Ah, the humble toaster oven. It’s a tried-and-true staple in the kitchens of millions. Super convenient, compact, and versatile, this little gadget has been used for decades as a quick and simple alternative to a full-sized oven.
However, in recent years, the toaster oven has been somewhat eclipsed by a surprise challenger – the air fryer. It’s got similar insides to the toaster oven, but a few extra bells and whistles and a sleek look have made it a sought-after add-on for many kitchens.
There’s no doubt that air fryers are cool, and there’s plenty you can make with one. But is it worth the price of admission? Let’s find out.
First Off: What Is a Toaster Oven?
A toaster oven is a countertop cooking device that uses convection technology to cook foods quickly and evenly. It’s a great asset to have in your kitchen, and it’s incredibly versatile. You can use it as a toaster, but it’s also just as effective as a regular oven – just smaller!
How Toaster Ovens Heat Up
Your toaster oven contains three different heat sources. There’s the heat that radiates from the hot metal walls and comes straight off the heating coils on the oven’s bottom. Then, there’s warm air that fills the entire oven, cooking the food from all directions. Finally, there’s the heat that’s conducted from a metal baking pan to the food you’re cooking. All of these heat sources play key roles in cooking with a toaster oven.
The Convection Fan: Your Toaster Oven’s Secret Weapon
One of the most important aspects of a toaster oven that sets it apart from other cooking tools is the inclusion of a convection fan. Like larger convection ovens, a conventional toaster oven has a fan and an exhaust vent built-in. This fan blows heat throughout the inside of the toaster oven with the help of the exhaust.
Why does the convection mechanism in your toaster oven matter? It helps your food cook evenly. Thanks to that handy convection fan, heat is distributed in all directions, exposing your food to high temperatures at the same intensity for all sides. That means your meal won’t come out of the toaster oven partially cooked.
Two Big Perks of Cooking With a Toaster Oven
Some of the biggest perks of a convection oven – toaster oven included – are:
- Faster cooking. The fan in your toaster oven speeds up the cooking process by a wide margin. When your kids come home hungry, and you need a meal ready to eat as fast as possible, having a toaster oven in your kitchen can be a huge help.
- Food gets cooked and toasted. If you want your food to get that crispy, browned texture, the toaster oven is the perfect tool. Toaster ovens use drier air than standard ovens, thanks to the built-in exhaust mechanism. It sends all the moisture out, leaving you with dry heat, perfect for browning meat, veggies, and other foods.
Are All Toaster Ovens Convection Ovens?
The majority of toaster ovens use convection technology to cook food. However, some are just compact versions of standard ovens. If you’re not sure whether your toaster oven has a convection mechanism built into it, check for a button or knob labeled “turbo” or “convection.”
If your toaster oven doesn’t have a convection setting on it, never fear – you can still use it to cook great meals.
What Is an Air Fryer?
An air fryer is another countertop cooking tool that uses convection technology. While some claim that it’s just a glorified convection oven, the air fryer does have some essential differences that set it apart from toaster ovens and larger convection ovens:
- Air fryer fans rotate at a higher rate, meaning they’ll heat up faster and maintain higher temperatures thanks to the fan and exhaust mechanism.
- You can use an air fryer to dehydrate food. This isn’t something everyone aspires to do in their kitchens at home, but it’s a handy feature that sets the air fryer apart from other convection ovens.
- Air fryers are usually much smaller than convection ovens, and they’re often smaller than toaster ovens as well. As far as storage goes, you’ll most likely have an easier time stowing away the average air fryer than a big, bulky toaster oven.
How to Air-Fry Food
Using an air fryer is a bit different from using a standard convection oven. An air fryer is outfitted with a small basket, which holds your food and exposes it to even heat. If you want a crisp, deep-fried exterior, add a bit of oil into your air fryer’s basket, although this step is optional.
Your air fryer can reach roasting temperatures, which means it can get your food crispy on the outside without using liquids like oil. Roasting is typically done at around 400 degrees, a temperature that your air fryer can easily reach.
However, an air fryer can also be set to a lower temperature for slow cooking. The temperature you pick depends on the food you’re making and how crispy you want it to be.
What Can I Make in an Air Fryer?
You can use your air fryer to cook a wide variety of foods. Adding oil will get you the crispy texture that the air fryer is known for, but you can also use this handy tool for baking, roasting, and more.
Some of the most common foods to cook with an air fryer are:
- Roasted veggies. Since air fryers can reach temperatures of up to 400 degrees, they’re ideal for roasting small batches of vegetables. While you can’t fit quite as many veggies in an air fryer as you can in a standard oven, you can still roast up enough for a couple of people!
- Fried meat. As the name suggests, air fryers are made for frying! Many home cooks use their air fryers to make classic fried chicken, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, and other traditional fried treats. Plus, an air fryer uses less oil than a standard deep fryer, so it’s often a healthier choice to fry up your own crispy goodies at home.
Do Air Fryers Have Any Drawbacks?
The air fryer is an incredibly useful tool, but it does have some noteworthy cons that may be deal-breakers for you. If you’re cooking for a large household, building a kitchen set up on a budget, or running out of counter space, an air fryer might not be the convection oven you’re looking for.
- Air fryers can take up a lot of space in your kitchen. As you’ve learned, they’re often easier to store than some toaster ovens, but they’re still pretty bulky. If you’re already struggling to fit your pots, pans, and gadgets in your cabinets and on your counters, an air fryer might not fit in your kitchen.
- They’re sometimes pretty expensive. If you’ve got a few hundred dollars to spare on kitchen appliances, an air fryer is a great investment – but it’ll probably set you back more than a toaster oven would. The high price tag on air fryers has led some home cooks to dismiss them as “trendy toaster ovens.” We think there’s more to them than that, but they’re definitely on the pricey side.
- Are fryers have a limited capacity. If you have a big family, you’ll be cooking in batches when you use your air fryer – and that can take up a whole evening. While a standard convection oven can hold a lot of food, the air fryer is best for making one or two servings of a dish.
Do I Need An Air Fryer?
Now that you’re familiar with the ins and outs of the toaster oven and the air fryer, it's time to make a decision – which one is for you?
Overall, the air fryer and the toaster oven are quite similar. They’re both convection ovens, they’re both portable and can be stored in a cabinet or on a countertop, and they’re a quick plan B when you don’t have time for the oven. The main differences are the few extra perks that come with the air fryer – faster heating and cooking, the ability to fry your food, the dehydrator, and so on.
While these features are cool, they’re not necessary for every kitchen. If you’re a fried chicken fanatic, the air fryer has some features that you’ll love. However, the average home cook won’t find much that the air fryer can do for them that their trusty toaster oven can’t.
In the end, the question of whether you need an air fryer comes down to your personal cooking goals. If you plan on making lots of fried meats, love to quick-roast veggies, or want to dehydrate some fruit, it’s a great gadget. However, if you’re just looking for the convection oven basics, it’s perfectly fine to stick with a standard toaster oven.
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