Air Fryer vs Convection Oven #ScienceSundays

by Erin

Air fryer vs convection oven – are they the same? Does one cook better than the other? I took it upon myself to test them side by side and here are my results.

Air Fryer vs Convection Oven Science Sundays
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Air Fryers are Easy-Bake Ovens for adults.

There, I said it.

TL;DR – The short version of this post is that an air fryer a smaller convection oven with a trendy name.

Better yet, you probably already own an “air fryer” because “air frying” is not real, it doesn’t exist [1]. An Air Fryer is just a small convection oven which means it is baking, not frying [2, 3]. Many countertop toaster ovens are also convection ovens. Heck most new full sized oven models have a convection mode. Do you have either of those in your kitchen? If not, then maybe you have an argument to buy an air fryer. Better yet, you can buy a toaster oven with a convection mode which is way more useful (and often cheaper). I’ll get more into that later.

Why am I calling them Easy-Bake Ovens for adults? Let’s talk about how all these things work.

How does an Easy-Bake Oven work?

The original Easy-Bake Oven used twin 100-watt incandescent light bulbs to heat the oven. One above the food and he other below. You might scoff at this idea of using a light bulb to cook food, but inside that little device the temperatures reached more than 350F due to the heat give off by the bulbs [4]. But thanks to engineering, later models used only one bulb. And guess what that one bulb does? It creates a convection effect that cooks just as well as its two-bulb ancestor [5].

Convection Oven

What is a Convection Oven?

Take your oven, but make it smaller and fit on your countertop. If you have a convection oven, you may have noticed the fan inside. This fan blows the heat emitted from the bottom (and sometimes top) element around and onto the food, in effect transferring more heat to the surface of the food, cooking faster, and therefore resulting in more crispiness than an ordinary oven (but obviously less than deep frying). The second key part is the rack, which allows the food to be spread in a single layer allowing for even air flow and cooking all around [6].

And if you’re like me and enjoy watching your food cook, there’s a nice window for you to gaze longing inside. Or for a normal person to check when it’s done without opening it and thus losing heat.

Nuwave Air Fryer Review

What is an Air Fryer?

As I mentioned earlier, an air fryer is a smaller, more portable convection oven. Instead of being a squat wide box like a toaster oven, most air fryers have a smaller footprint but are taller (think giant coffee machine) because the fan is above the heating element which in turn is above the removable bucket/basket – like a convection broiler [7]. Because it is smaller, the fan is closer to the food which enables it to cook more quickly than a convection oven [6].

Therefore, Easy-Bake ovens for kids are Air Fryers for adults.

Hooray you can cook food faster! In theory. Because it is smaller, you can only fit a fraction of the amount of food a confection oven can cook at the same time. So if you are cooking more than 1-2 servings, you will be cooking in batches and there goes your time efficiency argument. Even if you did pile the food in the bucket, you still have to shake the food around, and it will still take longer to cook than if it were in a single layer [6].

Air Fryer vs Convection Oven Salmon and Fries

Air Fryer vs Convection Oven

But Erin, I want to cook fried food in a healthier way.

This is favorite reason for someone wanting an air fryer – to make fried things healthier. Except often times those same people rarely cook fried foods to begin with. Which mean you are actually incorporating less healthy food into your diet by owning an air fryer. But again , you could just use your convection oven. To prove it I borrowed a friends air fryer for a couple weeks and did some side-by-side testing. Because science.

First question – which preheats faster?

Short answer – almost exactly the same (4ish minutes).

And damn the air fryer is loud! It also set off our smoke alarm so we had to put it on top of our stove top and turn on the range hood.

Air Fryer vs Convection Oven Bacon

Next I sought to compare various items that the people of Instagram told me where their favorite items to cook in an air fryer including (but not limited to): bacon, fries, salmon, dumplings, and reheated pizza. I couldn’t blind myself since I was cooking it, but I did blind Bob. Here are our results:

  • Both bacon and breakfast sausage cooked faster in the air fryer by about 5 minutes, but unfortunately the bacon cooked much faster than expected. I followed the directions for cooking bacon in an air fryer and even with checking them at the short end of the expected time it was over cooked. And no I wasn’t using thin bacon, it was thick cut. Another reason why I like spying on my food in a window because I could have checked on its progress without opening it an releasing heat.
  • Fries and hash browns also took a little longer in convection by about 5 minutes but otherwise similarly deliciously crispy/crunchy.
  • Salmon again also took about 5 minutes longer in the convection but both Bob and I thought the salmon cooked in the air fryer was a bit dry.
  • Dumplings were not great in either, but definitely worse in the air fryer. To be honest I wonder if the person who said dumplings meant to say egg rolls? I’ve never had a dumpling that was fried, usually it’s pan seared/steamed.
  • Then a friend gave me some patacones, plantains, and potatoes to test out. The sweet plantains were great in the air fryer and might be the only thing I actually preferred. The patacones and potatoes were as dry as can be.
  • Reheated pizza was the same as in convection oven.
Air Fryer Plantain Patacones

Basically I feel like if the item isn’t inherently moist on it’s own, it’s going to be dried out in an air fryer. And the best things to cook in an air fryer are items that are normally fried (fries, egg rolls, hash browns, etc).

I don’t feel like that recap properly depicts my adventure, but since I didn’t record it, please watch Alton Brown testing an air fryer. It gave me joy that he had some of the exact same reactions I did, especially in the beginning.

But all that being said…

If an air fryer brings you joy, by all means “air fry” away.

I’ll still be over here loving my convection oven.

One year ago: Giant Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip Cookie for One

Three years ago: Red Velvet Truffle Sugar Cookie Cups

Five years ago: Peppermint Shortbread

Seven years ago: Hot Chocolate Brownie Bites

Eight year ago: Pinto Bean Breakfast Patty Melts

Nine years ago: Chewy Molasses Cookies

Ten years ago: Andes Crème de Menthe Chocolate Cookies

7 comments

7 comments

Stuffed Jalapeno Chicken Rolls December 4, 2022 - 11:44 am

[…] 2011 when I first shared it to 2022 and now you could opt to prepare this in a convection oven (aka air fryer). But I […]

Reply
Dan Brilhart December 14, 2021 - 1:03 pm

Hey- I love fried plantain. Maybe I need an air fryer🤔😉.

Reply
Erin December 14, 2021 - 6:44 pm

Haha go for it, they were really good.

Reply
Inger December 13, 2021 - 12:08 am

I have convection with my oven and I truly don’t need another small appliance in the closet! Thanks for sharing–it’s taken care of the temptation! I bought an instant pot, gave it away, then bought another when I found a good sale. And I’m still not using it. So not kidding when I say you saved me :)

Reply
Erin December 13, 2021 - 3:30 pm

Yea I got an instant pot 3 years ago and am still trying to force myself to use it.

Reply
Susan December 12, 2021 - 11:28 pm

Thank you for this very educational post. I don’t fry foods (at least not deep fry), and I’ve never been attracted to the concept of an air fryer (ditto for the other popular kitchen item of the moment, the instant pot). The stove we got recently has a convection option for the oven, and I find that using it helps to cut out the extra time usually needed for cooking at altitude (we’re at about 4000 feet). I love having convection. And it feels good to be justified in not buying every gadget that comes along.

Reply
Erin December 13, 2021 - 3:29 pm

Yep, an “air fryer” is just marketing!

Reply

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