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Air Fryers Vs. Convection Ovens: The Science Behind Air Frying

The air fryer is essentially a countertop convection oven—but what does that really mean?!

anatomical illustration of an air fryer
Sarah Ceniceros

At Delish, we've been singing the air fryer's praises for how wonderfully it crisps up sweet potato fries, how tenderly it cooks a pork chop, and how fudgy it bakes a brownie (yes, really!). Sometimes the air fryer can seem like a thing of magic. But there's a whole lot of science behind this small but mighty appliance. Here's what "air frying" your food actually means.

A Lesson in Convection

anatomy of a convection oven, illustrated diagram

To understand how the air fryer works, you have to head back to 1914, when the convection oven was invented. Engineers had been on the hunt for a new type of oven that could rival a fryer in how evenly it distributed heat and intensely it crisped foods. Standard gas or electric ovens use a single heat source, typically located in the bottom of the oven, which can often cause things to cook unevenly. (Hence why recipes may call for you to move your rack to a certain position or rotate baked goods halfway through.)

Enter: convection. Convection uses a fan to circulate hot air throughout the oven. This whirlwind of heat allows for foods to cook more evenly and efficiently.

Air Fryer = Countertop Convection

anatomy of an air fryer, illustrated diagram

Essentially a portable convection oven, the air fryer has two key differences to keep in mind. First, most air fryers have a cooking basket with holes or slits similar to a deep fryer. These porous surfaces help increase the surface area directly exposed to the hot air circulated by the fryer’s fan(s). Secondly, the air fryer's small size allows for air to move around more rapidly, which means it preheats quicker, cooks foods faster, and does a better job at crisping up food. (Win-win-win.)

Given their size, air fryers aren’t quite as versatile as their larger convection counterparts. They can't cook nearly as much food in a single go and you can't disable the fans, a feature most convection ovens have for baking.


Regardless of whether you're roasting a chicken or frying up panko-breaded shrimp, convection ovens and air fryers can unlock amazing culinary potential in your home kitchen.

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