Consumer Reports researches faster, cheaper microwaves

Any microwave can handle popcorn and other snacks. But according to the editors of Consumer Reports, the latest also promise to make cooking main meals about as simple as nuking the family’s favorite snacks.
In CR’s recent tests of more than 60 models, even heating and thorough defrosting made the new Kenmore 6633, $140, the top-scoring midsized countertop model and a CR Best Buy. But most unique are its preprogrammed cooking codes for baby-back pork ribs, chicken parmigiana and more than 100 other frozen meals.
Dubbed TrueCookPlus, the software adjusts heating according to a food code that’s punched in, as well as to the home’s altitude, based on its ZIP code. The feature worked in CR’s initial tests. But Betty Crocker Warm Delights Minis cake is among the few foods so far with the code on the package, so users will have to get other food codes off the Web (www.truecookplus.com).
Other midsized countertop microwave ovens recommended by Consumer Reports that are also CR Best Buys are the Kenmore 6325, $130; the Kenmore Elite 6428, $250; and the Panasonic Inverter NN-SD697, $160.
Top-scoring large countertop models include the GE Profile JES2251SJ, $220, and the Panasonic Inverter NN-T945, $150, a CR Best Buy. Top-rated over-the-range models include the Samsung SMH7187, $300, a CR Best Buy, and the Kenmore Elite 8082, $630.
CR’s months of testing revealed several ways to save on a microwave:
— Get better browning for less. Some lower-priced models have a grilling feature that uses an electric element like the one in an oven’s broiler. But it’s still possible to pay $600 or more for models that have it. A top midsized convection model that cost $250 and didn’t have the grilling feature gave crispy grilled-cheese sandwiches. The convection mode can also be used for browner, crispier chicken.
— Don’t pay extra for racks. Most over-the-range models now include an upper rack that lets users cook several foods at once. The best CR tested have that feature for as little as $260. Just be sure to check racked foods often for even cooking because they aren’t on a moving turntable.
— Skip these space savers. Unlike most microwave ovens, Sharp’s $760 Insight Pro KB6025M drawer model mounts under the counter to free up space and allow a range hood for optimal venting. Conveniences include a bevy of shortcut keys and a “keep warm” feature that maintains serving temperature for up to 30 minutes. But that pricey pro’s heating evenness was only mediocre in CR’s tests. Sharp’s $380 Carousel R-1214, $380, a built-in model, can hang under a wall cabinet. But defrosting was subpar.
How to choose
In addition to saving time, microwave ovens can also save up to 80 percent of the energy used by a typical oven. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering making microwaves eligible for Energy Star status.
CR recommends using these tips to narrow down choices:
— Pick the right type. Large countertop models often have more capacity than over-the-range models, though they take up valuable counter space. Over-the-range models free up that space by nestling conveniently above the range. But they cost more to buy and install, and they don’t vent as well as most range hoods.
— Focus on features. A sensor helps prevent under- or overcooking by automatically turning off the microwave when food is done. Shortcut keys take the guesswork out of cooking popular foods, and convection helps provide browning like a conventional oven does. Models with a mounting kit save counter space by hanging on the wall or beneath a wall cabinet.
— Don’t buy capacity claims. What it says on the box isn’t what users get in their kitchen because manufacturers measure space that usually can’t be used. Some models delivered as little as half the space manufacturers promised. Take your largest casserole to the store to see whether it fits. Also consider models with a sliding tray, which can usually accommodate large or oblong plates.

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