Are microwaves the new air fryers?
Air fryers have been dominating headlines and shopping baskets since 2022. But with the rising cost of living changing the way we cook, microwaves could well be the next most popular item in UK kitchens
Move over air fryers, there’s a new kid back in town.
Sales of microwaves (or mee-cro-wah-vays, if you’re Nigella) are rising steeply and industry insiders say they’re the latest must-have kitchen appliance, despite being around for decades. Many models are giving air fryers a serious run for their money – new technology has increased the number of settings, with some models including grill and air frying.
Retailer Currys says its sales of microwaves have risen by 50% since January 2022. Microwaves were also named the ‘desert island appliance’ by Lakeland customers in its 2022 trends report; they said if they could only have one kitchen appliance they would choose the microwave.
Just last year, air fryers were flying off the shelves with unprecedented speed, with sales increasing by 3,000% between November 2021 and November 2022, according to Price Runner. Demand was so high there were fears of an air fryers shortage as UK retailers struggled with stock and supply issues.
When BBCGoodFood.com investigated why air fryers had such high demand two main causes were identified: the cost of living crisis and viral social media trends. With costs rising, many of us continue to try and find ways to keep energy bills down. Air fryers run on comparatively very little electricity.
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Microwaves are also very energy efficient; a large majority use a low wattage of energy to perform. They’re also usually in use for much less time than an air fryer.
Another reason for the renewed popularity of microwaves is a change in domestic habits. In 2022, 39% more people started using their freezer more, reports Waitrose and Partners. And, according to HelloFresh’s 2023 trends survey, 37% are looking to do more batch cooking this year to save on costs and food waste.
Both habits allow the microwave to come into its own. It allows you to quickly heat up a single portion of batch-cooked food and is also one of the best ways to safely defrost food quickly.
How much does it cost to run a microwave in the UK?
There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to calculating how much an appliance costs to run. This depends factors such as how much energy the appliance uses, what kind of energy tariff you’re on and the energy costs per kWh (kilowatt-hour) where you live (it varies from place to place).
According to research by uSwitch, microwaves use on average about 5p for 10 minutes of use. Most of the ones we’ve tested have an energy usage of around the 1000W mark, with the highest at 1100W.
There are several reasons why even a microwave at the higher end of the energy usage scale will be cheaper to use than an oven or air fryer. Air fryers can use anywhere between 800W and 2000W and generally require a longer period of time to cook food, whereas the majority of microwave recipes only require the machine to be on for 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
For example, our microwaved baked potatoes take 10-15 minutes to cook (plus an optional 10 minutes in the oven to crisp the skin). This is a significantly shorter cooking time than our air fryer baked potato, where the potatoes need to be cooked for 40-50 minutes.
In addition, microwaves don’t require preheating — you only use the energy (and therefore spend money) to actually heat your food.
So, if you use your microwave for 20 minutes per day for a year, it will set you back about £36.50 (10p per day for 20 minutes x 365 days). Whereas research by Utilita showed that a 1400W air fryer costs 1p per minute of use, costing twice as much – £73.
How to get the best out of your microwave
Keeping kitchen workspaces free of appliance clutter is important to most of us. Many consumers are also looking for greater versatility in the kitchen appliances they buy, with some of the most popular air fryers having a number of preset options, including dehydrating, baking and grilling functions.
The most versatile microwaves are combi-microwaves with settings such as convection oven, so you can cook and bake as in a regular oven; plus grill, air frying or steaming in the most advanced models.
If you’ve already got a microwave, start by learning the different functions of your preset options. Read our handy microwave tips for using your machine better, such as stirring your food halfway through cooking since microwaves don’t distribute heat evenly.
Did you know that microwaved food keeps cooking even when you take it out of the oven? That’s because microwaves cook by agitating the water molecules in your food, and these continue to move around for at least one minute after the machine is turned off.
In the past, most of us used our microwaves simply for reheating leftovers, but if you’re trying to save on energy and use your conventional oven less, there are lots of ways to use a microwave for cooking. Check out our microwave recipes, and try our microwave cauliflower cheese which takes just 13 minutes to cook.
And don’t miss out on microwave desserts and puddings. You may already be familiar with mug cakes, but how about this comforting microwave banana pudding or our miracle microwave boozy fudge which makes a wonderful gift or sweet treat.
Three multi-use microwaves to buy right now
You can pick up a standard microwave model at a budget-friendly price. However, we’ve chosen the following combination microwaves for their versatility.
For a full guide to microwaves tried and tested by our experts, read our article on the best microwaves for everyday home cooking, which includes a number of models under £100.
Sage the combi wave 3-in-1 microwave
Best combination microwave overall
Star rating: 5/5
This 32-litre capacity microwave from Sage is sleek both in design and ease of use. There are loads of settings on offer and its extensive manual makes it easy to set up and start cooking. You can defrost and cook using the oven settings, but we really liked that you can use it to achieve crispy skins on baked potatoes, which are often a bit soggy when cooked in the microwave. If you’ve been trying to choose between a microwave and an air fryer this machine has settings for both.
Read the full Sage the combi 3-in-1 microwave review.
Smeg 34-litre combi-microwave oven
Best combination microwave for style
Star rating: 4.5/5
This microwave has 10 programmes and 40 settings to choose from. It has a large capacity of 34 litres making it useful for households of any size, but the sleek and stylish design really stands out. There’s a convenient shortcut menu on the inside of the door so you can easily find the setting you need – everything from melting chocolate to cooking a casserole is accounted for.
Read the full Smeg 34-litre combi-microwave oven review.
Panasonic 4-in-1 combination microwave NN-CS89LBBPQ
Best combination microwave for steam cooking
Star rating: 4.5/5
This super large and powerful microwave does come at a significant price, but we were impressed by its quality. This is the only combi-microwave we tested that offers steaming as an option. With a 31-litre capacity, it also comes with an internal shelf so you can cook on two levels, giving it a capacity to rival most standard ovens.