Microwaves vs Ovens: Which Is Better, and Why?

Researched & Written by Craig

When it comes to cooking your food, there are two main options: microwaves and ovens. Many kitchens have both, but not all. If you’re considering your culinary options, it’s important to understand the difference between the two. 

Both of these helpful appliances have their strengths and weaknesses, so it can be confusing trying to choose between them. To help make things clearer, I’ve outlined 

  1. What’s the difference between microwaves and ovens?
  2. Which is better for different dishes?
  3. Can a microwave be used as an oven?
  4. Is it cheaper to use a microwave or an oven?

Ready? Then let’s dive in.

What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between microwaves and ovens is how they heat food. Microwaves use super-fast electromagnetic waves (“microwaves”) to vibrate the water in your food. This generates friction, which makes heat, and warms up your food. These electromagnetic waves are why you can’t put metal in a microwave – it leads to sparks.

On the other hand, ovens work through generating heat directly. The oven’s heating coils heat up and warm the oven air. This ambient heat is then absorbed by your food until it matches the air temperature. Metal can safely be put in a conventional oven without worries. 

Which is Better?

Because of the difference in cooking methods, microwaves and ovens have different strengths. Depending on what you need, you might get better results with one or the other. Some times it’s just a matter of taste.

Reheating

When it comes to reheating, microwaves are almost always the better option. If you’re reheating food, you know it’s already cooked through. You don’t need to worry about raw meat or food-borne disease. All you need is for your food to be hot. Microwaves can do that, and do it quickly.

Ovens can reheat food too, of course. If you’re trying to reheat an entire casserole, an oven is more efficient. It can also help you avoid soggy fries. It won’t be quick, though.

Verdict: Microwaves reheat single servings quicker and more efficiently, while ovens can handle large portions.

Large Dishes

Large dishes are where ovens excel. Many microwaves can’t fit large dishes to begin with. Furthermore, cooking with microwaves is inefficient when it comes to large, solid dishes. Ovens cook things through without cold spots or the need to stir. If you’re cooking more than a few servings, microwaves will start to struggle.

Verdict: Large dishes are best cooked in the oven.

Small Dishes

If you’re cooking for one or two people, microwaves are your friend.

Smaller portions are easy to cook thoroughly in a microwave. Many smaller dishes are even designed to be cooked in the microwave. Heating up an oven to full temperature and keeping it there to cook a single serving of something wastes your time and electricity.

Verdict: As long as you’re not trying to cook raw meat, small dishes are best cooked in the microwave.

Quality

When it comes to quality, ovens usually win out. Microwaves just heat food – they don’t do anything else.

On the other hand, ovens can do things like caramelize and crisp food, too. That’s because microwaves excite the water in your food and keep the edges from turning brown and tasty. Ovens don’t have that problem.  

Ovens also prevent cold spots by heating food evenly. Microwaves can leave the inside of your food cold if you’re not able to stir it. If you’re looking for restaurant-quality food, you’ll have a better experience using an oven.

Verdict: Food is more likely to be top-quality when it’s made in an oven, especially if it relies on caramelization or browning.

Can a Microwave be Used as an Oven?

Microwaves can sometimes substitute for ovens, depending on the circumstances. The trick is choosing foods that work well in the microwave.

For example, you should never try to cook raw meat in the microwave. That’s one situation where the oven will always win. By the time the center of a piece of raw meat is cooked in a microwave, the edges will be dry and burnt. Plus, microwaves won’t kill all the dangerous bacteria that can be found in raw meat. For those types of recipes, stick with an oven.

On the other hand, if you’re cooking something that can be stirred, then a microwave can be fine. Many boxed casserole recipes can be made in the microwave, for example. So, you can cook some large dishes that would normally go in the oven. Cooking large dishes in the microwave will take a while, but it’s doable.

Is It Cheaper to Use a Microwave or an Oven?

When you’re cooking food, the cheaper option is the most efficient option. If you already have an oven and a microwave, you can choose the option that cooks your food thoroughly in the shortest amount of time. That keeps your electricity costs down and saves you money.

For example, it wastes energy to heat up your entire oven to cook a single Hot Pocket. On the other hand, you’ll cook a large meal less efficiently in the microwave vs. oven. The quicker cooking method usually winds up being the cheapest.

If you don’t have a microwave or an oven, then you need to consider the cost of the appliance. Microwaves are almost always cheaper to buy and install. Unless you’re looking at something like a microwave drawer, ovens are going to be more expensive upfront.

Conclusion

Choosing between using a microwave or an oven doesn’t have to be confusing. They’re both useful daily tools with different strengths and weaknesses.

Ovens are great for large, quality meals. Microwaves, on the other hand, are at their best with quick, small portions. Knowing how microwaves and ovens compare will help you make more confident cooking decisions.

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