Fried food tastes good. I’ve firmly held this belief my entire life, and I can’t be convinced otherwise. Still, I’ll admit dunking breaded foods into searing hot oil is perhaps not the healthiest culinary technique: delicious, but not great for you. Enter the air fryer. This popular alternative offers a crispy finished product without the unhealthy oil.
On the other hand, people have been serving up chicken wings and bagel bites from ovens and toaster ovens for decades now. So which method really makes the best food?
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of convection ovens, air fryers and toaster ovens.
Air fryers: One-trick ponies or specialty must-haves?
Air fryers work by circulating hot air around your food. That’s the same approach traditional convection ovens take, but there are a few key differences.
While a full-size convection oven and an air fryer both use a fan to move hot air around, an air fryer circulates the air more rapidly inside a small chamber, speeding up the cooking process. Air fryers also employ a basket to more evenly circulate hot air around the bottom of your food.
Popular air fryers like the Simple Chef HF-898 can cost as little as $66, and fit right on your countertop. Air fryers are healthier than deep frying and there’s no risk of an oily mess. Should you buy one? Probably not, but that depends on what you’re cooking.
We’ve tested air fryers before and found that while they do what they claim, most foods come out just as good or better in a conventional oven.
Still, certain foods tend to be better-suited for air frying. Breaded foods like mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets and jalapeño poppers tend to fare better than something like baked chicken wings or burger patties.
Convection ovens: Time-tested, mother-approved
If you have a full-size convection oven in your home and don’t eat a lot of frozen, fried foods, an air fryer might be a harder sell.
Convection ovens use similar technology and, in many cases, produce equally good or better-tasting foods than a countertop air fryer. If your oven doesn’t include convection, an air fryer might help bridge the gap when it comes to crispy cooking.
How do you know if your oven uses convection baking? Check the back wall. Convection ovens include a fan built into the rear of the oven. They are available in gas or electric and result in nice, even baking. Some ovens include both regular (fan off) and convection (fan on) modes. Some higher-end ovens include “true” or “European” modes, where a heating element surrounds the fan for extra-heated air.
You won’t get a basket for circulating air underneath your food, but using a roasting rack or pan goes a long way in replicating the air flow.
Capacity is one more big consideration. A full-size oven will be able to cook much more food than a standard air fryer. If you’re hosting friends or cooking for a large family, an oven will eliminate the need for multiple batches.
There are plenty of smart convection options for your countertop, too. If you’re interested in smart food recognition, the June Oven is your best bet for AI that helps you cook specific dishes to perfection. Amazon released its own $250 countertop convection oven (that’s also a microwave). It delivered great whole chickens in our testing, works with Alexa voice commands and can scan packaged foods for custom cooking.
No, convection is not a cool new way to cook your food. And yes, a regular oven uses more energy and takes more time to preheat. Still, convection baking outperformed air fryers in many of our taste tests, especially when it comes to food that isn’t breaded or frozen. In the market for a new oven? Our oven buying guide is a great place to start.
Air fryers are a cool concept, but are they worth the price?
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Toaster ovens: A mediocre middleman
Want every function in one tiny box? Say hello to the toaster oven. This wild card appliance claims to do so much with so little. Optimized for snacks and appetizers, toaster ovens can be useful for some foods.
Small batches of foods like pizza bites, mozzarella sticks and even cookies do well enough in a toaster oven. You can choose from specialty modes for certain foods like cookies or pizza, and some models even include air frying. Our current favorite is the $150 Panasonic FlashXpress, a toaster oven that aced our tests and boasts thousands of great customer reviews.
Once you get into things like actual toast or a pizza big enough for more than one person, toaster ovens aren’t the best option. Put your toast in a toaster and your pizza in an oven. That’s how you’ll get the best results.
That’s not to say toaster ovens aren’t worth it. They certainly offer more functionality than an air fryer. They preheat faster and use slightly less energy than a full-size oven, and you don’t have to blow your budget to purchase one.
If you’re looking for a less-than-full-size appliance, I’d go for a toaster oven with an air-fry option before purchasing an air fryer solo.
If your apartment doesn’t have a full-size oven, a toaster oven is the way to go. Try one with a built-in air fryer function and you’ll get the most versatility for your buck. If you already own an oven, especially one with convection, you won’t be blown away by an air fryer’s performance.
If you’re a fan of breaded, frozen foods, having an air fryer saves time and energy compared with a convection oven and cooks nearly as well.
Like so many parts of a kitchen, deciding to add small appliances comes down to personal factors like budget, counter space and how often you cook certain types of foods. Each of these appliances have pros and cons. At the end of the day, the best appliance for you is one that you’ll use the most.
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First published on April 1, 2019 at 5:02 p.m. EST.