There's more to air frying than a load of hot air. There are some crucial differences between air fryers and fan ovens

what’s the difference between an air fryer and an oven?
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If you haven’t already bought one of the best air fryers you might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, fan ovens and convection ovens do exactly the same thing: they use a fan to move hot air around for faster, more consistent cooking. But while both kinds of appliance are based on the same idea, air fryers do things differently and produce markedly different results.

So what’s the difference?

Air fryers are smaller than fan ovens

Unless specified otherwise, when we say air fryer we mean a device that’s made specifically to air fry. Many multifunction ovens include air frying too, and we’ll look at them in a moment, but for the time being let’s focus on dedicated air fryers only.

Air fryers’ smaller size is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it means they take a lot less time to heat up and their fan is much closer to the food you’re cooking, which speeds up cooking time considerably. And it also means they don’t take huge amounts of countertop space compared to a countertop oven. But that smaller size means they can’t make as much food. Some of the smaller air fryers are only big enough to make fries for two, and because there aren’t multiple shelves like in a traditional oven you can’t multitask.

Air Fryers are all about the airflow

The best air fryers don’t just stick a fan in the back and hope for the best. They’re carefully designed to maximise the flow of hot air to ensure consistent and crisp cooking as quickly as possible.

Air fryers cook faster

That smaller space means a much quicker pre-heat – as little as two minutes in some cases – and a faster cook too. There’s a bit of trial and error involved in converting traditional oven recipes to air frying; many websites suggest reducing the time by 20% and the temperature by 25ºF, but we’ve gotten great results taking the temperature 30-plus-degrees lower (about 20ºC).

Air fryers usually use a basket, not a baking sheet

There’s no point in having brilliant airflow if something gets between it and the food you’re trying to cook. That’s why instead of sticking your food on a baking sheet, most air fryers provide some kind of mesh basket. That means the air reaches everywhere, and reduces the likelihood of getting a soggy bottom on what are supposed to be crisp fried foods.

Air fryers can’t cook as many things as ovens can

Wet-coated foods and air fryers don’t really mix. Fried foods such as tempura or battered fish cook very differently in an air fryer than they do in hot oil: when dunked in a deep fat fryer the batter quickly solidifies as it comes in contact with the oil, but in an air fryer, it tends to blow off – as does light, leafy foods such as spinach, which gets blown about so much you’re likely to end up with a mix of burnt and undercooked leaves.

If your air fryer isn’t a multi-function cooker we wouldn’t recommend cooking cheese (it melts and falls out of the basket), roasts (unless your air fryer is giant) or red meat: while it’s certainly possible to make steaks or burgers in an air fryer, we’d rather use a well seasoned skillet.

Air fryers are amazing for reheating takeaways

Air fryers are tremendous for reheating last night’s leftovers if they’re dry foods: chunky chips and French fries recover brilliantly, as do battered foods that have previously been cooked in a fryer such as Chinese chicken balls or chicken Pakora. Pizza reheats better in an air fryer than a microwave too. And whatever you’re cooking, the much shorter heating-up time means you get your food faster. You can even reheat rice, although you’ll need to put it in a heat-safe container and mix in a little oil so it isn’t too dry.

Air fryers aren’t brilliant for big dinners

Air fryers’ smaller capacity means they’re not really ideal for making lots of different things at once, although you can of course use them to cook one kind of food while you cook something else in another appliance. What you can’t do is the Oven Tetris you can do with a conventional or countertop oven, placing different items on different shelves at different times to get everything ready at once. 

You might prefer a multi-function cooker that can air fry too

If you want the best of both worlds, many multi-function ovens and Instant Pots can air fry too. For example the Tower 10-in-1 Air Fryer XPress Pro has a decent 11 litres of cooking space and can even do rotisserie cooking. Such models are bigger than dedicated air fryers and can take a little longer to heat up, but their multi-cooking capabilities make that a price worth paying. 

That’s why we’ve included multi-function cookers in our guide to the best air fryers; there are some compromises involved – my current fryer is a multi-function model and it isn’t quite as crisp or as quick as the dedicated air fryers I had before – but they can be good options for kitchens where you don’t have a lot of countertop space.

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