How Do Air Fryers Compare to Convection Ovens?

Is an air fryer just a smaller convection oven—or is it something else entirely?

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An air fryer basket containing fries

Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Straight to the Point

Our favorite air fryer is the Instant Vortex Plus 6 Quart Air Fryer. It's hard to beat its speed, consistency, and usability features. You can read more about how we tested (and our other top picks) here.

“Isn’t an air fryer just a miniature convection oven?” It’s a skepticism we’ve heard (and maybe even asked) as air fryers have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity.

Although we at Serious Eats are not usually swayed by trendy cooking gadgets, a recent in-depth test of 11 air fryers (that included cooking 30 pounds of French fries!) gave us some food for thought. While many models missed the mark due to uneven cooking or poor design, four standouts produced evenly browned, crispy food. So are air fryers worth it—even if you already have a convection oven? We think so!  

What Is a Convection Oven?

Breville BOV800XL Smart Oven

Breville BOV800XL Smart Oven Convection Toaster Oven

Amazon

Breville Smart Oven Air Fryer

breville-smart-oven-air-fryer-pro

Amazon

Although the term “convection oven” is often used, “oven with convection capabilities” is a little more accurate—most modern ovens for home use come with both regular and convection cooking options. This is possible because convection cooking uses a fan to more efficiently circulate air around the oven chamber. Want to cook with convection? It’s as easy as pressing a button. Prefer to use a regular bake or roast setting? Simply don’t turn on the fan.

In home convection ovens, the fan unit is located at the back of the oven (this is also the case for most convection toaster ovens). With convection, hot air cycles through the oven more rapidly, resulting in faster cooking and more even browning.

A quick note on convection toaster ovens, though: although this feature is popular in newer models, our testing showed it made only a marginal, if any, difference in cook time.

What Is an Air Fryer?

Instant Pot 6 Quart Vortex Plus 6-in-1 Air Fryer

Instant Vortex Plus Air Fryer Oven, 6 Quart

Amazon

Air fryers also use a fan to circulate hot air throughout a cooking chamber. But instead of oven racks, most air fryers are outfitted with perforated, nonstick, metal baskets. Although an air fryer will never make food as crispy and golden as traditional deep frying, the super-efficient heat distribution in a small chamber is a decent approximation; that likely explains why they were ultimately named “air fryers” as opposed to “miniature convection ovens.” Well, that and marketing.

The Differences Between Air Fryers and Convection Ovens

A hand with a pot holder pulling out the perforated basket of a toaster oven air fryer that's filled with fries

Serious Eats / Will Dickey

The two biggest differences between air fryers and convection ovens is size, speed, and versatility. An oven is, of course, a key piece of cooking equipment with the real estate footprint to prove it. Air fryers are small enough to be tucked away in a cabinet or pantry (or left on a countertop, if that’s the most space-efficient option for you). But there are a few other differences in terms of functionality.

Preheating Cycle

All ovens, whether convection or regular, need to be preheated. Most convection ovens take around 20-25 minutes to preheat to 425˚F. Many air fryers boast about their lack of a preheat requirement, but some of the models we tested had a “built-in” preheat cycle in their programmed settings, so you’re still technically preheating. However, this preheating time is much, much shorter as there's a smaller chamber to heat. Our favorite model, the Instant Vortex Plus 6 Quart, had a built-in cycle that only took four minutes.

Cook Time

Air fryers cook food faster than convection ovens. For starters, there's that shorter preheat time. But because of their smaller cooking chambers, air fryers are also more efficient at circulating air around food, leading to faster cook times.

Temperature Range

Convection ovens have a pretty standard temperature range, usually beginning around 170˚F and maxing out at 500˚F or 550˚F. Convection ovens typically run about 25 degrees hotter than regular ovens. In other words, if a recipe written for a conventional oven calls for cooking at 375˚F, you can likely set the convection oven to 350˚F without fiddling with the cook time. 

Although air fryers are sometimes mistakenly described as “high-heat” cooking, they are not any hotter than convection ovens. In fact, all of the winning models in our test had a maximum temperature of 400˚F. The low-end temperature range in favorite air fryers bottomed out at 95˚F, but most hovered around 100˚F. The temperature and cook time differences are why it's helpful to follow air fryer-specific recipes, rather than attempting to convert recipes meant for a standard oven.

Size and Capacity

Air fryers have a smaller capacity than convection ovens: that’s why they cook food faster. On the downside, they struggle with more than four portions (conversely, a convection oven can cook food for a crowd, thanks to multiple racks and generous surface area). Although some of the air fryer models we tested boasted the capacity for six servings, we are dubious about this claim. The smallest air fryer we tested had a 3-quart capacity, which works just fine for one to two servings. The larger models we tested were around six quarts, which was good for three to four people. However, we can’t complain too much about capacity: an air fryer’s smaller cooking area is, again, what makes it so efficient.

Presets and Controls

A hand using an air fryer's control knob to change the cooking time

Serious Eats / Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

No doubt about it, with knobs and electronic displays, air fryers have more “gadgety” features than ovens. Most air fryers come with programs for cooking common food items (one of our winning models had a slightly cluttered display; there were even separate presets for fish and shrimp). Thankfully, with all air fryers we tested, you can override preset options and simply set the temperature and cook time yourself.

Convection ovens don’t, traditionally, have presets. (Toaster ovens with convection options usually have at least a few). But, why would they?

Do You Need an Air Fryer If You Have a Convection Oven?

We genuinely like air fryers. Now, if you have an oven and a stovetop, you’ll be able to cook just about any recipe you encounter. But cooking isn’t just about necessity, and plenty of home cooks use air fryers as a supplement to their traditional kitchen equipment. Air fryers are easier to clean up than stovetops because fat splatter is contained within the unit. And plenty of folks give enthusiastic praise about air fryers’ ability to cook with less oil. They’re also great at reheating leftovers that don’t do so well in the microwave (ahem: pizza).

Perhaps the better question is, “Do you need an air fryer if you have a toaster oven?” And hang tight on that one—we’re currently testing toaster ovens with air-frying capabilities.

FAQs

What’s the best air fryer? 

After testing the most popular air fryers on the market, we found four winners. The Instant Vortex Plus 6 Quart Air Fryer consistently cooked super crispy, golden food faster than other units. The Ninja 4 Quart Air Fryer is a high-performing model with a tidy price of $100, and if you prefer analog mode with your kitchen technology, you’ll likely appreciate the preset-free Philips Kitchen Appliances Premium Digital Air Fryer. You can read more about each of these units—and the rest we tested—here.

Is an air fryer or a convection oven better?

Although air fryers and convection ovens use the same technology, neither is better (you wouldn’t ask a parent about their favorite child, would you?). Air fryers are faster and easier to clean. Convection ovens can cook larger portions and do a lot more than a standalone air fryer unit. If you have the storage space and like kitchen gadgets, you will probably enjoy having an air fryer.