By Steven J. Forbis

(MONEY Magazine) – Microwave ovens were once viewed as a triumph of convenience over common sense. Would you settle for, say, a gray slab of steaming beef curling up at the edges for the convenience of two minutes of microwave cooking time plus fast cleanup? Wouldn't you prefer an old-fashioned oven-broiled steak seared black and crusty on the outside and crimson throughout even though it takes 10 minutes and leaves you with a messy pan? Even more to the point, why pay several hundred dollars for yet another gadget to clutter your kitchen so you can use it to save a minute and a half warming soup or even 25 minutes thawing and heating a frozen dinner? But when that logic ruled the home front, microwaves were merely undifferentiated zappers and Mother was not yet wrapped up in her career. Times have changed. Now three out of five American homes have at least one microwave. Despite that market penetration, consumers spent an estimated $3.8 billion in the past 12 months on nearly 12 million more micros. Regular countertop models account for nearly nine out of 10 of all units sold last year, according to FIND/SVP, a New York City market research firm. And small countertop models selling for less than $200 will be the bestsellers of all micros this holiday season, according to Dealerscope Merchandising, a trade publication. & New types have been coming on the market lately offering a near-irresistible range of capabilities. Such souped-up microwaves, still less than 3% of the market, can poach an egg perfectly and make crisp, unsinged bacon every time. Some models can even do the sorts of things they were long scorned for failing at: they can bake, and they can roast, broil or toast to a golden brown. The result may not always be as satisfying as you would get from a conventional oven, but the wonder is that these postindustrial hearths can do so much so competently. ''You can do just about anything except deep-fat frying,'' says Thelma Snyder, co-author of Mastering Microwave Cookery. Even the most stripped-down microwave ovens can do more than most of their owners probably realize. Frozen leftovers, for instance, can be reheated without becoming overcooked, since they are not exposed to the drying heat of a conventional oven. Frozen vegetables taste fresher when microwaved because they come out steamed, not boiled. Even frozen foods that are to be cooked with other appliances -- chicken headed for the barbecue, for example -- benefit from a few minutes in the microwave, which not only accelerates the defrosting process but also reduces the grilling time, avoiding the common dilemma of winding up with either undercooked or overcharred meat. Microwave ovens excel at a surprising variety of jobs. Anything that can be steamed can be microed equally as well, but faster. Microwaving cooks basically the same way as steaming, only the steam comes from within the vegetable, rather than the bottom of a wet pan. Fresh vegetables retain their flavor, vitamins and color better than they do with conventional top-of-the- stove boiling. Steamed fish comes out especially well, as do rice, casseroles and stews. Chocolate can be melted quickly with little danger of burning. Coffee reheats in seconds without turning sour. Some people have even found nonfood uses for the machines: Julia Child uses hers to dry out the newspaper on rainy mornings. Of course, microwave ovens unaided by extra equipment are just terrible for some applications. Baking bread is a perfect example -- the crust never forms because there's no dry heat, and the steam from inside the loaf prevents the surface from reaching a sufficiently high temperature. The micro style can create controversy too: while many enthusiasts swear by the job it does with bacon, others miss the delectable charred crust that only frying in an iron pan can produce. Furthermore, plenty of foods -- pasta, for example -- cook faster and better in the traditional pot of water on top of the stove. No one buys a microwave and throws out the stove. Or at least no one should. What can and cannot be done in the microwave is explained to greater or lesser degree in the instruction booklets and cookbooks that come with most ovens. Some of these books, especially Litton's, are quite good. Others leave something to be desired, namely another cookbook. The Microwave Cooking Library is an exhaustive 12-volume series covering almost all aspects of microwave cooking (Cy DeCosse Inc., $14.95 each). A good no-nonsense primer illustrated with step-by-step photos can be found in The Microwave Cookbook: The Complete Guide by Pat Jester (HPBooks, $14.95). Mastering Microwave Cookery by Marcia Cone and Thelma Snyder (Simon & Schuster, $19.95) is a more formal and comprehensive volume that features an especially clear introduction to microwave cooking and an emphasis on elegant recipes and presentation. As such instruction books warn, even the fanciest micro can still make a mess of things. Other forms of heat -- the hot air and infrared rays that get the job done in a conventional oven -- act on the surface of foods. By contrast, microwaves penetrate about an inch into food. This is the key to the micro's speed: heat that would otherwise slowly penetrate is instead injected well below the surface. It is also the main drawback. Any part of a food item that is less than an inch thick can overcook before the middle of the thicker parts even approaches doneness. Thin edges cook still faster because microwaves can enter from the side, top and bottom. The solution is to shield thin places with aluminum foil, which reflects microwaves. Another major shortcoming is less easily remedied. The shape of food items affects the distribution of microwaves within the oven. Thus even foods of uniform thickness such as steaks and lasagna cook unevenly. To increase uniformity, most ovens have a fanlike agitator or two that push the microwaves past the food. This helps, but it usually leaves hot spots. Ovens with agitators above and below the food do a much better job. Some manufacturers install a turntable instead of an agitator, but this has no clear advantage even though it is sometimes touted as a guarantee of uniform cooking. The trouble is that rectangular pans have to be small enough to rotate, and ! instead of hot spots, turntable ovens leave hot rings, caused when food rotates under a hot spot. With either type it usually helps to reposition any food once or twice as it cooks. While few ovens combine both agitation and rotation, you can buy an accessory turntable ($25 to $50), which reduces hot spots and gives any agitating oven the advantage of rotation. The most notable innovations, however, are built in. They have resulted in two hybrids that extend the microwave oven's capabilities way beyond thawing and heating. One is the microwave combination oven, which has electronic-oven- type heating elements both above and below the food. This enables you to bake, broil or toast. The other hybrid combines the microwave with the convection oven, which blows air around the food, producing not only evenly browned roasts and broils, but also properly baked items from breads to cakes. Even with this advantage, uniform cooking is still somewhat elusive because of the varying densities of foods. For most people, buying a microwave should not even involve inspecting such highfalutin hardware. After all, 80% of the time microwave ovens are used for the simple tasks of reheating leftovers, preparing frozen foods or warming up a cup of cold coffee. In general, microwave buyers fall into four distinct categories, suited to the four kinds of microwaves described in the table on page 166. Identify the category into which you fall and you could save yourself time and money when you decide which oven is for you. Small types ($90 to $200): Young singles on the go; people who eat hardly anything but frozen foods; and those who are totally set in their cooking ways but just want a little speed now and again. These are the folks who can be happy buying the cheapest, smallest, least feature-laden machine on the market. Look for dials instead of the touch panels that only higher-priced multifunction ovens need. Setting a dial is much quicker. You can't make a mistake, and if you change your mind you can reset the knob on the fly. Capacity of the smaller ovens is enough to accommodate a seven-pound chicken. Standard types ($189 to $450): Busy homemakers with a family to feed and anyone else who does a lot of cooking in the microwave. These people need a standard oven with a few features to let microwaving take care of itself while they do other things. Look for several power levels, each suited to various chores: WARM to hold things ready for serving; DEFROST to thaw a frozen wad of ground beef; MEDIUM for frozen dinners and other items that can't be rushed; MEDIUM HIGH, sometimes recommended for leftovers; and HIGH for the rest. Standard-size ovens for family use, including all four in the accompanying table, have at least 550 watts of microwave power, compared with as little as 400 for compact ovens. The higher the wattage, the more food an oven can cook in a given amount of time. Some standard ovens are available with intriguing extras. The Samsung model listed in our table has a temperature probe that doesn't turn the oven off completely when it senses the desired temperature but puts it into a keep-warm mode. Programmed ovens go one step further: they know the right temperature for a variety of foods through an electronic memory. So you simply tell the oven what you are cooking by entering a code number and the machine determines the correct power level and temperature. The Sears Kenmore 22H 89960 N ($530) is one such oven. Other programmed ovens, including the Panasonic Genius listed in our table, have a humidity sensor. This detects the waxing and waning of steam from, say, vegetables and halts the cooking according to the information that is stored in an electronic memory. Micro combination types ($239 to $1,028): People who like to cook but have limited space and time. They may be candidates for a sort of combination microwave and toaster oven. The GE Omni 5 (see the table), besides its other capabilities, can microbake -- that is, cook with hot air, radiant heat and microwaves all at the same time by the addition of the same kind of heating elements used in electric ovens. Anything that can be baked can be microbaked just as well. As with many GE microwave ovens, the Omni 5 comes equipped for mounting under a kitchen cabinet, conserving counter space. The Litton Micro-Browner (see the table) is another micro-toaster oven that can be mounted under a cabinet, though the mounting kit costs an extra $25 or so. The Litton's microwave power is considerably greater than the GE's: 650 watts vs. 450. As a result, it lends itself to more serious use: it has several dozen recipes programmed in to allow nearly automatic cooking of anything from vegetables to frozen entrees and roasts. Unlike the GE it works in two steps -- baked goods are started off with hot air and radiant heat, then finished with microwaves. This isn't necessarily an improvement, but it does cut cooking time in half. Micro convection types ($399 to $799): Gourmets, people who don't like to use the big oven when the weather is hot, and those who just have to have everything. The forced-air convection concept is endorsed by some of the world's finest cooks as particularly excellent for baking and roasting because of its even browning. The top-of-the-line microwaves from GE, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Panasonic, Quasar, Sanyo, Sears and Sharp (see the table) are micro-convection combos. ''Foods turn out just as well as with regular methods, and you save a little time,'' says Thelma Snyder. Some of these machines pull out all the stops with temperature probes, humidity sensors, broiling capability, cooking programs you can customize and store in the oven's memory, specialized automatic defrost cycles and more. Such electronic Christmas trees can set back the gadget junkie as much as $1,400. BOX: Ten top zappers Though most microwaves look alike, features and capabilities vary widely. For this table Money selected 10 models of the most popular brands to represent the four basic categories of ovens: Standard ovens are generally 24 inches wide, 15 inches tall and 18 inches deep. Small ovens are usually 18 inches wide, 10 inches high and 13 inches deep. Microwave-toaster ovens vary in size, but all have upper and lower heating elements. Microwave-convection ovens are about the size of standard ovens and circulate heated air for conventional baking. Except as noted, all models have electronic touch pad controls mounted next to the door. Capacity refers to the volume of the cooking cavity according to the manufacturer and to measurements made by Money. Low prices are discount quotes; high prices are suggested retail. Interior & Capacity dimensions Name/model number Price (in cubic feet) (in inches) SMALL Sanyo EM-110 $119 to $149 0.46 6 by 12 by 12 This budget dial model with 30-minute timer Comments and one power level is about as simple to op erate as they get. Sharp Half-Pint 4060 $129 to $200 0.43 6 by 11 by 11 Has printed cooking guide on control panel, Comments 15-minute dial control timer. Comes in five lively colors. Little Litton 1139 $129 to $179 0.5 6 by 12 by 11 Has variable power controls, two memories Comments and a hold-warm feature. Dial model, $129 to $159, has six power levels. STANDARD Toshiba ERX2600 $189 to $350 1.0 10 by 15 by 11 Top-mounted controls and vertical design Comments make this model six inches narrower than most, saving counter space. Has nine power levels and presetting capabilities. Samsung MW8600 $199 to $280 1.4 10 by 15 by17 An excellent value. Includes an automatic Comments thermometer probe that halts cooking when food reaches a preset temperature, pro grammed defrost, four-stage memory and re movable glass cooking tray. Tappan Space Saver 56-2476 $219 to $249 0.8 8 by 16 by 11 Can be set for two stages, such as defrost for Comments 10 minutes, then cook for five. Has automatic temperature probe and cooks by temperature instead of by time. Panasonic Genius NE-8070 $350 to $420 1.4 10 by 16 by 16 This model has a turntable instead of an agiComments tator and a humidity sensor that determines when foods such as vegetables are done. An other device estimates a food's defrosting time from its weight. COMBINATION OVENS GE Omni 5 JMT 20 $239 to $269 0.5 5 by 16 by 11 Microwaves, bakes, broils, toasts and Comments microbakes (that is, uses microwaves and heating elements at the same time); very clear controls. Litton Micro-Browner 1285 $289 to $400 0.5 6 by 14 by 11 Preprogrammed, with temperature probe and Comments hold-warm feature; does everything the GE Omni 5 does except microbake. CONVECTION OVEN Sharp Carousel II R-8570 $399 to $599 1.5 10 by 16 by 17 This full-size oven microwaves with turntable Comments and bakes, broils and microbakes with cir culating hot air; defrosts by weight; has built- in temperature probe.