Over the years, I had found myself staring at the empty vertical space inside a microwave oven, and often wishing that somehow a second dish or plate could be making use of that wasted upper space… say, oatmeal happening below while bacon is cooking above. Or, heating up two plates of food at once. I’d always had hand-me-down microwaves, so I’d never had a reason to research the market thoroughly. But when the latest hand-me-down died recently, I decided that two-level cooking (if it existed) would be probably the one feature that would rock my world in terms of microwave capability. So I seized the chance to get out there and investigate this question for myself.
Does two-level microwave oven cooking exist?
At first, I didn’t even know if such a concept as “two-level microwave” existed outside my head, so I just started Googling it, trying to guess at what the right phrase or keywords would be. And I came across this before long:
Well, hallelujah and pass the oven mitts, clearly such things did exist.
Key features of two-level microwave ovens
I sussed out that there were at least two characteristics of a two-level microwave oven [1. There was also a third thing that is no longer relevant. Microwaves come out of one of the sides of the oven. In earlier models, the microwaves were directed up at the “roof” of the oven, where a “mode mixer” fan would fan them back down into the oven in an attempt at evenly distributing them. Two-level cooking / heating would not work great in the “bounce off roof” scenario, because the top dish would obviously bask in all the lovely radiation and not leave any for the dish below. Now, almost all microwave ovens rely instead on a turn-table to turn the food, ensuring even distribution (and therefore heating) that way. Modern ones without a turn-table (e.g. “flatbed” ones) will have “mode mixers” in several places in the oven such as the back.]:
- They are tall enough inside to be able to physically handle the concept of there even being two-levels inside them;
- They come with special shelves, racks or stands, made of metal or plastic, that you put into the oven when you want to do two-level cooking.
The search for a two-level microwave oven
Searching for an actual product to press BUY on proved difficult. The two-level feature seemed to be referred to variously as “two-level”, “bi-level” or “dual-level”, though sometimes “dual-level” seemed to be used instead for microwave / convection combo. So I had to do search after search on those various terms.
And frustratingly, while big retailer sites routinely let you sort / filter appliances by brand, price, feature, etc, this “two-level” feature was never one of the criteria on offer for filtering or sorting, nor would the keywords “two-level microwave” get any hits in search results. If a particular retailer did happen to actually have a line for “two-level” in the table of features (as in the screen cap above), the only way to tell which of their 200 microwave models had a “Yes” in that line was to open each entry up. One. At. A. Time. I did it, but let me tell you, it got old fast.
I learned of a few Kenmore, Whirlpool and KitchenAid models that offered the two-level feature, but they were all over the stove microwave / exhaust fan models combos. Here for instance is information for a Whirlpool over-the-stove microwave oven with two-levels (it uses a rack that you rest onto side clips inside the oven):
But, I wanted and needed a pure and simple counter top model microwave oven. I did finally locate one that did two-level, but it was only available for Australia and New Zealand (wrong electrics.) Here’s a very short commercial video explaining this model :
So I remained stumped on what counter-top options might be available for North America.
Shelves inside two-level microwave ovens
The metal racks and shelves puzzled me at first. The Australian dual microwave / convection oven (pictured above) had a metal rack, but I wondered if maybe the metal rack were just a “high / low rack” intended only for when it was being used as a convection oven. Some time later, I read in several places [2. Such as http://www.shopyourway.com/questions/1103071 . Accessed March 2013.] that the metal racks are indeed meant to be used in microwave oven mode: the magic is that these models have their inside cavities “tuned” to the exact metal that the rack is made of, so that the microwaves won’t react with the metal of that rack.
All the models — Panasonic, Kenmore, KitchenAid, whether their two level rack were made of metal or plastic, seemed to advise removing the racks when not needed, but many two-level microwave owners [3. Such as Chowhound http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/895560 . Accessed March 2013. ] admitted ignoring that instruction and removing the racks only when they needed the extra vertical space.
Some two-level owners said they had no idea where the stand or rack was, as they’d taken it out and never used the two-level feature at all, because they either didn’t think it would work or were never interested in it. In fact, more people fell into this category (got two-level but don’t use it) then fell into a category of “love that feature, can’t live without it.”
Some people theorized that with 2 plates in the oven heating up, it would take longer than it would for one — but I’m okay with that. I’m happier with 5 unbroken minutes for 2 plates (which lets me do something else useful) than with 2 x 3 minute warmups (which needs me to stand by twice.)
Where did this leave me?
Depending on how you look at it, manufacturers either do a great job of hiding this feature, or a crappy job of promoting it.
Here’s a microwave, the Panasonic NN-CF750WBPQ : you tell me if the shelf can be left in during microwave cooking?
Anyway, I jus gave up and bought a microwave oven without this feature.
But after all this searching, while writing this up and double-checking my references, hope sprang up on the horizon.
Microwave accessories that give you two-level cooking
It turns out, there are several types of accessories that can give you this functionality. You just need to search on “microwave plate stacker”, “microwave stacker” etc.
(In the lead picture for this article, I tried stacking two plates using regular microwave covers just for the sake of illustrating a point. BUT don’t do this, I wouldn’t. Those types of covers aren’t designed to be stable like that, and they aren’t, they are tippy. Stacked like that, they would be very awkward and dangerous with hot food inside them. So don’t do that: look for something designated as stackable or as stacker instead.)
One of the most promising looking answers also encloses the food, so you don’t have to choose between stacking and splattering. It’s called the Zenniva Two-Level Microwave Insert — but as of March 2014 appears to only be sold at one store — Curry’s — in the UK.
So, I suppose for now I’ll have to look for a stacking accessory a little closer to home in North America. And so that hunt begins!