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Air fryers vs microwaves – which of these appliances is right for you?

white microwave in modern kitchen - air fryers vs microwaves

These two appliances serve very different purposes, so making the right decision is vital

While air fryers are still somewhat new to our kitchens, many of us will have had and used a microwave for decades. It’s only natural to wonder whether you really need both in your home or if it makes more sense to have one over the other. This is especially true if you have limited space or – amid an ongoing cost-of-living crisis – you’re hoping to reduce running costs by getting rid of one of your kitchen appliances and having the other perform all your cooking.

So, in the ‘air fryers versus microwaves’ debate, is one really better than the other? Can you swap one out for the other? Or do they perform very different functions that simply can’t be replicated by the other appliance? To help you decide which one’s right for you, we spoke to the experts.

Air fryer vs microwave: How do they work?

Though you may be weighing up the pros and cons of buying an air fryer or a microwave, it’s important to understand that these two appliances work in very different ways when it comes to cooking your food.

Microwaves use microwave radiation to heat your food from the inside out. Paul Bough, air fryer expert and chef at ZWILLING, explains: “Microwaves use electromagnetic waves to vibrate and excite the water molecules in the food, causing them – and the food – to heat up quickly.”

By comparison, an air fryer uses hot air circulated by a fan. “Circulating hot air cooks the food in an air fryer, and creates an enticing crispy exterior and moist interior”, says Brian Johnson, appliance expert at MyJobQuote.

In operation, both appliances will have lots of different options. “Both an air fryer and a microwave often come with pre-set cooking options for certain types of foods, which can also be set manually”, Paul says, adding, “a microwave will also likely have a defrosting setting.”

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Air fryer vs microwave: What sort of food does each appliance produce?

The types of food you can produce using an air fryer versus using a microwave is where the differences between the two appliances become apparent. “As an air fryer and microwave work in such differing ways, you will not achieve similar results – so using the method that best suits what you are cooking is important”, Brian says.
An air fryer is far superior for creating an attractive, crispy texture on your food, in a way that a microwave cannot match.

“The best kinds of food to cook in an air fryer are those that should be crispy, like chips, breaded chicken and pizza”, Brian says. “Circulating hot air makes the food crisp and golden on the outside while retaining all of the flavour of the food inside. Any kind of food that you can bake, fry or grill can be cooked in an air fryer.”

Using a microwave and expecting a crispy, crunchy texture will only end in disappointment, Paul says: “Cooking these items in a microwave would likely result in something soggy, and much less crispy than the equivalent cooked in an air fryer. For example, breaded and battered food items will definitely come out crispier in an air fryer compared to a microwave.”

potatoes in air fryer drawer open - air fryers vs microwaves

However, microwaves certainly have their place when it comes to reheating foods, and are very effective for cooking foods that you don’t want to become crispy. “When it comes to cooking steamed foods, a microwave is perfect – particularly for vegetables, grains and fish – as long as it’s wrapped or covered to retain the moisture”, Brian says.

So, it’s important to realise that microwaves cannot be used to cook just any type of food, whereas an air fryer is much more versatile and can be used to cook most things, with a select few exceptions.

“Microwaves are not effective on thick foods”, says David Rees, an appliance expert from HomeSupply. “They can be used for reheating, but you would not be able to cook something like meat properly, for example.”

Brian agrees that “raw meat, seafood, pasta and pizza will not fare well in a microwave, and their texture and appearance will leave a lot to be desired.” He continues, “Unlike an air fryer, it’s certainly not a suitable method for taking something like meat from a raw state to a cooked state without drying it out and making it ‘rubbery’.

“For this reason, a microwave is more often used to reheat food rather than cooking ingredients from scratch.”

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Air fryer vs microwave: Which is easier to use and maintain?

Both appliances are relatively simple and straightforward to use, as long as you take the time to acquaint yourself with the different settings of a new model.

However, many of us have likely grown up using a microwave, making them feel very familiar, whereas air fryers are relatively new to most kitchens. So, if you’re buying an air fryer, expect it to take a little while to get used to, particularly compared to a new microwave.

It’s worth bearing in mind that you need to be a little more careful when using microwaves than air fryers. “There can be a higher risk of accidents with certain foods in a microwave – for example, if heated on too high for too long, some foods may explode”, David says. “You also cannot put metal in the microwave, of course, as it will reflect the radiation waves, causing combustion or sparks.”

When it comes to ease of cleaning, air fryers arguably win out. As David says: “Most air fryers will have components that come apart specifically for cleaning – usually, their baskets can go in the dishwasher.”

cleaning microwave with sponge and gloves - air fryers vs microwaves

That’s not to say that microwaves aren’t easy to clean, mind you, built-in models can be a little more awkward to reach into, depending on where they’ve been installed. Generally, microwave plates can be put in a dishwasher, and the inside of most microwaves just needs to be wiped with a microfibre cloth, some antibacterial spray and a little water.

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Air fryer vs microwave: Which appliance is cheaper to buy and run?

It’s generally considered cheaper to run a microwave than an air fryer, but this is largely because air fryers need to be run for longer.

As Brian points out, “The hourly costs of running an air fryer and a microwave are very similar, but they will typically not be used for the same duration, making a microwave the cheaper option.”

To break down the costs of each appliance, Brian explains, “The cost of running an air fryer is usually around 50 pence per day, taking into consideration that the average cooking time for an air fryer is approximately 30 minutes.”

On the other hand, he says, “a 1,000W microwave costs around 52 pence per hour, or 9 pence for 10 minutes. However, the majority of users will not be using their microwaves for longer than a few minutes at a time, and lower-wattage microwaves will cost even less to run.” So, a microwave should only set you back around 10p per day, at a maximum.

When it comes to the initial cost of purchasing either appliance, it tends to even out: you can pick up a perfectly functional microwave for as little as £30 and many of the best budget air fryers are similarly priced, while at the other end of the scale, luxury microwaves and the most premium air fryers can demand a much higher price tag, rising to hundreds of pounds.

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Air fryer vs microwave: Which should you choose?

It’s difficult to properly compare an air fryer and a microwave since they perform very different functions. As Brian points out, “Each appliance has its strengths and place in the kitchen. Rather than competing, they offer different and versatile solutions to your cooking needs.”

air fryer in focus on kitchen counter of bright kitchen - air fryers vs microwaves

An air fryer might be right for you if you need help creating crunchy, tasty food in a variety of ways. David says, “Air fryers win for versatility. They are best for cooking foods that are expected to be crispy, and can also be used to bake, roast or fry most foods.”

On the other hand, microwaves are great at what they do, but their ‘cooking’ options are much more limited. “Microwaves are primarily designed for reheating or defrosting food, so they do not provide as much versatility”, David points out. A microwave is arguably unbeatable for reheating pretty much anything without drying it out – a pasta dish, a fish dish, even a mug of tea that’s gone cold – the same can’t be said for an air fryer.

Both appliances are easy to use and easy to clean, and you can purchase either for as much, or as little, as you’re willing to spend. Though microwaves tend to be cheaper and more energy-efficient to run, this is generally because they are used for less time. So, the only way to pick between an air fryer and a microwave is to consider what’s missing from your kitchen, and work out which appliance might be most helpful and meet your needs.

Of course, for many people, assuming they have the space, it makes complete sense to have both appliances, performing their different functions, rather than choosing between them.

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