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5 excellent microwaves with surprising features

Panasonic Home Chef 4-in-1 microwave and air fryer
The Panasonic HomeChef 4-in-1 microwave has an air fryer mode that crisps and browns french fries. Panasonic

Got questions about microwaves? Thinking about buying a new one?

More time- and energy-efficient than conventional cooking, microwave cooking has been popular since the invention of the first machine in 1947. Over the past seven decades, microwave ovens have evolved -- from a large commercial gadgets with one or two cooking options to countertop-size small kitchen appliances with loads of features.

In addition to cooking and defrosting food quickly, the microwaves of 2021 double as convection ovens, air fryers and broilers. Some of them offer smart technology, controllable by voice ("Alexa, cook popcorn!") or an app. Others, powered by inverters instead of magnetic coils or transformers, promise a more even and faster cooking experience with the same amount of wattage. And, while microwaves used to take up quite a bit of counter space, they now they come in ultracompact versions.

Looking to replace an old microwave, or get more out of your cooking appliances? CBS Essentials has rounded up some of the latest microwaves with surprising features. And if you're not sure if a new microwave is right for you right now, we're also answering some of your most frequent questions about how the gadgets work.

Sharp Alexa-enabled smart microwave

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Sharp/Amazon

Touch-free microwaving? Yep, thanks to the latest Alexa-enabled microwave from Sharp. Available in two sizes -- 1.1 and 1.4 cubic feet -- this 1000-watt gadget answers to 30 voice commands when connected to an Echo device. Popcorn lovers may appreciate that it features an Orville Redenbacher-certified popcorn preset for ideal popping. 

Sharp Alexa-enabled microwave (1.1 cu ft), $138 (reduced from $150)

Sharp Alexa-enabled microwave (1.4 cu ft), $180


Panasonic Home Chef 4-in-1 microwave

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Panasonic/Amazon

Panasonic Home Chef may be the most multi-tasking, space-saving small appliance on the market. In addition to serving as an inverter microwave, this 1.2 cubic foot cooking tool works as a convection oven (up to 425 degrees), air fryer (it comes with its own basket) and even a broiler. Panasonic also sells a stainless steel trim kit for those who want the built-in look. 

Panasonic Home Chef 4-in-1 microwave (1.2 cu ft), $530


Toshiba microwave and air fryer or convection combo

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Toshiba/Amazon

Toshiba offers more affordable multi-tasking microwaves: A microwave/air-fryer/convection model, or microwave/convection oven. Sleek looking but rather large, the 1000-watt and 1.5 cubic foot kitchen appliances offer lots of preset cooking options. Each is available in black stainless steel and traditional stainless steel finish, with the air fryer version model actually coming in a few dollars cheaper.  

Toshiba microwave with convection and air fryer (1.5 cu ft), $235


Breville Wave series 

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Breville/Amazon

Breville introduced an all-new line of microwaves a few years ago. The most innovative one in the line, the Combi Wave, performs as a hybrid convection oven, air fryer and microwave. For those who just want an attractive, easy-to-use microwave, the Smooth Wave, a brushed stainless steel appliance with 15 built-in presets, smart inverter technology and LCD display, is a smart option. 

Breville Combi Wave 3-in-1, $450 (reduced from $490)

Breville Smooth Wave, $350


Whirlpool mini-microwave

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Whirlpool

The tiniest microwave on the market, this small but mighty Whirlpool appliance, designed to tuck away in a corner, offers 750 watts of cooking and defrosting power. Features include "quick touch" buttons to add an extra 20 seconds of cooking and 10 levels of power. 

Whirlpool countertop mini-microwave (0.5 cu ft), $161


How do microwaves work?

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Peter Finch/Getty Images

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a clear, easy explanation on how microwaves work: An electron tube produces tiny waves (aka microwaves). These are absorbed by the food. Water molecules in food vibrate, producing heat that cooks the food. (This explains why foods higher in water content -- including vegetables -- cook more rapidly than others.) 

While the energy changes into heat once absorbed, it doesn't make food "radioactive" or "contaminated," which is a common misconception. Additionally, microwaving does not cook food from the inside out. The outer layers are heated and cooked primarily by microwaves while the inside is cooked mainly by the conduction of heat from the hot outer layers. 

Are microwaves bad for you?

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Edwin Tan/Getty Images

Radiation-related injuries as a result of microwave use are a big concern but extremely rare, per the FDA. The majority of microwave oven-related injuries result from heat-related burns via hot containers, overheated foods, or exploding liquids. 

Rare radiation injuries can happen when large amounts of microwave radiation leak through openings, such as gaps in the microwave oven seals, most commonly due to improper servicing, as the FDA heavily regulates microwave design to prevent these types of leaks. 

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