordable; microwave grills, which have a heating element that browns food as well as heating it; and combination microwaves that also work like a conventional oven using hot air but on a smaller scale. They usually have the option of combining microwaving with convection heat, so you can roast a chicken in as little as half an hour and bake cakes faster.
Plus, while you’ll always find a selection of power levels, many microwaves now come with presets for different functions or foods, and accessories. These include grill racks, steamers and crispers, so you can expand your microwave cooking horizons to cookies and cakes, healthy fish and veg, or tasty toasties.
How we test
Our kitchen became home to more pings than a table tennis tournament. While microwaves can be used to heat a variety of foods using different functions, we’ve tested some of the most common, using each microwave’s programmes where available.
Each was used to heat lasagne, with a thermometer to measure the internal temperature after standing, defrost bread without turning it into soggy slices or leaving a dry crust, cook carrots, and grill toast (where applicable), with combinations tested for baking sponge too.
All the microwaves we tested heated efficiently, so most of the assessment relates to ease of operation, the ability to produce good results without additional cooking and overall performance.
Best microwaves under £100 Russell Hobbs RHM2031 20 Litre Stainless Steel Digital Microwave With Grill
£66.97 (price correct at time of publishing), Amazon
Best for: Compact kitchens
Key specs – Capacity: 20 litres; Type: Microwave grill; Dimensions: 26.2 x 45.2 x 39.5 cm; Features: 9 programmes, 800W microwave with 5 power levels, 1000W grill
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While it wasn’t the most compact microwave we tested, this Russell Hobbs model is still ideal for tucking under a wall cabinet – plus, unlike many of this size, it includes a grill function and a rack.
As you’d expect, there isn’t a huge amount of space inside but you can still make toast for two on its grill-only setting, or combine the grill with microwave power for browned fish, pies or puddings. The grill can run for up to 95 minutes, which might be handy if you’re browning in batches, and puzzlingly, there’s a 0 per cent power level, although we have no clue as to what it could be used for.
Useful features included being able to set a time for the microwave to start by itself, and the ability to defrost by time or weight, though not by food. We used the weight option for bread, which was selected by turning the main dial, though without the instructions at hand, this wouldn’t be obvious.
The preset time was six minutes 15 seconds without a signal to turn the food, but we found it easily defrosted in three minutes 30 seconds. The grill was more successful – we toasted bread for three minutes each side and even though the second side was browner, the toast was excellent.
Although there’s a good choice of programmes (such as spaghetti and rice), vegetables wasn’t one of them, so we cooked carrots on the potatoes setting, which took five minutes. They were soft yet retained their shape.
Fortunately, there was a reheat programme for the lasagne, with 200g predicted to take one minute 30 seconds. The centre of the food only reached 55°C so needed another minute. A good performance but you might have to adjust power levels or cooking times.
BuyWilko Microwave 20L
Best for: Those on a budget
Key specs – Capacity: 20 litres; Type: Solo; Dimensions: 25.6 x 45.1 x 34.5 cm; Features: 8 auto-cook programmes, sequential cooking, 3 defrost settings and express, 800W microwave with 5 power levels
Proving that solo microwaves don’t mean compromising on style, this sleek-looking model comes in a stainless-steel version as well as copper or black. It has more going for it than a shiny finish though, with five power levels, including defrost presets for meat and fish, eight auto programmes for different foods, delay start, child lock, a 60-minute digital timer and an express button corresponding to three rapid blasts of heat.
Its controls aren’t the most intuitive to use but with the instructions at hand, the microwave can do quite a lot. The instant start button, for example, adds time in increments of 10 seconds for those who like a fuss-free approach to cooking. Inside, you’ll find a 27cm-diameter turntable, large enough for an average dinner plate.
In testing, the auto reheat programme allowed two minutes 30 seconds for our lasagne, which was enough to heat it to 82°C in the centre, but left the sauce on top cool in a couple of spots. Using the option for seafood, we defrosted bread for one minute 30 seconds, which was effective, leaving some moisture on the plate but without the slices becoming damp.
A vegetables auto programme cooked 200g of carrots for four minutes 30 seconds, leaving them slightly soft without being mushy. Complete with a two-year guarantee, for the price, we felt this model was great value.
BuyKenwood K25MMS14 Solo Microwave
Best for: Microwave cooking devotees
Key specs – Capacity: 25 litres; Type: Solo; Dimensions: 30.6 x 51.3 x 43 cm; Features: 8 auto-cook programmes, 900W microwave with 5 power levels
This smart silver design is ideal for those who plan to use their microwave for more than reheating. It’s packed with handy features, such as a two-stage mode that lets you set it to defrost then switch to cooking food, and a roomy interior with enough space to cater for a family – both of which make it a bargain at its sub £100 price.
Other features we liked were the button for increasing the time by 30 seconds, a kitchen timer button that made using this function straightforward, a child lock and the ability to set the power from 100 per cent to 10 per cent.
More buttons come in the form of defrosting by weight or by time, but not by type. As different food defrosts at different rates, this does mean you’ll have to keep an eye on whatever you’re thawing. We found that the preset time for defrosting 200g bread was four minutes but it only needed just over two minutes.
Similarly, the auto-cook for vegetables wasn’t a one size fits all, as our carrots were given a time of two minutes 50 seconds, which wasn’t enough to cook them through. They needed another minute on full power to soften.
Cooking the lasagne also took a bit of guesswork, as there’s no auto-cook for chilled food. Instead, we heated 200g for three minutes on full. The meal reached 70°C in the centre but the edges of the lasagne started to dry out, so a lower power level for longer may have been more suitable.
BuyBest microwaves under £500 Swan 20L Nordic Digital Microwave
Best for: Affordable style
Key specs – Capacity: 20 litres; Type: Solo; Dimensions: 25.7 x 45.1 x 34.2 cm; Features: 800W microwave with 6 power levels
Proving that a basic microwave doesn’t have to be boring, Swan’s Nordic design looks stylish sitting out on a worktop. Available in two Scandi-inspired colours, white and grey, and finished with a mirrored door and wood-effect handle and dial, it’s ideal for a minimal kitchen.
Plus, while it’s compact enough to tuck below wall cabinets, its cavity will still accommodate a 25.4cm dinner plate. The controls are better than basic, too, and feature a digital display, an assortment of labelled buttons and a dial for setting weight and a 30-minute timer.
Cooking options include defrost, express (a one-touch 30 seconds, one minute or one minute 30 seconds button) and eight auto-programmes for foods such as popcorn, pizza or potatoes.
There’s less guidance on which programmes suit which foods compared to pricier models but this microwave would suit someone who’s more interested in hot food fast, rather than microwaving as a primary cooking method.
We used the reheat programme for lasagne, which took two minutes 30 seconds, reached 76°C in the middle after standing, and a seafood defrost programme for 200g of bread, which took just over three minutes, but left the thickest slice slightly frozen in the centre.
An auto-programme for vegetables cooked 100g of carrots in three minutes 50 seconds. They were soft but still held their shape, so might require a reduced time. For the price, you’d expect a few more functions than it has, but it definitely leads the way in good looks.
BuyBosch Series 2 HMT84M421B White Microwave
Best for: Families
Key specs – Capacity: 25 litres; Type: Solo; Dimensions: 30.5 x 51.3 x 40.8 cm; Features: 7 auto-cook and defrost programmes, 900W microwave with 5 power levels
It may lack the bright colours of some but behind the white exterior lies a workhorse of an appliance that’ll heat, cook and thaw without skipping a beat. That, coupled with a generous size and 31.5cm turntable, makes it a good fit for families as well as anyone who needs more capacity than the average solo can offer.
Seven programmes (rice, potatoes and veg, plus four defrost) use your food’s weight to predict cooking time, while five different power levels with a corresponding button – from gentle 90W to 900W – also provide heating flexibility. There’s even a memory button to create your own programme and a 99-minute timer for low and slow cooking.
There wasn’t a preset for ready meals but using the guidance of a lower power level, we chose 600W, which estimated four minutes of cooking. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough after standing (the temperature only reaching 65°C) so we cooked the lasagne for another minute on full and it was piping hot.
Defrosting bread was simple using the preset, although the smallest amount possible on this was 200g (we were defrosting 150g). This took five minutes 30 seconds, which seemed long, but the bread came out perfectly thawed.
Finally, carrots were cooked on an auto-programme for three minutes 55 seconds and came out soft and tasty. What we especially liked about this model was the amount of guidance and range of options that made it easy to avoid overcooking – a great buy if you can make room for it.
BuyHotpoint Supreme Chef Multifunction Microwave Oven MWH 338 SX
Best for: Entertaining
Key specs – Capacity: 33 litres; Type: Combination; Dimensions: 37.3 x 49 x 54 cm; Features: 11 programmes, 900W microwave with 7 power levels, 1200W grill, 80-200°C convection oven
While most microwaves are great for families, the Supreme Chef goes one better with its range of features. You’ll find a cleaning cycle that removes odours, advanced distribution of waves to prevent hot spots, and even a “frying” crisping function so you can make speedy fish and chips.
The Special Menu includes settings for dough proving, melting butter and softening ice cream, but it’s the Chef Menu that takes the hassle out of preparing good food fast, such as scrambled eggs, pizza and chicken.
We used it for heating lasagne on the low rack, although the quantity couldn’t be adjusted from 1200g, as it was designed for cooking from scratch. Instead, we removed it once it began to look brown on top after 10 minutes of microwave heat and the grill, which heated it evenly.
The defrosting bread programme thawed a couple of slices in a minute, while microwaving on 750W cooked carrots in three minutes 30 seconds. A crisper plate with a removable handle was especially good at toasting bread using the Dual Crisp programme, and the small sponge we made using the Chef Menu came out golden and fluffy after 18 minutes – again, not being able to adjust the quantity from 900g was frustrating, but the results were as good as oven baked.
The one downside of this model is the size – it’ll take up most of the depth of a worktop, although the dropdown door makes getting dishes in and out easier, and it’s incredibly roomy. A great option for extra oven space when you’re feeding a crowd.
BuyPanasonic Slimline Combination Microwave Oven NN-CD58JS
£225, John Lewis
Best for: Healthy after-school meals
Key specs – Capacity: 27 litres; Type: Combination; Dimensions: 31 x 52 x 39.5 cm; Features: 29 programmes, 1000W microwave with 6 power levels, 1300W grill, 100-220°C convection oven
Not content with loading its microwaves with great presets, Panasonic has gone one better with this model, adding eight Junior Menu functions for preparing dishes for children.
This means you can cook pasta bake or flapjacks in smaller portion sizes, filling after-school tummies faster, as well as making healthy purees and veggies for babies and toddlers. It’ll also cater for the whole family with 29 auto-programmes, including those for roasting meat and cooking fish and vegetables up to 40 per cent faster, compared to other combination and grill ovens.
We used the junior pasta bake auto-cook programme to heat 200g of lasagne, which took seven minutes using a mix of grill plus microwaving. This gave the food a golden crispy top, and it reached 85°C in the centre. It also defrosted bread perfectly on a specific programme – we felt this was by far one of the best microwaves for fast, even thawing.
It also cooked 100g carrots on another junior auto-programme, resulting in tender but firm vegetables. Our toast took longer than using a toaster – six minutes to golden – but on the plus side, didn’t need preheating. We had less success with baking using microwaves and convection – our sponge didn’t rise well and browned unevenly.
One aspect worth noting is that while it’s billed as slimline (taking up 20 per cent less counter space than previous models), it’s still quite wide. However, the upside is enough space for dinner plates.
BuySage The Quick Touch Crisp Microwave BMO700BSS
Best for: First-time microwave cooks
Key specs – Capacity: 25 litres; Type: Microwave grill; Dimensions: 31 x 52 x 42 cm; Features: Cook/grill, reheat and defrost presets for different foods, 900W microwave with 10 power levels, 1100W grill
If all you use your oven for is frozen pizza, you might be better off investing in The Quick Touch Crisp. Not only does it have its own crisper pan and a preheat function to prevent soggy results, it uses intelligent inverter technology with a grill to turn out crispy golden-brown pastry, quiche and more.
It also does much of the thinking for you, using cook, reheat and defrost presets to determine time and temperature for a variety of foods, from jacket potatoes to melting chocolate. Other thoughtful touches include a “Favourite” setting, allowing you to create a preset for a frequently cooked dish, and a shortcuts panel is hidden behind the door for tasks such as melting butter.
Chilled ready meal lovers will find that there isn’t a button for them, so you’ll have to take your pick between reheat leftovers or a frozen ready meal option. We used the former for lasagne and the microwave allowed four minutes 30 seconds for 200g, reaching a good 71°C in the middle, with no cold spots.
While there’s a defrost setting that adapts heat time and weight to food type, there wasn’t a preset for bread, so our slices ended up a little moist underneath from over-thawing. However, using the crisper plate after a three-minute preheat turned it into an evenly browned toastie, which we could specify by portion size rather than weight.
A fresh veg auto-cook programme worked well for carrots, needing only three minutes, plus we also tried the baked beans preset that cooked uncovered without spitting or exploding beans. While the choice of presets is good, it doesn’t cover everything, so knowing how to cook other foods would be helpful.
BuyKitchenAid Freestanding Microwave Oven KMQFX33910
Best for: Serious cooks
Key specs – Capacity: 33 litres; Type: Combination; Dimensions: 37.3 x 49 x 54 cm; Features: 50+ recipes, 10 programmes and 5 professional cooking functions, 900W microwave with 7 power levels, 1200W grill, up to 200°C convection oven
It’s unusual that you’d turn to your microwave for your bread-proving or yogurt-making needs, yet this KitchenAid model can be used for both and more.
Essentially, it’s like a multi-functional oven on your worktop, complete with a drop-down door, two-tiered steamer accessory and dedicated programmes (for veg, fish and more), crisper plate and two grills. There’s even an automatic programme to make cleaning the interior as simple as a quick wipe over.
The auto cleaning came in handy when we warmed up lasagne – we chose the low rack in conjunction with the combi grill option and a 350W microwave setting for a crispy top but weren’t prepared for the amount of spatter this produced. There also wasn’t much of a guide for cooking time. We allowed 13 minutes but the edges had started to burn and the centre reached 97°C by the time we removed it, so it didn’t need as long.
We had more success with bread – using the specific “Jet” defrost programme, this allowed 30 seconds for 100g, plus three minutes standing. While it still felt chilled when removed, it was easily sliced in two. Our toast needed just three minutes on high each side on the high rack for a golden brown surface.
The Dual Steam function and its accessory was by far the best at cooking carrots, needing two minutes 30 seconds to produce beautifully cooked, soft and tasty batons, while the Chef’s Menu programme was simple to use and baked well-risen sponge without any need for preheating an oven.
The price tag might be at the top end but if you’re a keen cook with limited oven space or short on time to indulge your passion, this ticks lots of boxes.
This article has been updated. It was originally published in January 2019.
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