Comparing the size, functionality and results of these popular cooking methods
Air fryers have become one of the most buzzworthy kitchen appliances in recent years, making delicious, crispy foods with little to no oil. But if you’ve wondered how the air fryers you see all over social media are different from convection ovens — which have been around for years — you may be surprised to discover they are pretty much the same.
An air fryer is essentially a small convection oven, so the two appliances cook food in a similar way. They circulate air around the food, so it cooks more quickly and evenly than in a conventional oven or toaster oven. However, because an air fryer is smaller, air circulates more quickly, reducing cooking times. Both an air fryer and a convection oven can help get foods crispy on the outside and tender on the inside without much oil. Still, some recipes do better in one appliance than the other.
Not sure whether you need an air fryer, convection oven or both? We took a deep dive into the similarities and differences to help you decide which one is right for you.
What is a convection oven?
To better understand what a convection oven does, let’s first look at how it compares to a standard oven. A standard oven features two heating elements, one on top and one on the bottom. They produce hot air that rises within the oven to create airflow that cooks the food. The air isn’t always evenly distributed, though, so food can turn out crispy in some spots and undercooked in others.
However, in a convection oven, a fan at the back of the unit circulates the hot air created by the heating elements for more even distribution. That allows food to cook more evenly and reduces cooking times.
Many full-size ovens have a convection setting that allows you to turn the fan on and off based on the recipe you’re preparing. With this type of convection oven, you can find models that range from 2 to 6 cubic feet in capacity, so you can easily cook for large groups and special occasions like holiday dinners.
However, you can also find countertop convection ovens similar in size and design to a toaster oven. These convection ovens typically range from 0.5 to 1.5 cubic feet in capacity, so they work best if you cook for groups of 10 or less.
Standard ovens with a convection setting usually have a higher maximum temperature. They can get as hot as 500 to 550 degrees, while countertop convection ovens often top out at 450 degrees.
Unlike air fryers, which have a basket with perforations that allows air to circulate around the food, a convection oven usually requires placing your food on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan for cooking. As a result, the hot air doesn’t reach the food from all sides, so it may not cook as evenly. You can place the food on a rack on your bakeware to help the air circulate more effectively in a convection oven, though.
Convection oven advantages
- Increased capacity: Compared to an air fryer or a toaster oven, a convection oven offers significant capacity, so it’s large enough for holiday dinners and other parties. In fact, a full-size convection oven offers up to three to six times the capacity of the largest air fryers.
- Faster cooking: With a fan circulating air around your food, a convection oven can reduce cooking times by up to 25% compared to a conventional oven.
- More even cooking: Because the fan circulates the air throughout a convection oven, your food cooks more evenly. In a conventional oven, the food’s proximity to the top or bottom heating element can cause one part to cook more quickly than another.
- Less maintenance: A basket-style air fryer or air fryer oven typically requires cleaning after every use. Depending on how often you use it, you can usually go two to three months between deep cleanings with a full-size convection oven.
Convection oven drawbacks
- Longer preheating: While a full-size convection oven usually preheats faster than a conventional oven, its large size increases its preheating time compared to an air fryer. In fact, some air fryers don’t require any preheating at all.
- Less crispy: You can get foods crispy on the outside and tender on the inside much more effectively in a convection oven than in a conventional oven. However, an air fryer usually does a better job crisping food than a convection oven because of its smaller size and perforated basket.
- Emitted heat: A full-size convection oven gives off significant heat, so it can make your kitchen very hot, especially in warm weather.
What is an air fryer?
An air fryer is a compact countertop appliance with a fan like a convection oven to circulate the heat created by its heating elements. However, in an air fryer, the convection fan is located at the top of the unit instead of the back like a convection oven. The air surrounds the food, allowing it to cook more evenly and quickly than in a standard oven or toaster oven.
Air fryers are available in two styles. Basket air fryers are typically egg-shaped and have a drawer with a basket that holds the food. They generally have the smallest capacity, ranging from 1 to 10 quarts. Air fryer ovens are usually larger, having a square or rectangular shape like a toaster oven. Instead of a drawer, their baskets slide into tracks on each side of the oven cavity like the wire rack that comes with a toaster oven. They offer other cooking functions besides air-frying, including toasting, baking, broiling, roasting, slow cooking, proofing and/or dehydrating. Their capacity is larger, generally holding between 12 and 36 quarts.
But their smaller size allows the heat circulated throughout an air fryer to preheat the appliance more quickly than a convection or standard oven and even cook food in less time. Air fryers can create a crispy exterior and a juicy or tender interior for your food because the fan and their perforated basket allow the air to surround the food from all sides to cook more evenly. You don’t need any oil for air-frying, but misting or tossing your food with a light amount of avocado or olive oil can help it get even crisper and browner.
Air fryer advantages
- Little to no preheating: Because of the convection fan and its smaller size, an air fryer can preheat more quickly than larger standard and convection ovens. Some models don’t require preheating at all.
- Shorter cooking times: Just as in a convection oven, cooking times are reduced in an air fryer. In most cases, you can decrease your cooking time by 20% to 25% in an air fryer.
- More even cooking: With the convection fan to move the air through an air fryer and a perforated basket to allow the air through, foods are heated on all sides, so they cook more evenly. Most get crispy on the outside but remain juicy and tender on the inside.
- Less emitted heat: Given its small side and shorter cooking times, an air fryer gives off less heat in a kitchen than a larger convection oven or a standard oven. It’s particularly helpful in the warm weather because it won’t get your kitchen as hot as a full-size oven.
- Compact design: An air fryer is usually a compact appliance that won’t take up much space on your countertop. Many models are also lightweight, so you can keep it in a cabinet when you’re not using it.
Air fryer drawbacks
- Limited capacity: Because air fryers are compact countertop appliances, they don’t have the same capacity as a full-size oven. Basket-style air fryers typically work best for one to two servings, though you can find larger models that work well for families. However, you typically can’t use an air fryer to prepare a holiday dinner for a large group.
- More difficult cleaning: Air fryers are often more difficult to clean than a standard, convection or toaster oven. They have a perforated basket and a drawer or a drip pan that must be cleaned after each use, and many models don’t have dishwasher-safe pieces.
Air fryer vs. a convection oven: Similarities
- Cooking process: Air fryers and convection ovens both have heating elements to produce heat and a fan to circulate the hot air and ensure the food is heated from all directions.
- Shorter cooking times: Because they have a fan to circulate air throughout the appliances, air fryers and convection ovens have shorter cooking times than a standard oven or toaster oven, cooking foods 20% to 25% faster.
- More even cooking: Air fryers and convection ovens cook foods more evenly than standard ovens and toaster ovens because air circulates the food to cook it from all directions simultaneously. They tend to get food crispy on the outside while still keeping it tender on the inside.
- Food limitations: While air fryers and convection ovens can “fry” foods with little to no oil and still produce a crispy exterior, neither can handle recipes with wet batter. The fan inside these appliances can blow the batter off the food and make a mess.
Differences between an air fryer and convection oven
The biggest difference between an air fryer and a convection oven is their size and capacity. Air fryers are typically compact and don’t take up much space on your countertop, while a convection oven is usually a full-size appliance. That added size means that convection ovens offer greater capacity, making them ideal for large groups, holiday dinners and entertaining. On the other hand, air fryers work best for smaller families and individual servings.
However, the smaller size of an air fryer and the placement of its convection fan at the top of the appliance means that it preheats more quickly than a convection oven and reduces its cooking time. An air fryer can often get foods a bit crisper than a convection oven, too, because the perforated basket helps food cook more evenly.
When to use one vs. the other
Air fryers and convection ovens function and perform similarly, but depending on what you’re cooking, you may prefer one appliance to the other.
With its larger capacity, a convection oven is the clear winner when cooking for a crowd or preparing multiple dishes. As a result, it’s perfect for holiday dinners, parties and other social events.
On the other hand, an air fryer is a better choice when you’re preparing individual servings or cooking for groups of four or fewer. It is more effective for preparing crispy foods like french fries, chicken tenders and onion rings and can keep your kitchen cool in warm weather because it doesn’t emit as much heat as a convection oven.
Top air fryer models
Our favorite air fryers are oven models because they have a larger capacity than most basket-style air fryers. They also offer additional cooking settings beyond air-frying, making them more versatile.
Type: Oven air fryer | Capacity: 1 cu. ft. | Dimensions: 17.3” L x 21.5” W x 12.8” H | Weight: 22.8 lb | Material: Stainless steel | Control Type: Knob | Number of Functions: 13 | Temperature Range: 80 to 480 degrees
The Breville Joule Oven Air Fryer Pro has a capacity of 1 cubic foot, so it can hold nine slices of toast, a 13-inch pizza, a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, a 12-cup muffin tray or even a 14-pound turkey. During testing, we easily fit an entire 2-pound bag of frozen french fries in its air-frying basket, so it can cook for families and even works well for entertaining. It’s fairly large, but we had no trouble finding space for it in our testing area.
In addition to air-frying, the Joule also has toasting, baking, broiling, roasting, proofing, reheating, slow cooking, warming and dehydrating functions, as well as settings for bagels, pizza and cookies. This versatility means it can replace an air fryer, toaster oven, toaster, slow cooker and dehydrator, all in a single appliance. Its air-frying efficiency was also highly impressive — it needed just 13 minutes to make crispy french fries, 18 minutes for chicken wings and nine minutes for extra-crisp bacon.
Type: Oven air fryer | Capacity: 26 qt | Dimensions: 16.3” L x 16.9” W x 15.5” H | Weight: 22 lb | Material: Stainless Steel | Control Type: Button, knob and app | Number of Functions: 12 | Temperature Range: 80 to 450 degrees
The Cosori Smart Air Fryer Toaster Oven offers many of the same features as high-end air fryers but at a budget-friendly price. Its capacity isn’t as generous as the Breville Joule, but it can hold six slices of toast, a 12-inch pizza or a 5-pound chicken, making it ideal for families of four to six. In addition to air-frying, it has settings for baking, toasting, roasting, broiling, dehydrating, warming, slow cooking, defrosting, fermenting and pizza. Its air-frying performance was especially impressive during testing, though — it made crispy french fries with a fluffy interior in just 12 minutes and crisp bacon in 10.
The Cosori is easy to use, with its combination of buttons and knobs to set the cooking time and temperature. But it’s also Wi-Fi-enabled and has a connected app that can control the oven’s settings even when you’re not in the same room. The connected VeSync also provides access to recipes if you need some air-frying inspiration.
Top convection oven models
Some convection ovens are full-size ovens with a special setting for convection cooking, while others are countertop appliances similar to air fryer ovens. We considered both types when choosing our favorites.
Dimensions: 29 15/16” W x 47 3/8” H x 28 1/2” D | Type: Electric | Capacity: 6.7 cu. ft. (Oven 1: 4.2 cu. ft.; Oven 2: 2.5 cu. ft.) | Material: Stainless steel and ceramic glass | Temperature Range:150 to 500 degrees | Wattage: 3,600 watts | Weight: 204 lb | Automatic Shutoff: Yes, with Timed Cooking
With two ovens that offer a combined capacity of 6.7 cubic feet, the KitchenAid Self-Cleaning Freestanding Double Oven Electric Convection Range is big enough to prepare the most elaborate holiday dinners and family meals. The two separate ovens allow you to make multiple dishes at the same time, even if they don’t cook at the same temperature. It’s easy to use the oven, too, because it has SatinGlide racks that smoothly move in and out when adding and removing food.
But what really sets this KitchenAid oven apart from similar models is its convection setting. The system’s heating elements and fan have a unique bow-tie design that ensures air circulates throughout the entire oven and keeps the temperature consistent. The oven also has user-friendly touch-activated controls, making it easy to set a precise temperature and guarantee your food turns out perfectly cooked every time. Best of all, it has a self-cleaning system to make cleanup a breeze.
Dimensions: 13.98” L x 21.06” W x 15.55” H | Capacity: 1.6 cu. ft. | Material: Stainless Steel | Temperature Range: 150 to 450 degrees | Wattage: 1,500 watts | Weight: 24 lb | Automatic Shutoff: Yes, with Timed Cooking
The Elite Gourmet Double French Door Countertop Convection Toaster Oven may be a countertop oven, but it still offers impressive capacity. It can accommodate nine slices of toast on each of its two racks for a total of 18, two 14-inch pizzas or a 20-pound turkey, making it ideal for families and frequent entertaining. It also has French doors that make adding and removing food easier.
The included racks have four different positions within the oven, so you can prepare multiple dishes at one time. The temperature is adjustable independently for the top and bottom heating elements, too, to give you more precise control over the heat. Additionally, the Elite Gourmet not only has a convection fan to circulate air inside for more evenly cooked foods but also a rotisserie spit and fork to roast meats to perfection. You can also set it to shut off after 60 minutes, so you don’t have to worry about remembering to do it yourself.
How we analyzed
To determine how air fryers and convection ovens stack up, we tested both appliances to see how they performed. We prepared frozen french fries in an air fryer and a convection oven and compared how crispy they were and how long they took to cook. We also prepared frozen pizza, bacon and chicken wings in both appliances to see how the flavor and texture differed.
Additionally, during testing, we considered how much noise the air fryer and convection oven made while in use. We evaluated how hot the kitchen got when we cooked in each, too.
Final thoughts: Which is best for you?
Since there aren’t significant differences between an air fryer and a convection oven, you can’t go wrong with either appliance — and for many people, it makes sense to have both. A convection oven’s larger capacity makes it a better fit for large households or home chefs who entertain regularly. However, an air fryer can usually cook faster and more evenly than a convection oven, so it’s an ideal option for single servings or small households. It doesn’t give off as much heat as a convection oven, either, making it perfect for warm-weather use.
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Jennifer Blair writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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