Are you stuck on a decision between using a microwave or an air fryer? Well, pretty soon, you’re going to have the answers you need to fix that.
An air fryer uses convection to fry food with hot air, whereas a microwave uses electromagnetic waves to heat the food’s molecules, heating it up. Both end up cooking the food, but the difference in how the food is cooked changes the texture and crunchiness of the food.
Here are the answers to common questions about the differences between air fryers and microwave ovens.
How an Air Fryer Works
The method air fryers use to cook food is called convection, which is heat transfer through the movement of a fluid. The fluid air fryers use is air, hence the name. The air fryer circulates hot air through the cooking chamber to heat and cook the food.
The air fryer first heats up a coil and then uses its fan to blow air over the coil and over the food. The coil heats up the air, which in turn transfers the heat to the food.
The outsides of the food cook faster because they’re directly exposed to the hot air. When the outsides finished cooking, they seal the rest of the food’s moisture inside and keep it from escaping. The result is a food product that’s crispy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside, similar to a deep-fried version of the food, just without the oil.
How a Microwave Works
Microwave ovens don’t use heating elements or hot air to heat food. Instead, they produce microwave radiation with an electron tube called a magnetron.
That radiation hits the particles of the food, causing them to move more rapidly, essentially making the food heat itself. After all, that’s what heat looks like in a solid object: the particles vibrate because they have more energy. All of this happens at a molecular level.
The radiation hits the outside of the food and heats that up, and the rest of the food depends on that heat being conducted from the outside inward. That means the microwave doesn’t heat the food all the way through, so you might get hot spots and cold spots in the food, which is why many microwaves have rotation plates, and heating smaller portions of food tends to work better.
Now, don’t let the word “radiation” scare you. Your microwave isn’t about to give you cancer or Hulk powers. “Radiation” is the term used for any type of ray on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Yes, that does include dangerous gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light, but it also includes visual light and radio waves, which are harmless, unless you look directly at the sun or listen to the radio on full blast for an hour. Microwaves are on the very low-frequency end of the spectrum, so the radiation from a microwave oven isn’t a danger to you or your food.
Can You Use an Air Fryer as a Microwave?
Because the two work so differently, you can’t use an air fryer in the same way you would use a microwave. You can’t replace one with the other. They take different amounts of time to cook the same type of food, and the results of their cooking processes are significantly different.
If you tried to put food in an air fryer for the same amount of time as you would expect a microwave to heat it in, you will be severely disappointed. That food wouldn’t be nearly as warm as you want it to be, and if you needed it to cook at all, it would most likely have some uncooked parts, especially on the inside of the food.
Microwaves can be used both to cook and to reheat food, but air fryers will cook the food if you give them enough time. If you try to reheat something in an air fryer, you will end up just cooking it more, especially on the outside.
On top of that, an air fryer may be limited on what type of foods you can put inside of it. Some air fryers may be more equipped than others to handle certain foods, but you certainly wouldn’t be able to heat something like a bowl of soup with one, whereas any microwave could do that job.
If you have a recipe that tells you to microwave the food for a certain amount of time, air frying it instead isn’t going to work.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with the air fryer to find whether you can get a better result from it. In fact, if the food can be cooked well in an air fryer, the product is likely to be better than anything a microwave can do with the same food.
The only time you’ll want to use an air fryer instead of a microwave to reheat food is when you want the food to be crispy. Just don’t cook it too long, or you will burn it.
How are Foods Cooked in an Air Fryer Different from Microwaved Foods?
The most important difference between microwaves and air fryers is the way they end up cooking food, and it comes down to their cooking process. As we discussed earlier, microwave ovens cook food by using microwaves to heat food particles at a molecular level. Air fryers cook food with a stream of hot air that rapidly cooks the outside. Both work from the outside in.
The results are very different. Air-fried food is crispy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside. Microwaved food, on the other hand, is simply hotter than it was before. The microwave heat may have been enough to cook the food and make the appropriate chemical and mechanical changes happen, but the outsides won’t be browned at all (unless you’re making popcorn).
Let’s say, for example, that you want to cook some frozen french fries. If you cooked them in the microwave, they would heat up to the appropriate temperature for eating, but they’ll be soft and flimsy. If you cook them in the air fryer, they will be nice and crispy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. I often make french fries in my air fryer, and they are always delicious.
You don’t want to use a microwave to try to make something crispy. You might make the food stiff if you cook it long enough, but it will be like that too much of the way through, making the food unpleasant to eat.
Is it Healthier to Cook with an Air Fryer or a Microwave?
Both air fryers and microwaves are pretty healthy appliances to use for cooking food. The health differences are pretty minor, but here they are.
While both reduce the amount of oil you need to cook, air fryer recipes sometimes require a small amount of oil. It’s not likely to make a difference unless you need to be extremely strict with the amount of oil you consume, but the two appliances are both good for reducing the amount of oil in your food.
The only other health concern from cooking with one of these is that microwaves can destroy some of the nutrients in the food they cook. In reality, any means of using heat to cook food with destroying some nutrients. Microwaves just tend to do so more than air fryers.
Can You Cook Anything in an Air Fryer?
Depending on the air fryer, you can cook a whole variety of things in it, including meats, fries, and vegetables. The only real limitation is what can go in the air fryer without making a huge mess all over your countertop, and that might vary depending on how your air fryer is set up.
Another thing to remember is that you don’t want to overload the air fryer. If the food is packed together too tightly, there won’t be room for the air to circulate, and you’ll end up with mushy or uncooked food. So you won’t be able to cook something that tends to stick together, either, unless the air fryer rolls the food about while it cooks to keep pieces separate.
You might also want to avoid trying to cook large, single pieces of food in the air fryer, as the inside of the food will cook more slowly than the outside. If the piece is too thick, the inside might be undercooked while the outside burns. You may be able to avoid this problem, though, if you cook it at a lower temperature, which will give the inside time to catch up to the outside.
Some air fryers can do more than one thing. Depending on the features it has, the air fryer might be able to bake, roast, or even rotisserie your food instead of only air frying. Those options greatly expand the possibilities of what you can cook in the air fryer.
Does a Microwave or Air Fryer Have a Better Capacity?
When it comes to the size of the unit, microwaves can more often satisfy your need for higher-capacity cooking than air fryers.
Air fryers are typically more compact than microwaves and are made to fit conveniently on your countertop. That compactness limits their cooking capacity. On average, air fryers have a cooking capacity somewhere between 3.7 and 5.8 quarts. You should be able to find air fryers that are bigger or smaller if you look in the right place, but most will be in this size range.
Microwaves, on the other hand, have a lot more variation in size. The average microwave has 1 to 2.2 cubic feet of space inside, which is a range of roughly 30 to 65 quarts. Granted, you’re not likely to use all that space at once: that would be way too much work for the microwave, and you might as well use your oven at that point.
In a microwave, the most space you’d want to take up in it is about half its vertical space and a quarter of its horizontal space. For a microwave of 1.6 cubic feet, that would give you about 5.9 quarts of space to work with, though you might want to use a lower power setting for that to help it heat more evenly, and that would increase the time it takes to cook.
Of course, microwaves vary even more than air fryers do, so you can easily find microwaves that are either much smaller or much bigger than average.
Despite the microwave’s general waste of capacity, you’ll find that its actual cooking capacity can be used a lot more efficiently than the air fryer’s because of how quickly it cooks.
Which is Faster to Use?
The biggest advantage microwaves have over air fryers is that they can start cooking immediately instead of waiting to preheat. Because microwaves use microwave radiation to heat food instead of heating up their interior with some kind of dry heat, they won’t have to let heating elements or the air inside them heat up before beginning to cook the food.
Air fryers, on the other hand, have to “preheat” before they can actually start cooking. Since they use convection to cook, they have to get the convection process started before it will work. The air has to get moving and build up speed, and that takes time.
On top of that, the microwave’s process works faster than the air fryer’s. Cooking food in a microwave takes a matter of minutes or even seconds, while a batch of air fryer food will usually take somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes to finish.
What this means is that if you raced these two appliances by filling them with a batch of the same food with the same capacity, the microwave would be able to cook more of those batches than the air fryer in the given time. The microwave starts quickly and cooks quickly, and the air fryer wouldn’t be able to keep up.
It is worth noting, though, that microwaves have a lot of variation in wattage. That variation can make some microwaves really powerful, and other microwaves ridiculously weak. So, if you want a microwave for the speed at which it cooks, make sure to find one with a decent wattage.