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.
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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 . 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 . 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 .
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 .
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.
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 . Because it is smaller, the fan is closer to the food which enables it to cook more quickly than a convection oven .
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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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