The Difference Between an Air Fryer and Convection Oven: A Breakdown

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It seems like just about everyone has an air fryer these days — and for good reason: They are compact, they make food crispy and golden on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. These trendy home appliances are based on the technology from the convection oven, which uses a powerful fan to circulate heated air. While convection oven technology may be nearly 100 years old, the design is still an effective method to cook food faster and more evenly than when using a conventional oven.

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Convection ovens were originally created in 1914 as an alternative to standard fryers. Nearly 100 years later, air fryers incorporated and refined the same technology as a way to quickly reheat food on airplanes. Over the following decade, air fryers became wildly popular due to their ability to cook delicious deep-fried goodies with minimal oil and electricity.

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But what exactly are the distinct differences between air fryers and convection ovens? (And more importantly, how do you choose which one is best for your kitchen?)

What Is an Air Fryer?

An air fryer is essentially a miniature convection oven. It has a heating element on the top of the unit directly above a large fan that is able to quickly circulate hot air around the entire interior of the device. Because the food sits directly under the heating element and fan and because the unit is relatively small, an air fryer is able to cook food more quickly than a traditional convection oven. The small size means these appliances are also an energy-efficient way to cook. In fact, while operating, they use half the energy of an electric oven, and since they cook more quickly, those energy savings are compounded dramatically based on the recipe.

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Cooking in an air fryer is simple. Simply preheat it (this should only take a few minutes), apply a thin layer of oil to the bottom of the basket, and then set a single layer of food inside the basket. Flip larger items while cooking or simply shake the basket to move around small food items, like fries. It is important to recognize that the smaller size of air fryers means that food needs to be cooked in small batches, and some food will simply be too large to cook in the appliance at all, especially since food needs to be spaced out enough to provide sufficient airflow around the food surfaces.

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In most air fryers, the food is held in a metal basket similar to those found in a deep fryer, which helps increase air circulation around the surface of the food. Some models have additional accessories, such as rotisserie spits, and up to 10 other settings aside from the basic air fryer function, including toast, roast, bake, and broil to allow plenty of cooking options.

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While air fryers are most famously used to cook frozen foods and to prepare fried favorites (including chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, French fries, chicken tenders, and donuts), they can also be used for a wide variety of other food (including hard-boiled eggs, pork chops, and even brownies). Fans of air frying love that they can enjoy their favorite fried foods with a tablespoon or less of oil, making them healthier than a deep fryer while still retaining a satisfying crunch and soft interior texture. While the texture and flavor of food cooked in an air fryer are not quite the same as those cooked in a deep fryer, the results are still satisfying overall, and some people actually prefer food that is "fried" in an air fryer.

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Tip

To convert recipes for use in an air fryer, reduce the temperature by 25 to 50 degrees and reduce the cooking time by about 20 percent.

Pros/Cons of Air Fryers

There are many benefits to air fryers, including that they:

  • Preheat in a matter of minutes
  • Heat food more quickly than even a convection oven
  • Cook food evenly
  • May offer additional cooking applications, such as roasting, broiling, toasting, dehydrating, and more, though you may need additional accessories, such as oven racks, skewers, and rotisserie chicken spits, since most come with only a basket
  • Provide a healthier alternative to deep frying with similar results
  • Are often affordable, as low as $60
  • Use less electricity than both conventional ovens and convection ovens
  • Don't take up as much countertop or cupboard space as a countertop convection oven

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Of course, there are some downsides to air fryers as well. For example, they are:

  • Too small for many foods, and big batches require multiple cooking sessions
  • Not as versatile as a convection oven
  • Fairly loud, though this varies by model

What Is a Convection Oven?

A convection oven is a speedier alternative to a traditional oven. Most models have heating elements on the top and the bottom as well as a fan in the back of the oven that can circulate the hot air around the unit to cook food more quickly and more evenly. Most models allow the fan to be disabled in order to cook food in a more traditional manner since the hot air circulated by the fan can dry out some food, particularly baked goods, like cookies and breads.

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Models vary in size, ranging from a full-size oven with a convection setting to a countertop convection oven, and prices can range from around a hundred to a few thousand dollars. Whereas as air fryers can typically only cook one serving at a time, you can not only make larger portions in a convection oven but you can even cook multiple dishes on the multiple racks in the oven.

To avoid overcooking food, it is recommended that users adjust oven recipes by reducing temperatures by 25 degrees Fahrenheit or reducing the cooking time by 25 percent (convection oven and air fryer recipes are largely interchangeable, though air fryers may cook slightly faster). That being said, convection ovens can be used for just about anything that can be cooked in a standard oven, including meats, pizzas, casseroles, cookies, pies, vegetables, and more. They can also cook fried foods, though many people find that air fryers provide a more satisfying crunch that is more similar to the results from a deep fryer.

Pros/Cons of Convection Ovens

Convection ovens have been popular kitchen appliances for decades for many reasons, including the fact that they:

  • Cook faster and more evenly than a conventional oven
  • Uses less energy than a traditional oven
  • Can prepare most foods just as good or better than air fryers with the exception of fried foods. Offer more cooking options than standard air fryers (though some air fryers have multiple settings), and some even have an air-fryer setting
  • Do not require additional accessories for different cooking methods, though some people choose to buy crisper trays to get better results with fried food
  • Are available in a wide variety of sizes and price ranges to suit any kitchen and budget — convection toaster ovens cost as little as $80
  • Can cook large foods and multiple servings at once

While convection ovens are quite useful, there are still some downsides to these appliances, as they:

  • Take longer to preheat and cook than an air fryer — around 10 minutes or so compared to the few minutes it takes an air fryer to heat up
  • Do not cook fried foods quite as well as an air fryer

Differences Between Air Fryers and Convection Ovens

One thing people tend to miss in the big air fryer vs. convection oven debate is that the two kitchen appliances use the same basic convection baking technology, simply meaning that a fan circulates air around the food so it cooks quickly and evenly. By and large, the air fryer is just a smaller, more portable convection oven, but there are some small distinctions that help distinguish one from the other.

Size

The biggest difference between air fryers and convection ovens is that air fryers are usually smaller, though there are some very small countertop convection ovens and some particularly large air fryers out there. This means they cannot cook as much food at once, but it also means they use less energy, they take less time to preheat, and they cook slightly faster since the food is right below the heating element.

Fan

The fan in an air fryer is located at the top just under the heating element, whereas the fan in a convection oven is set in the back. This means that from the second they are powered on, air fryers start circulating hot air around the cooking area, unlike a convection oven, which must wait until the hot air reaches the fan, which is why air fryers only take a few minutes to preheat compared to the 10 minutes or so it takes a convection oven to preheat.

The fan in an air fryer also spins faster, up to one third faster than the fan in a convection oven, and it is much larger. In fact, the fan in an air fryer is almost as wide as the entire cooking area, whereas a convection oven's fan is proportionally much smaller, typically about half as wide as the oven's back wall. All of this means more hot air will circulate faster through the unit, creating crunchier fried foods.

Heating Method

Air fryers have only one heating element located in the top of the unit, whereas convection ovens have one at the top and one at the bottom. The design of the air fryer means it can cook faster than a convection oven, but the design of a convection oven means it is more versatile. Many models can be used to replicate the results you could get from a toaster oven, a traditional oven, or even an air fryer.

Accessories

Convection ovens are typically sold without accessories. On the other hand, the air fryer basket has a porous surface that allows hot air to more easily reach the surface area of the food inside the unit better than it would in a baking tray. Just as some people purchase crisper baskets for their convection ovens, though, some people also choose to purchase accessories for their air fryer, such as oven racks and rotisserie spits.

Cooking Styles

Air fryers are great for fried foods but might not be the best option for other dishes. While some newer models have settings for roasting, baking, broiling, or toasting, convection ovens have all of these features, and newer models may even have an air fry setting.

Which Is Right for You?

While air fryers may be the trendy new kitchen appliance, most home cooks will find themselves better off with a convection oven, particularly if they don't have a traditional oven already. The versatility of convection ovens and the increased cooking space means they are simply more functional. That being said, if you mainly want to cook fried foods in small portions, an air fryer may be preferable. Similarly, if you want to continue using your oven for baking but just want something that takes up minimal cabinet or counter space to heat things like French fries or chicken wings quickly, an air fryer may be a good option.

While most people really don't need both an air fryer and a convection oven since they largely serve the same purpose, if you want the best of both worlds, consider purchasing a convection toaster oven air fryer that has the functionality of both appliances.

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