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

Air fryers are all the rage—but are they as good as your regular old convection oven?

An airfryer with the basket open next to a small countertop convection oven on a graphic purple, green and teal background.
Photo: Tyrel Stendahl/Allrecipes

You probably have that one friend who won't stop raving about their air fryer and how it has revolutionized their cooking. And while you're nodding along as they describe their perfectly crispy tofu or how fast it can cook a sweet potato, you may find yourself wondering what exactly is an air fryer and how is it different from the oven you already have in your house? Does it really warrant buying another kitchen appliance that will take up precious counter space?

Regular vs. Convection Oven

First, let's start with ovens 101 and talk about the different types of household ovens. Regular ovens rely on a process called "natural convection," which occurs when hot air rises and cooler air sinks, creating a flow of hot air that cooks the food. However, this heat is not evenly distributed throughout the oven, resulting in uneven cooking as the food closer to the bottom heating elements will cook faster.

Convection ovens have a fan, usually in the back, that better circulates the hot air, cooking the food faster and more evenly compared to a regular oven. The fan also allows for more precise temperature control and better heat distribution, which can be especially beneficial for baking.

What Is an Air Fryer?

Air fryers are essentially mini convection ovens, but with some key differences. While they both use a fan to circulate hot air, the smaller size of the air fryer allows it to heat up faster and cook food quicker than a full-sized oven. Additionally, air fryers often include a drip tray to collect any excess oil or moisture, reducing the amount of fat and calories you end up consuming. The temperature and time can be adjusted to suit the specific recipe, and most air fryers come with preset cooking modes for different types of food.

Side-by-Side Testing

To see which oven is best when cooking certain dishes, we prepared a few common types of food in both the air fryer and the convection oven. Here's what we found.

1. French Fries

Using Trader Joe's frozen French fries, we cooked a bag in the air fryer and a bag on a rimmed sheet pan in a convection oven. A whole bag of fries didn't fit into my air fryer so I had to cook them in two batches. However, it took the same amount of time for the convection oven to preheat and cook the fries as it did to make two batches in the air fryer. The French fries in the air fryer cooked faster and were definitely crispier than in the oven—but if I had to make a whole bag, I'd use the oven so I didn't have to make two batches.

USE: Both the air fryer and convection oven. If making a full bag, I'd use the convection oven, if making a half bag, I'd use the air fryer.

2. Salmon

Salmon is a go-to protein in our house because we always have it frozen in individual portions so I can thaw and cook in minutes. Using my go-to Miso Maple-Glazed Salmon recipe, I cooked two 5-ounce salmon fillets in the air fryer and my convection oven. The winner was clear. The air fryer crisped up the top and edges almost as if I had seared the salmon in a cast-iron pan before putting it into the oven.

USE: The air fryer.

3. Broccoli

Along with crisping up fried foods and cooking protein, I wanted to try a side-by-side test of cooking vegetables. We're big fans of simple roasted broccoli with olive oil, salt, and pepper, so I tried this method in the air fryer and the convection oven. The results were very similar, however, the air fryer could only cook about a third of the amount of broccoli in the same time as my full-size oven. If you're a veggie-lover like me, stick with cooking broccoli in your convection oven so you can roast up a big sheet pan to enjoy a full 1-cup serving of vegetables for dinner and lunch the next day.

USE: The Convection Oven.

4. Tofu

Lastly, I wanted to try making crispy tofu in both oven types. My 2-year-old twins aren't the biggest fans of meat but they adore baked tofu. Since I usually buy it instead of making it, this seemed like a budget-friendly way to see if it tasted as good as store-bought. Using this recipe for baked tofu, I tested it in both the air fryer and convection oven. The result? The air fryer cooked the tofu in half the time with slightly crispier results, but I could only make a quarter of the amount as when I used my convection oven.

USE: Both the air fryer and convection oven (depending on the amount you want to make). I'd lean toward the convection oven so I could make one full batch but the crispy texture of the tofu in the air fryer was perfect.

Air Fryer vs. Convection Oven

While there is no hard and fast rule of when you should use an air fryer versus a regular convection oven, there are a few things to consider.

First, how much food are you cooking? If you're cooking for a group of people, there may not be enough space for all the food in the air fryer, in which case using a full-sized convection oven will make life much easier. Even with the new XL air fryer models, the cooking basket size is still limited, and you don't want to overload the machine. You can cook food in batches in the air fryer, but then you must keep the first batch warm while cooking the second batch, which often defeats the purpose of the air fryer (not having to turn on your regular oven).

However, if you only need to cook a smaller batch, i.e. enough for one or two people, the smaller size of the air fryer heats up quickly and cooks the food a lot faster, saving you precious minutes.

Lastly, how much heat can your kitchen handle? On those hot summer days when your kitchen might already feel like a sauna or the AC is really pumping, the last thing you want to do is turn on the oven. Since air fryers are smaller and faster than regular ovens, they give off less heat and thus won't impact the temperature in your kitchen nearly as much.

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