Tech

Best countertop oven and air fryer in 2021: Ninja, Breville, KitchenAid and more


Improvements to the good old-fashioned oven are never in short supply. Some innovations, like convection cooking, which debuted in 1945, are difficult to imagine living without. Others land softly with an air of frivolousness and very little impact (I’m looking at you, steam oven.) 

Smaller countertop ovens are not new to the kitchen appliance world, and, at this point, neither are air fryers. What is new is a fusing of those two types of cookers into one hybrid convection oven with air fryer function, and a good one will do about as much as anything else you can buy for your kitchen. I’ve had one of these versatile hybrid ovens for about a year and find the uses for it many and the results rather delicious. 

“But I already have a solo air fryer or was thinking of getting one.” Great! Air fryers are awesome and they’re pretty cheap, too. In fact, we have a list of the best air fryers to help you choose. But the solo units have limitations and those might make a hybrid oven a better option for you. I did the calculations for myself and decided on a hybrid. 

For one, those rotund robot-looking plastic air fryer ovens mostly do one thing: air fry. You can control the temp, but you’re limited to a single cooking function — there’s no broiling, for instance — and it’s much harder to be precise if you’re making something finicky and not simply crisping up fried food or frozen pizza. They also have very small capacities in comparison to their overall size so I wouldn’t call them good space-budgeters, especially if you want one that’ll cook enough for two or more people. If you’re a little tight on kitchen space, like this New Yorker here, an air fryer/oven combo will do the work of an air fryer and a toaster and some models, like the flip-up Ninja Foodi Air Fryer Oven, don’t take up much counter space at all.

Who’s hungry?


David Watsky/CNET

Comparisons to the classic air fryer aside, I’m a fan of a good countertop convection oven and I use mine in place of the big oven often. I seldom cook for more than two or three people, and while my big oven certainly gets hotter, for most recipes the countertop oven does what I need it to without taking as long to preheat or turning my kitchen into a sweat lodge. 

If you’ve felt a tug to add a smarter, more capable countertop oven or upgrade from a basic air fryer (or toaster), choosing a compact convection toaster with an air fryer function requires asking yourself a few questions. What exactly am I going to cook in this oven? How many people am I generally cooking for? And the all-important questions of how much space and money do I have budgeted for such an appliance?

With a bevy of hybrid convection-air fryer ovens available, I wanted to see how some of the most popular models performed in some real-world testing. Since it’s a kitchen device near and dear to me and one I’ve been using for a few years now, I knew exactly what I’d want in a countertop oven and air fryer combo. 

I secured six models from brands at various prices, starting with a $120 Crux model and working up to Breville’s very big and very fancy Smart Oven Air Fryer Pro, which retails for $350. To find the best countertop convection oven that doubles as an air fryer, I ran several tests over the course of a week, gauging each model’s cooking prowess with regard to key functions — bake, broil, toast, air fry — as well as preheat speed, temperature accuracy and consistency.

I broiled. I baked. I judged. I ate. Here’s how the hybrid ovens performed and a few of my top picks. 

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The small yet mighty Ninja Foodi bested all others in my final assessment and placed either first or second in nearly every single test I ran, blending fierce power, consistency and control. The Ninja preheated the fastest (by far) and kept its heat consistent throughout. The air fryer function was also best in show and it broiled a salmon filet nicely. It’s also the most compact of these countertop ovens and the only model that flips up via a hinge in the back to rest no more than 7 inches from the wall. In addition to a powerful air fry and broil function, the Ninja produced one of the prettiest pieces of toast in just three minutes and baked a chocolate chip cookie to gooey perfection.

One drawback is the Ninja’s interior size, but I suspect that’s also why it works as well as it does. The Ninja is short — about 6 inches and half the height of many of the others — so you’re somewhat limited in what you can put inside. It also makes things a bit clumsy when you’re loading food in and taking it out and it’s harder to see while it’s cooking. But it’s likely that same compact cooking cavity that’s responsible for the excellent power and precision control the Ninja affords. With regard to size, you could easily fit a rack of wings and fries in the Ninja Foodi but forget about a roast or anything like that, just in case you had aspirations to cook Christmas dinner in your new countertop oven. 

It retails for $200, which I view as solid value considering the quality and performance of the appliance. 

David Watsky/CNET

While the Ninja Foodi took the top spot in a majority of tests, the Breville nabbed a few titles, too, including the best broiled salmon and a dead tie in the cookie competition. It also kept an accurate and consistent heat throughout cooking and has an impressive air fryer function. This Smart Oven is also quite large, for better or worse, but that bulbous cooking capacity makes it a more versatile machine than the Ninja. You could easily cook a roast or whole chicken in the Breville, while the Ninja is simply not tall enough. It also has a boatload of features and presets — bread proofing, dehydrate, pizza — and so if you like bells and whistles, the Breville’s got ’em. It’ll even switch from Fahrenheit to Celsius with the push of the button for folks who use that system. Ya know, everyone but us. 

At $319, it’s by far the most expensive oven I tested, but the quality build and performance were commensurate. It is the one model on this that could pretty close to replacing your big oven altogether — in case that’s the goal — or if you need something for a space without an existing oven. 

David Watsky/CNET

While the KitchenAid didn’t run away with many of the test categories, it didn’t struggle mightily in any of them either. It sports a serviceable air fry function — though certainly not the best — excellent temperature consistency and a very sleek and intuitive control panel (my favorite of the lot, in fact). It makes the list because I found it to be a reliable oven that’s also an ideal size for most kitchens. It’s a bit of a hybrid between the Ninja and the Breville in that it’s compact — just 17 inches across versus the Breville at more than 21 — but also has a more traditional cooking capacity so you could get some taller items in there, whereas the Ninja is limited in that department. It also looks great which always counts for something, and it’s a smidge cheaper than the Ninja at $180.

Crux

This is the oven I’ve used most since I owned it even before my wider testing began. Personal history aside, I actually really dig this model, especially for $120. It occasionally drops even lower to around $100 at Macy’s (one of its few retailers), and at that price, it is definitely worth nabbing. The Crux has a formidable air fry function, fairly consistent temperature control, a compact size and it looks nice, too. 

Its main drawbacks are a finicky interface that some reviewers say has failed them completely (mine hasn’t) and a bit of a loud air fry function. The trays also stain easily, so you may have to replace them or be diligent about cleaning. That said, the Crux has served me faithfully, and I suspect it would do the job for you, too. It comes with a one-year limited manufacturer’s warranty.

A few thoughts on the hybrid ovens that didn’t make the cut

The Cuisinart Digital Air Fryer Toaster OvenThis hybrid convection oven and air fryer wasn’t terrible and it certainly had one of, if not the most powerful, air fry functions. That proved to be a blessing and curse since some of the food I cooked burned on the edges and cooked unevenly — I think due in part to the high-octane (and kind of loud) super convection fan. This air fryer oven also had my least favorite interface, and I found myself mashing my fingers on the dials and buttons in frustration at times just hoping I’d get to the right setting since it never seemed to do what I wanted with ease. It’s also not cheap ($280) and thus not an oven I’d recommend. 

Calphalon Precision Air Fry OvenThe Calphalon scored high marks in the toast test with an even browning, but that’s about where the accolades ended. This oven was slow to preheat, had trouble holding a consistent temperature and the air fry function was among the weakest. It also has no internal light, which most of them do. I admittedly do like the look of it and the interface is elegant and simple to use. This oven can also be had for about $150, so it is among the more budget-friendly options. 

What to look for in a hybrid toaster and air fryer oven

Since you’re potentially going all-in on one machine, there are a few functions you want it to perform and perform well. For the purposes of this list, I took four main cooking functions into account: Air fry, broil, bake and toast. These, along with roast, are the oven duties the average home cook will rely on most. While some of these cookers sport dehydrate, proof, pizza and other niche cooking functions, most didn’t, so I stuck to testing functions that were possible across all the hybrid ovens. 

Air frying: This trendy term has nothing to do with frying but rather mimics the results of deep-frying using super hot, fast-moving convection air for food that’s crispy outside and moist inside. Having an air fry function was the baseline criteria for consideration on this list. You can air fry lots of things, but chicken wings and french fries are two popular options, so I employed them for testing.

Broiling: I’m a big broiler person, especially for fish but also for things like mac and cheese, certain chicken recipes and anything else I want a crispy crust on top of. I find that ovens differ wildly in broiling ability so I wanted to see which of these ovens did it best.

Baking: Baking can mean a lot of things but when it comes to, let’s say cookies and cupcakes, consistency is key. The sign of an oven that bakes well is simple: Will it hit the temperature you set it to and then stay there consistently throughout the bake?

Toasting: Like many people, I do a fair amount of toasting — bagels, bread and the occasional Eggo — and so I wanted to see how well, evenly and accurately (according to the oven presets) these machines could toast. 

“What about roasting?” Not a bad question, but roasting is essentially baking at a higher temperature and also a term generally just used to designate cooking foods with structure, including meat and vegetables. The tests I ran for baking — temperature consistency and accuracy — can be loosely applied to roasting so if an oven gets hot and stays hot, we can assume it’s going to roast well, too. 

Other features and accessories to note

Most of these ovens come standard with a baking tray, wire racks and mesh air fry basket. The air fry basket is meant to allow the circulating hot air to hit food at all angles and save you from having to turn it. These are great for fries and certain veggies, but beware that fatty foods, including chicken wings, will drip through as they cook and it ain’t pretty. I always use parchment paper when cooking things of that sort.

All but two of the ovens I tested — the Crux and the Calphalon — have an internal light, which is nice when you need it but not necessary by any means. 

Every oven on this list has a digital interface with dials, buttons or both to control it, although some were much better than others. The Breville’s was the most complex, a result of all its many functions and cooking presets, while the Cuisinart interface was the only one I truly did not like. It drove me batty, in fact. 

Breville BOV900BSSUSC Calphalon TSCLTRDG3-AF Cuisinart TOA-65 Crux 14805 KitchenAid KCO124BM Ninja SP101
Energy Draw 1,800 watts 1,400 watts 1,800 watts 1,800 watts 1,800 watts 1800 watts
Settings Toast, bagel, broil, bake, roast, warm, pizza, proof, air fry, reheat, cookies, slow cook and dehydrate Air fry, bake, toast, roast, broil, bagel, pizza and defrost Bake, broil, pizza, roast, toast, bagel, reheat, warm and dual cook Bake, broil, roast, bagel, warm toast, pizza, reheat and dehydrate Bake, roast, air fry, toast, broil, warm, and crisp and dehydrate, proof, bagel, warm and reheat Air fry, air roast, air broil, bake, bagel, toast, dehydrate and keep warm
Max temperature 480 °F 450°F 450°F 450°F 450°F 450°F
Preheat time to 350 °F (minutes) 5:00 3:45 3:30 3:00 3:00 0:50
Exterior dimensions L x W x H (inches) 21.5 x 17.5 x 12.7 11.6 x 18.7 x 15.8 17 x 21.73 x 15.75 17 x 13.85 x 9.29 17 x 16 x 11.3 19.7 x 7.6 x 15
Temperature accuracy (350 °F for 10 minutes) -5 -13 -4 10 0 -7
Weight (pounds) 39 22 28.5 16 21 18.5
Color Silver or black Black Silver Silver Black Silver and black
Key features Large capacity None Powerful air fryer None Sleek design and interface Extremely compact
Warranty 2-year 1-year 1-year 1-year
Price $350 $180 $280 $120 $190 $200

How I tested these ovens and how they performed

Air fried chicken wings test

Chicken wings are almost universally loved and a very popular item to air fry. The goal for an air-fried wing is a crispy outside and skin with a juicy inside. To test each oven’s air fry ability, I cooked three frozen wings on air fry mode at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes, turning them every 10 minutes. I let each oven come to full preheat before putting the wings in and then photographed them immediately after pulling them out. I tasted them too, of course, when they became cool enough to eat. 

Success here depends on high heat and good fan circulation of that hot air, which, in turn, means faster cooking. The faster an air fryer cooks and the more effective the super convection is, the faster the outside skin will crisp, making it less likely the chicken will be dry inside. 

The Ninja Foodi oven won the great wing war by a feather, with the crispiest wings after 30 minutes. They were also perfectly juicy inside and had no real visible burning. The Cuisinart also nailed the wing test, but I actually had to pull them after about 25 minutes because they were fully done. They even had some burnt skin but not enough to bother me. The Breville and Crux also did well with good browning and crispy skin, while the KitchenAid finished sixth and the Calphalon seventh with not enough browning or crispiness for my taste. 

ninja-wings

Ninja’s air-fried wings were a thing of beauty.


David Watsky/CNET

Air-fried frozen french fries test

This second air fryer test was designed to illuminate the pure power and speed of an individual oven’s air fry function, but also its ability to cook evenly. I placed a handful of frozen french fries (McDonald’s style) on air fry at 450 F and timed how quickly each one got to that golden brown color that we all covet. Because speedy cooking and convenience is a key feature of the countertop air fryer oven, the faster the better. All of the oven subjects (with the exception of the Cuisinart) got to the desired doneness eventually but some performed the task much more quickly and consistently than others. 

Breville won the fry test with perfectly golden fries in six minutes. I set the Ninja to a slightly lower temp (390 F) per its manual and in eight minutes had perfect fries (a very close second place and it likely would have won or tied if I’d set to 450 F). KitchenAid also took eight minutes on 450 F, while the Crux took nine minutes to get there and the Calphalon took 12. The Cuisinart was actually the fastest at just three minutes, but it burnt the edges of the fries and didn’t cook evenly. At this point, I began to suspect the Cuisinart has an unusually intense air fryer function, for better or worse.

fries

Air fryer french fries are rather addictive. All the ovens did pretty well in this test, but the Ninja and Breville did it the fastest without burning.


David Watsky/CNET

Broiled salmon test

To test the broiler, I brushed a 4-ounce salmon filet with a mixture of mustard, olive oil and brown sugar. After the oven came to preheat, I snuck the salmon under the broiler about 2 inches from the top and left it there for four minutes before removing it from the oven for a photoshoot. 

The key thing I looked for here was how well each broiler imported a caramelized crust on the top of the fish. Some ovens, like the Calphalon and Cuisinart, showed almost no signs of browning, while the Ninja and Breville delivered nice color and the beginnings of a good crust. I decided they would share the blue ribbon for this test. The KitchenAid and Crux both showed some browning, landing them in third and fourth place.

salmon-brevile

In real life, I probably would have given this another minute under the broiler, but the Breville (pictured here) and Ninja were the only ovens that imparted any sort of crust after four minutes.


David Watsky/CNET

The toast test

This test was to see how accurate a particular oven’s toaster presets are and how fast it can toast. I stuck one slice of bread in each toaster and set it to medium. I didn’t weigh this test as heavily as the others because, in truth, any of these ovens will get you to the desired toastiness, it just may take more (or less) time, some tinkering or learning of the presets to get it how you want it.

How long each cook time was for the “medium” preset on each oven varied rather significantly, ranging from over six minutes for the Calphalon to just three and a half for the Ninja. As it was, these two produced the most even and attractive toast that corresponded to the preset, but the Ninja (winner!) did it in half the time. The Breville, KitchenAid and Crux barely toasted the bread at all when set to medium — which simply means you’d have to use a darker setting — while the Cuisinart over-toasted the bread.

ninja-toast

Both the Calphalon and Ninja made very pretty toast that matched their medium presets, but the Ninja (pictured) did it in half the time. 


David Watsky/CNET

Baking cookies

Next, I wanted to see how accurately and consistently each oven could reach and hold a temperature, and baking a cookie is a perfect test for that. I plopped a spherical tablespoon worth of Toll House cookie dough on parchment paper and stuck one in each oven on the middle rack for the recommended time and temp (350 degrees F for 10 minutes). 

The cookie race was a photo finish between Ninja and Breville, both of which delivered near-perfect results. The Cuisinart cookie was overbaked (of course), as was the Crux, although just slightly, while the KitchenAid cookie was a tad underbaked.

cookies.png

It’s a two-way tie — Breville and Ninja — in the cookie contest. Both ovens hit the set temp and held it consistently throughout the 10 minutes.


David Watsky/CNET

Preheat test

Another big draw for using a countertop oven over the big oven is the speed at which it’ll preheat. During the cookie bake-off, I timed each oven to see how fast it came up to 350 degrees F. 

The Ninja Foodi blew all the others away, preheating to 350 at a lightning-fast 50 seconds. Most of the others clocked in around three and a half minutes, while the larger Breville took five minutes to come to temp. While I didn’t do an official test for air fryer preheat, I did notice the Calphalon took markedly longer than the others to get to 450 degrees F on air fry.

Temperature accuracy and consistency test

This is low-key one of the most important functions for any oven, especially if you plan to do some light baking in it. If an oven can’t hold an accurate and consistent temperature, it makes following recipes far more difficult, and you’ll be forever adjusting and hawking your food to make sure it doesn’t burn. I used thermocouples to read the internal temperature of the oven while it baked for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. I was able to get an average temp reading for the duration of the bake, but I also watched the thermometer in real time to see how much fluctuation happened during the cook. 

The KitchenAid won this test with an average reading of 350 F on the nose and with very little fluctuation. The Ninja (343 F average temp), Cuisinart (346 F) and Breville (345 F) also did well, although the Breville started off very hot and then came back down. The two last-place finishers were the Crux, which ran hot (365 F) and the Calpahlon, which ran cold (337 F). Both were also the most inconsistent throughout the bakes. 

Cleaning and care

With the exception of the Ninja (more on this in a second), there is nothing particularly unusual about caring for or cleaning these ovens. They have standard box interiors of various sizes made from stainless steel that will require regular scrubs and wipes. Each oven also has a removable, dishwasher-safe crumb tray to catch fallen fries and toasty bits. 

Now back to the Ninja. Because of the compact interior, this oven is definitely more prone to splatter and stains, especially when making foods with fat and grease such as wings. Thankfully, there is a smart design feature that allows the entire bottom floor of the Ninja oven to fold out so you can get right inside with a rag or Brillo pad and wipe it down. I am sure the Ninja will require more frequent cleaning than the others. If that’s not something you’re diligent about, it’s certainly something to consider. 

ninja-open

A smart design feature allows you to get right inside the Ninja oven and give it a good cleaning, something you’ll likely need to do regularly because of its compact hull. 


David Watsky/CNET

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