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Air Fryer vs Microwave: Which Countertop Appliance is Better?

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Air fryers and microwaves are useful appliances for whipping up quick, tasty meals. If space is tight, which should you pick?

With many folk leading increasingly busy and hectic lives, more and more people across the US are opting to speed up the cooking process with a countertop cooker. The most popular options include the old and reliable microwave oven, and the hot-shot newcomer, the air fryer. While having both at your disposal would be ideal, most have neither the kitchen space nor budget for multiple appliances, leaving us with a choice: air fryer or microwave?

To help you choose which of the two will best suit your needs, our guide below starts by introducing both appliances and explains how they work. Further down you’ll find our deep dive into the unique advantages of air fryers and microwaves, as well as a summary that outlines the cooking set-ups for which each appliance is best suited.

What is an air fryer and how does it work?

Still relatively new to the market, air fryers have exploded in popularity over the past decade, quickly becoming a common sight in kitchens across the US.

Despite being called “fryers” and bearing some visual similarity to deep fryers, air fryers don’t actually fry food. Instead, they work similarly to a fan oven, circulating hot air around your food in a process known as convection heating. It’s their more compact form and powerful heating coils and fans – where concentrated heat delivers faster, crispier and more even results – that set air fryers apart from conventional ovens. Embraced as part of recent trends toward healthier cooking, air fryers also tend to require far less cooking oil to achieve the same results as your oven.

Most air fryers have a simple, single-basket setup; but they can come in all shapes and sizes. Some models include a second basket for added versatility; some open from the top; others have a boxy shape, multiple slots for cooking trays and hinged doors like a microwave or toaster oven. Pricier air fryer models add extra settings for grilling, dehydrating and reheating, for example, while the most expensive appliances tend to be full-blown multi-cookers and rapid cookers.

What is a microwave and how does it work?

Look in most homes across the US, and you’ll likely find a microwave oven. Rising to ubiquity throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this box-shaped appliance gained favor with consumers as a result of its ability to heat simple meals quickly, revive leftovers and perform other niche tasks such as popping popcorn.

While most people know what a microwave is, it’s probable that not everyone understands exactly how one works, so let’s break it down. Microwaves begin their operation by outputting electromagnetic waves from an internal component called a “magnetron”. This wave radiation bounces off the metal interiors of your microwave, penetrating your food, where the electromagnetic waves begin to agitate the food’s water, sugar and fat molecules. It’s this molecular agitation that creates the heat by which your food cooks, working from the inside out.

As a result of their use of radiation to cook food, there have long been many myths and misapprehensions concerning the safety of microwaves. To learn more, check out our full ‘Are Microwaves Bad for You?‘ explainer, which clears up many common misunderstandings.

Like air fryers, more expensive microwaves come with extra functionality and features. Alongside an increased range of presets, common additional abilities in higher-tier microwaves include grilling, convection cooking and steaming. Attempting to beat them by joining them, many modern microwaves also now have an air fryer function, making them a great option for consumers seeking the best of both worlds.

What are the advantages of an air fryer?

Now that we have a brief overview and understanding of how both appliances operate, let’s take a look at some of the positive attributes that have made them so popular. We’ll start with air fryers:

Size

Air fryers arrive in a variety of sizes, ranging from the petite and economic to the large and boxy. This means that even those who are short on countertop space will find a model that won’t take up too much room in their kitchen.

While a smaller air fryer won’t be able to cook up whole meals on its own, it will prove an easy and efficient way to cook portions of fries, vegetables and proteins. Inversely, if you have plenty of space and want to maximize your cooking potential, a larger air fryer can offer you a capacity of up to 20 quarts and multiple cooking drawers. In testing, the largest air fryers we’ve reviewed have been able to fit in whole chickens, as well as side portions and other items.

Speed

One of the best and most widely touted features of air fryers is their cooking speed. Due to the more compact cooking space, strong fans and powerful heating elements, air fryers tend to beat standard convection ovens for speed. While they can vary from model to model, we’ve noted throughout our review testing that air fryers tend to cook up food in two thirds to half the time it would take in an oven. Notably, convection cooking is still likely to be slower than microwave cooking, but it will deliver superior performance on crispy or crumbed food items.

Price

The wide range of types, sizes and levels of functionality means that air fryers also come in at a wide price range. While not every cheaper model is worth its salt, we’ve tested and reviewed some very competent air fryers with price tags as low as $40. Looking outside of the budget range, mid-tier models generally cost a reasonable $70 to $150, while top-tier air fryers can be secured for anywhere between $150 to $250.

Features

The cheapest air fryers will usually be one trick ponies, but most mid-range and higher-tier models add a plethora of genuinely useful extra features alongside standard air frying. Whether it’s settings for grilling, dehydrating and reheating found on mid-range air fryers; clever draw-syncing settings on twin-basket models; the steaming, sautéeing and pressure-cooking modes on air frying multi-cookers; or the rotisseries and pizza-cooking accessories found in oven-style models, these additions will make your countertop cooker speedier, more versatile and much more economical.

Ease of clean-up

Where cleaning your oven is laborious and requires strong chemical intervention and plenty of elbow grease, cleaning an air fryer is pretty straightforward. Most air fryers have removable baskets, non-stick surfaces and dishwasher-safe parts, making clean-up nice and easy.

Healthy cooking

A big part of the recent trend towards healthier cooking is a renewed focus on fresh ingredients. While microwaves mostly excel at heating pre-cooked meals and reviving leftovers, much of what you’ll cook in an air fryer – be that chicken breast, vegetables, potatoes, for example – will be fresh ingredients.

Another much discussed health benefit of air fryer cooking is the reduced amounts of cooking oil required to achieve well-browned, crispy food. Due to the high temperatures and rapid circulation used in air fryer cooking, as little as a teaspoon of oil (or sometimes no oil at all) can produce beautiful Maillard browning, which stands in stark comparison to the much larger quantities of oil needed to get similar results from your oven.

What are the advantages of a microwave?

We’ve given air fryers their dues, so now it’s time take a look at what features and functions make a microwave a sound investment:

Speed

Microwaves may not be suitable for the same breadth of tasks as air fryers, but microwave cooking is undeniably faster than convection cooking. If you find yourself short on time when making midweek meals, then a microwave may be best at suiting your needs.

Convenience

Excelling at some key tasks and offering handy shortcuts, a microwave is hard to beat for convenience. Microwaveable meals and sides are widely available in supermarkets and can be prepared quickly and with minimal clean-up. Microwaves are also great at reheating leftovers, working especially well for foods that don’t need browning – soups, stews and curries, for example. Another convenience of microwaves is their ability to quickly defrost food, which can massively speed up the preparation of other meals.

Features

Most standard microwaves offer a handy range of settings, including reheating, defrosting, popping popcorn and cooking specific foods. Previously only suitable for this limited set of tasks, modern combi microwaves round out the appliance’s functionality by adding grilling and air frying to the mix, allow microwaves to fill in one of their big blindspots – namely crisping and browning items such as fries, chicken tenders or vegetables. One thing to note, when compared to multi-functional air fryers, combi microwaves tend to be far more expensive.

Energy use

While air fryers receive much praise for being cheaper to run than ovens, the advantage here goes to the microwave. Modern microwaves expend very little energy to cook food and often have sensors that help them determine when food has reached its optimum temperature, meaning they won’t use excess energy (or overcook your food). If you find yourself worrying about your energy bill, then a microwave may be a smart way to save on power costs.

Healthy cooking

While air fryers are better suited to cooking fresh ingredients, microwaves do have their own advantage when it comes to healthy cooking. Due to their speed and method, foods cooked in the microwave aren’t exposed to high heat for prolonged periods, which better preserves the nutrient content in your food. If preserving vitamin and mineral content in your food matters more to you than generally using fresh ingredients, then a microwave-based set-up may be a good starting point.

Which should you pick?

Ultimately, both microwaves and air fryers have their advantages and disadvantages, with neither being inherently superior. Which one you’ll choose will largely depend on your needs and the type of meals you’ll be preparing.

If you want to use fresh ingredients, cook crispy, crunchy foods or prepare items you’d normally cook in your oven, then an air fryer will be just the ticket. Air fryers work similarly to convection ovens, but operate more quickly, use less energy and require less cooking oil to achieve similar results. Other advantages of air fryers include the variety of features, accessories, sizes and price points available when purchasing. If you want to spend as little money as possible, snag a small appliance to quickly cook sides, pick up a larger model to cook multiple portions at once or secure an appliance capable of making rotisserie chicken, the many different types of air fryer out there will ensure that you’ll find something to fulfill your needs.

Microwaves mainly focus on speed and convenience. If you want to take advantage of microwaveable meals, quickly heat up leftovers and defrost items with ease, then a microwave will suit you better than an air fryer. As well as being quick and convenient, microwaves are also cheaper to run than air fryers and better preserve the nutrients in the food they cook, because their rapid cooking process exposes food to high heats for shorter amounts of time. Finally, while they may be expensive, combi microwaves that add features such as grilling and air frying allow you to get the best of both worlds, adding the ability to crisp and brown food to your microwave’s toolbox.

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