What's the Difference Between a Convection Oven and an Air Fryer?

Air fryers and convection ovens have a few things in common, but not everything. Size matters here!

air fryer on designed background
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Convection ovens had been around for decades by the time the air fryer came on the scene in 2010. Since then, the air fryer has become a must-have item for home cooks. While they have become a popular way to bake and roast when you're short on time—all without turning on your oven—many people have stuck to their tried-and-true convection ovens for the same purposes without switching over to the smaller kitchen appliance.

Here are the similarities and differences between convection ovens and air fryers.

How a Convection Oven Works

Because of their ability to cook food more evenly and quickly compared to traditional ovens (no rotating required), convection ovens have been staples for chefs, bakers and even serious home cooks for years.

"In convection ovens, the air is heated by a heating element and the convection style of heating cooks food evenly because of how the air moves (hot air rising and cold air sinking). Convection ovens also use exhaust systems to remove air and fans to help air circulate within the oven," according to Home Appliance Hero.

Many ovens available at your local appliance store come outfitted with a convection setting, which allows you to switch between conventional cooking and convection cooking. By turning this feature on, a fan and exhaust system get to work circulating the heat in the oven around your food. This heat is typically drier, making the cooking time faster by about 25% compared to a conventional oven.

How an Air Fryer Works

Air fryers circulate hot air around your food in a similar way to how a convection oven does—they're powered by a small fan—except in a smaller space. These countertop appliances are friendly for small kitchens, and they preheat fast. The perforated tray or basket where your food goes can easily pull out with no oven mitt required, and even helps circulate the air faster, decreasing the cooking time. Since the air fryer is smaller, you have to make sure your food isn't too crowded in the basket, so air can flow freely and cook your food properly, evenly and quickly.

The Differences Between Ovens and Air Fryers

The main difference between these two appliances is size. A convection oven can cook larger amounts of food at one time than an air fryer, which can only handle smaller portions and often requires cooking in batches when it comes to larger amounts of food. Here are a few more differences to keep in mind:

  • Both air fryers and convection ovens circulate hot air around your food, but the air inside an air fryer circulates faster because it is a smaller appliance with a smaller cooking area in which to circulate the air.
  • The air fryer has a fan at the top of the appliance, with the food in the tray below it. The convection oven has a fan located in the back of the oven.
  • Air fryers and convection ovens both need cleaning, but your air fryer needs more regular cleaning compared to an oven.
  • There are a few things not recommended for use in an air fryer, like too much olive oil or dry spices, that can work in a convection oven. Because the food in an air fryer is closer to the circulating fan and thus to the intensity of heat, olive oil, which has a lower smoke point than many other oils, may burn. Closeness to the fan may also cause dry spices to blow around and not adhere to the food, making the end result less flavorful.
  • Battered foods usually don't work well in either a convection oven or an air fryer. But, EatingWell's lead recipe developer Adam Dolge developed a technique for Air-Fryer Beer-Battered Fish that works well!

When it comes down to it, convection ovens and air fryers share more similarities than differences. According to Home Appliance Hero, "Because they both use convection to cook food, air fryers and convection ovens are similar. As a result, both appliances circulate hot air around the meal, resulting in a convection current that evenly cooks or bakes the food."

As air fryers have grown more popular, accessories and add-ons have become available, like liners, racks, doughnut pans and more. But if you're using your convection oven or the setting on your conventional oven, you likely already have a stash of pans that can be used.

When to Use the Air Fryer Instead of the Oven

Whether you're looking to make baked goods, heat up your favorite prepared frozen foods or even reheat leftovers, the air fryer can do pretty much all of it. Air fryers have become popular because they are small but mighty, and don't take up too much space in your kitchen. If you aren't prepping for a large crowd and are only making small batches of food at a time, the air fryer is the way to go.

"The fan and heating mechanism of the air fryer spins at higher speeds, making the food crispier than [if it were cooked] in a regular convection oven," explains Rhythm of the Home founder Stefan Bucur. "You should always use an air fryer for things like fries and wings because they are small enough to fit, and they always taste better with the added crispiness of the air fryer."

Ready to get one for your home kitchen? Here's our guide to the best air fryers on the market.

When to Use the Oven Instead of the Air Fryer

If you're cooking multiple items at once, the convection oven is the way to go! Roast trays of your favorite vegetables, bake casseroles, pizzas and, of course, sweets like cakes and cookies.

Since convection cooking is faster than conventional cooking, make sure to properly adjust your temperatures.

How to Convert Oven Temperatures for Convection Cooking

When converting cooking time and temperature from a conventional oven recipe for use with an air fryer or convection oven, reduce the suggested temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and cut the cooking time by 20% to 25%. Just make sure your air fryer or convection oven is fully preheated before putting your food in, and keep an eye on it to ensure nothing is over- or undercooked.

Bottom Line

Air fryers and convection ovens are very similar appliances. They both work by circulating hot air with a fan, giving foods a more even, often crispier finish. The main difference comes down to size. Because air fryers are smaller, they heat up to a more intense heat more quickly. If you're cooking for one or two or don't mind cooking in batches, use an air fryer. But if you're cooking for a crowd, it's easier and more convenient to use a convection oven.

Or, you could use them in tandem. When dinnertime rolls around, give these Air-Fryer Salmon Cakes a try on the countertop while a medley of delicious veggies roast on a sheet pan in the convection oven.

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