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Air fryer vs oven: Which is the best for your needs?

ninja foodi dual zone air fryer

We compare the popular countertop cooker with the full-size appliance

Air fryers are the runaway kitchen appliance hit of the last decade, with around a third of UK households owning one – a number that’s constantly on the rise. And while it’s generally acknowledged they have revolutionised the way we cook by saving on time, energy and calories, can an air fryer ever really replace a traditional oven?

Evangelists will say that air fryers are a hassle-free way to cook anything from chicken and sausages to pies and puddings, while dissenters claim they are just an expensive worktop-cluttering fad that does the same thing as an oven. But which is true?

Here we’ll delve into the pros and cons of each appliance to help you make up your own mind.

What is an air fryer?

We have a longer guide on this here but essentially an air fryer is a countertop convection oven – not a fryer at all. Hot air is circulated at high speed from the top of the machine and roasts food using little or no oil, enabling the surface to brown and crisp faster than a standard oven. Some air fryers will also have other functionality, such as rotisserie, slow cook, steam or dehydration settings and some will have dual ovens enabling you to use different settings, temperatures and timings at once.

What is an oven?

Ovens can be built in or freestanding, and gas or electric powered. They usually have a top and bottom heating element and may be fan assisted to rotate the hot air. Ovens may be single or double capacity – allowing you to cook at different temperatures – and may have a grill function and a hob on the top. Of course, as with air fryers it is possible to buy ovens with extra functionality, such as steaming, but we’ll focus on both standard ovens and air fryers for this article.

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Are air fryers healthier?

It depends what you are cooking obviously, but generally yes. If you compare air-fried foods to those made in an oven – or, worse, a deep fat fryer – then the fact that air-fried foods require very little oil (and any oil used is free to drip through the basket) means foods have less fat and a lower calorie content. It is generally thought that air-fried foods have 70-80% less fat than deep-fried foods. While this figure is not comparable to oven-baked equivalents there is still a saving as the foods aren’t sat in oil on a tray. You can read more about how healthy air fryers are here.

Are air fryers quicker?

air fryer on kitchen counter wirh meal beside it in a kitchen setting

Yes. Some models don’t need preheating, but even air fryers that do need to be preheated take far less time to cook foods than traditional ovens, generally shaving a third to half the time off. Air fryers also consume a lot less energy than ovens, though this will depend on the size and spec of each model. The combination of faster cooking times and lower energy consumption means that using an air fryer is generally more cost efficient than an oven, and this is particularly true when it comes to smaller portions, when it really pays to save heating up a large energy-guzzling oven.

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What can you cook in an air fryer?

You can cook almost anything in an air fryer, as the recipes in our list of the best air fryer cookbooks will prove. From fish and chicken to meatballs and pasta bakes, cookies and cakes to omelettes and veggies, the sky’s the limit when it comes to air frying foods.

While it may take a while to get used to your machine’s cooking times for different foods, generally if you can fry, roast or bake a food then you can air fry it with good results. The foods that an air fryer does most successfully are things like portions of meat and fish, chips and breaded or battered foods and pastries.

The fact that air moves faster and hotter in an air fryer than an oven, combined with the smaller chamber means that there is improved crispiness and crunch without the negative health implications of frying in quantities of oil.

READ NEXT: Best dual air fryers

What foods are best cooked in an oven?

While you can absolutely bake in an air fryer, in our experience cakes and bakes are best done in an oven. The air fryer is ideal for cooking a portion or two of biscuit dough but for proper baking it falls short. Most air fryers don’t have a large enough capacity for something like a loaf of bread or a cake tin; a standard oven produces a more even bake.

Batch cooking is also something best suited to ovens. Again, capacity is an issue and it is more economical to cook several large dishes at once in an oven using different shelves than to have the air fryer baking smaller portions one at a time.

hands taking dish out of oven

For this reason too, things like roasts or large family meals are better in an oven, though some of the higher capacity air fryers can cook a whole chicken or joint well.

Finally, low and slow cooking is something that ovens handle better than air fryers. Most air fryers have a limited timer (as foods cook so quickly), so cooking that barbecue brisket or satisfying stew is more convenient in an oven – or, better still, a slow cooker.

Is it easier to clean an air fryer or an oven?

Air fryers require cleaning after each use. You can read our handy explainer on how to clean an air fryer for more in-depth information, but the basket and pan will require washing in hot soapy water after using. Many air fryers have dishwasher-safe components though, and you can line the pan with aluminium foil to save on cleaning the pan if you’re feeling lazy.

Ovens don’t need to be cleaned each time you use them of course, though there will be trays and dishes to clean regardless. It is best to give your oven a proper deep clean whenever it is looking greasy or after cooking particularly messy dishes like a roast, and this can be quite a time-consuming and difficult job. Read our tutorial on how to clean your oven.

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Air fryer cons

Though significantly cheaper than shelling out for a brand new oven, there is a fairly hefty upfront cost when investing in an air fryer. Over time this will pay for itself in the money you save on energy, but we’d advise keeping an eye out for the best air fryer deals if you’re looking to grab an appliance.

Some foods aren’t suitable for cooking in an air fryer: steaks lack char and are universally disappointing and the same goes for burgers. Foods that are too light for the environment don’t fare well either, like fresh spinach, poppadoms or products with very loose breadcrumbs.

Capacity is a big issue for air fryers and it is difficult to cater for more than a few people at a time without using another appliance or cooking method at the same time. So yes you can cook a whole chicken in an air fryer, but if you’re having to turn your oven on for the roast potatoes, stuffing and parsnips alongside boiling your veg on the hob, then this is not a money saver – though that air fried chicken will taste amazing.

Air fryers are getting bigger, but this comes with higher energy consumption and they will take up more space on your worktops than these compact models, so if you have a large family to feed it’s not always a wise investment to make.

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