Air Fryer vs. Oven: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?

Dorm-life is so far in the rearview it’s, er, barely there, and yet we’re still singing the praises of both the microwave and the toaster oven. Big news: Both of these appliances possibly just got one-upped by a newcomer. Yep, we’re talking about the air fryer—another no-fuss option that can cook up comfort food without heating up your entire home. (Hello, fried chicken on a balmy summer day.) So, what’s the deal with this kitchen helper, and how does it compare to good old fashioned oven baking? Read on so you can pick a side in the air fryer vs oven debate.

What Is an Air Fryer?

An air fryer is a compact, countertop appliance that can be used to quickly cook (and reheat) a wide range of foods. Essentially, air fryers are just miniature versions of convection ovens whose size (along with a few other differences detailed below) allow them to do the same job, but faster. These handy kitchen helpers have also carved out a niche for themselves because they work wonders when it comes to getting food nice and crispy without a gallon of oil. In fact, a good air fryer can cook up food without any oil at all in most cases. That’s right, an air fryer can churn out food that very closely mimics a deep-fried dish, minus the grease. So, if you want frozen French fries that taste like the real deal or a crispy chicken cutlet that you don’t have to pat down with paper towels, this cooking device might be right up your alley.

How Is an Air Fryer Different from an Oven?

The heating method in an air fryer is pretty much the same as a convection oven in that both use circulating dry heat to cook food. However, the small size of an air fryer means that both the food and the appliance itself heat up much faster (which is a very good thing when you get so peckish that the pre-heat phase feels like purgatory). Another difference that accounts for the efficiency of the air fryer is the fact that—again, due to its smaller size—the food is much closer to the heating element itself, which is located at the top of the appliance. Because of its larger dimensions, a convection oven has heating elements on both the top and the bottom, but when using the middle rack to cook—the preferred placement in a convection oven—the food is never in such close proximity to the heat source. Aside from the heat itself, another difference is in the way that heat circulates: In both cases there’s a fan to help spread the heat for even cooking, but the fan of an air fryer, located directly beneath the heating element, operates at a significantly greater speed (and it’s bigger). Finally, air fryers do such a good job at getting food extra crisp because they feature a fryer-style basket that allows the hot air to penetrate while oils fall away into a perforated tray below. This means that less tossing and turning is required throughout the cooking process. 

Which One Is Healthier?

Cooking with an air fryer instead of a convection oven does not produce healthier food per se, but there is an advantage to using an air fryer if you’re trying to cut back on calories—namely, that the design prevents food from sitting in and absorbing excess oil. In other words, frozen French fries prepared in an air fryer will be healthier than the deep-fried kind, which have been steeped in oil in order to achieve that satisfying texture. That said, when it comes to health considerations the air fryer vs oven question is kind of a moot point: If you don’t typically use oil when heating up frozen foods (like chicken nuggets, fries, mozzarella sticks, etc.) in the oven, all the air fryer really gives you is a crispier snack, while sparing you the hassle of having to turn it halfway through the cooking time. That said, in instances when you’re adding oil to a dish, the air fryer is healthier...and it’s always better for you than a deep-fried indulgence. 

What Can I Make in an Air Fryer? 

Like any sane person, you hate to see restaurant-quality fried chicken go to waste, but only an air fryer can really bring back the magic on the reheat...which is possibly why you now have one in your kitchen and are wondering what else that puppy can do.  Good news: You can reap many rewards from your new friend. Don’t believe us? Just check out some of these delicious air fryer recipes for fish, chicken and just about everything else. Oh, and don’t forget the dessert

The Bottom Line

If you eat a lot of frozen foods or prepare finger foods on the regular for the picky eaters in your home, an air fryer is a convenient appliance. That said, these guys aren’t quite as small as a toaster oven, so you’ll have to be willing to sacrifice some precious counter space to find a home for one. And although they can do quite a bit (see above), there are also some things that they can’t do: The smaller interior space means that an air fryer is best suited for small portions—so it won’t do you any favors when you’re feeding a group. Air fryers are also not a great option when it comes to baking cakes or any other food that starts out with a runny batter, unless you take an extra step and freeze it first. Finally, and for obvious reasons, large roasts and stews are also best cooked in a convection oven. But is it nice to have an air fryer in your home when you return from a night out with some beer-battered fish ‘n’ chips you couldn’t finish? Answer: Yes. Does that mean an air fryer is worth the investment (and the kitchen real estate)? We’ll leave that one up to you.


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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...