Panasonic's combination microwave caught our eye because it promised to bake, roast and grill as well as defrost and reheat. The oven combines the efficiency of a microwave with the traditional browning and roasting of a conventional oven and grill. Panasonic uses proprietary Inverter technology in most of its microwaves. Inverter circuit boards produce constant power at all temperature settings instead of the more usual microwave transformer and capacitator that pulses on and off. For conventional cooking, Panasonic includes a heating element in the top of the oven with a fan.
The combi-microwave has 26 buttons on the control panel that give you some idea of the choice on offer. There are the usual time settings and controls for entering the weight of food. In addition, there are Auto Sensor, Sensor Combi and Auto Weight controls, which offer automatic cooking. The Chaos Defrost button works for certain foods and claims to achieve faster, more even defrost by using a random sequence of pulsing microwave energy (not sure where Inverter technology fits in here). Finally there are buttons for micropower, grill, convection and turbo-bake, which can be selected individually or combined. There are a ton of accessories and you will need a spare pan drawer just to store them all.
We decided to test the simple jacket potato that usually emerges from a microwave looking like a sweaty armpit. By using microwave cooking with convection heat, Panasonic claims to make crisp, jacket potatoes faster than a conventional oven. We washed and pricked three, medium sized Maris Pipers and spaced them evenly on the Low Rack on the Metal Tray, placed on the Glass Turntable, as instructed. The dedicated program for jacket potatoes uses Auto Sensor and Sensor Combi functions which means there is no need to enter the food's weight: a humidity sensor selects the power combination and level and calculates the cooking time. What could be simpler? Our potatoes took a little over half an hour to cook, which is about half the time we'd expect for a conventional oven. Unfortunately, the skins were more than crisp - they were burnt in places. Having tested more Auto Sensor and Sensor Combi options, we concluded that automatic programs worked well with microwave power on its own, as with fresh vegetables. Once the oven combined power sources, we had to intervene and cut short or extend cooking times for perfect results.
Using different power sources led to other problems. Each cooking method requires different accessories. Grilling uses a leggy looking tripod called the High Rack to bring food up to grill level. For large quantities, there is an Enamel Shelf but this is not recommended for fatty foods that can splatter. If you want to microwave after grilling, you have to first remove all the grill accessories, clean the oven walls and floor using hot, soapy water to remove any grease - not forgetting to wash the grill accessories which cannot be put in a dish washer - before installing a new set of microwave accessories.
We love cooking at pocket-lint, but we did not love this combination microwave. At times, we made a mess of the simplest tasks, like cooking chicken nuggets. With a lot of perseverance, we might have had better results but what is the point of technology that promises to do something for you and then requires you to step in and take control anyway? Combination microwaves account for a growing share of the market but we think you should decide what you want your microwave/oven to do. If it is just reheat and defrost, then stick with a straight forward, mid price microwave. If you are ambitious in the kitchen, then watch the film Bob Giraldi's film Dinner Rush, and ask yourself whether any appliance is ever going to stand in for a chef.