Are you tempted by an air fryer, but fear you might just get another ill-fated kitchen gadget that takes up space in your tiny kitchen? We’re here to help you out. The air fryer, which comes in several different shapes and sizes, can be a versatile addition to many kitchens, once you know what it’s capable of.
First of all, let’s clear one thing up: it’s not frying. Not really. Air fryers are more like smaller convection ovens, ones that are often pod-shaped. Most work by combining a heating element and fan, which means the hot air can usually better crisp the outside of food than other methods. They often reach higher top temperatures than toaster ovens – which is part of the appeal.
For most recipes, a thin layer of oil (usually sprayed) helps to replicate that fried look and feel better. However, it will rarely taste precisely like the deep-fried version. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the air fryer, in its many forms, combines some of the best parts of other cooking processes and brings them together into an energy-efficient way of cooking dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch.
What to look for in an air fryer
You can separate most air fryers into two types and each has different pros and cons. Convection ovens are usually ovens with air fryer settings and features. They might have higher temperature settings to ensure that food crisps and cooks more like actually fried food. Most convection ovens are larger than dedicated air fryers, defeating some of the purpose of those looking to shrink cooking appliance surface area. Still, they are often more versatile and most have finer controls for temperatures, timings and even fan speed.
You may never need a built-in oven if you have a decent convection oven. They often have the volume to handle roasts, entire chickens or tray bakes, and simply cook more, capacity-wise, making them more versatile than the pod-shaped competition.
The flip side of that is that you’ll need the counter space to house them. It also means you can use traditional oven accessories, like baking trays or cake tins, that you might already own.
Pod-shaped air fryers
Pod-shaped air fryers are what you imagine when you think “air fryer.” They look like a cool, space-age kitchen gadget, bigger than a kettle but smaller than a toaster oven. Many use a drawer to hold ingredients while cooking, usually a mesh sheet or a more solid, non-stick tray with holes to allow the heated air to circulate. With a few exceptions, most require you to open the drawer while things cook and flip or shake half-cooked items to ensure the even distribution of heat to everything.
That’s one of a few caveats. Most pod-shaped air fryers – there are a few exceptions – don’t have a window to see how things are cooking, so you’ll need to closely scrutinize things as they cook, opening the device to check progress. These machines also generally use less energy – there’s less space to heat – and many have parts that can be put directly into a dishwasher.
Some of the larger pod-shaped air fryers offer two separate compartments, which is especially useful for anyone planning to cook an entire meal with the appliance. You could cook a couple of chicken wings while simultaneously rustling up enough fries for everyone. Naturally, those options take up more space, and they’re usually heavy enough to stop you from storing them in cupboards or shelves elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, you might have to buy extra things to make these pod fryers work the way you want them to. Some of the bigger manufacturers, like Philips and Ninja, offer convenient additions, but you’ll have to pay for them.
Air fryer pros and cons
Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of individual models, air fryers are pretty easy to use from the outset. Most models come with a convenient cooking time booklet covering most of the major foods you’ll be air frying.
One of the early selling points is the ability to cook fries, wings and other delights with less fat than other methods. As air fryers need to circulate heated air, the trays and cooking plates have holes that can also let oil and fat drain out of meats, meaning less fat when you finally plate things up. For most cooking situations, you will likely need to lightly spray food with a vegetable oil. If you don’t, there’s the chance that things will burn or char. The oil will keep things moist on the surface, and we advise refreshing things with a bit of oil spray when you turn items during cooking.
Most air fryers are easy to clean – especially in comparison to deep or shallow fryer. We’ll get into cleaning guidance a little later.
With a smaller space to heat, air fryers are generally more energy-efficient than using larger appliances like ovens. And if you don’t have an oven, air fryers are much more affordable – especially the pod options.
There are, however, some drawbacks. While air fryers are easy enough to use, they take time to master. You will adjust cooking times for even the simplest things – like frozen fries. If you’re the kind of person that loves to find inspiration from the internet, in our experience, you can pretty much throw their timings out of the window. There are a lot of air fryer options, and factors like how fast they heat and how well distributed that heat is can – and will – affect cooking.
There’s also a space limitation to air fryers. This is not a TARDIS – there’s simply less space than most traditional ovens and many deep fat fryers. If you have a bigger family, you’ll probably want to go for a bigger model of air fryer – possibly one that has multiple cooking areas.
You may also struggle to cook many items through as the heat settings will cook the surface of dishes long before it’s cooked right through. If you’re planning to cook an entire bird or a roast, please get a meat thermometer!
The best accessories for your air fryer
Beyond official accessories from the manufacturer, try to pick up silicone-tipped tools. Tongs are ideal, as is a silicon spatula to gently loosen food that might get stuck on the sides of the air fryer. These silicone mats will also help stop things from sticking to the wire racks on some air fryers. They have holes to ensure the heated air is still able to circulate around the food.
Silicone trivets are also useful for resting any cooked food on while you sort out the rest of the meal. And if you find yourself needing oil spray, but don’t feel like repeatedly buying tiny bottles, you can decant your favorite vegetable oil into a permanent mister like this.
The best way to clean an air fryer
We’re keeping things simple here. Yes, you could power cleaners from the grocery store, they could damage the surface of your air fryer. Likewise, metal scourers or brushes could strip away non-stick protection. Remember to unplug the device and let it cool completely.
Remove the trays, baskets and everything else from inside. If the manufacturer says the parts are dishwasher safe – and you have a dishwasher – the job is pretty much done.
Otherwise, wash each part in a mixture of warm water, with a splash of Dawn or another strong dish soap. Use a soft-bristled brush to pull away any greasy deposits or bits of food stuck to any surfaces. Remember to rinse everything. Otherwise, your next batch of wings could have a mild Dawn aftertaste. Trust us.
Take a microfiber cloth and tackle the outer parts and handles that might also get a little messy after repeated uses. This is especially useful for oven-style air fryers – use the cloth to wipe down the inner sides.
If Dawn isn’t shifting oily stains, try mixing a small amount of baking soda with enough water to make a paste, and apply that so that it doesn’t seep into any electrical parts or the heating element. Leave it to work for a few seconds before using a damp cloth to pull any greasy spots away. Rinse out the cloth and wipe everything down again, and you should be ready for the next time you need to air fry.
How to find air fryer recipes
Beyond fries, nuggets and – a revelation – frozen gyoza, there are a few ways to find recipes for your new air fryer. First, we found that the air fryer instruction manuals often have cooking guides and recipe suggestions for you to test out in your new kitchen gadget. The good thing with these is that they were made for your air fryer model, meaning success should be all but guaranteed. They are often a little unimaginative, however.
Many of the top recipe sites and portals have no shortage of air fryer recipes, and there’s no harm in googling your favorite cuisine and adding the words “air fryer” on the end of the search string. We’ve picked up some reliable options from Delish, which also has a handy air fryer time converter for changing oven and traditional fryer recipes.
And if you have a killer recipe or unique use for your air fryer, let us know in the comments. What’s the air fryer equivalent of the Instant Pot cheesecake? We’re ready to try it.
Best overall: Instant Vortex Plus
You probably know the “Instant” brand from the line of very popular Instant Pot multi-cookers, but did you know that the company makes great air fryers too? We’re especially impressed by the Instant Vortex Plus with ClearCook and OdorErase, which features a clear viewing window so you can see your food while it’s cooking, plus an odor-removing filter. In our testing, we found that it didn’t completely eliminate smells, but it seemed significantly less smoky when compared to our Breville Smart Oven Air. We love the intuitive controls, the easy-to-clean nonstick drawer basket, plus the roomy interior – it’s big enough to fit four chicken thighs. Plus, it heats up very quickly with virtually no preheating time.
A slightly more affordable option is its predecessor, the Instant Vortex Plus 6-Quart. It lacks the viewing window and the odor-removing filters, but it still has the same intuitive controls and roomy nonstick interior. If you want an even bigger option, Instant also offers Instant Vortex Plus in a 10-quart model that has a viewing window and a rotisserie feature.
Best budget: Cosori Compact Air Fryer
If you don’t have a lot of space or money to spare, Cosori’s Compact Air Fryer is a great option. As a 3.7-quart capacity machine, it doesn’t take up too much counter space and it can easily fit into a cabinet when you’re not using it. It has a traditional, square-ish pod design with a touch panel on the top half and a removable cooking basket on the bottom. I was impressed by how easy this air fryer was to use from start to finish. Learning how to program cooking modes and times was easy and using the basket is simple as well. It also has a handy release button that disconnects the basket from the base, which makes cleanup quick and simple. (Plus, the basket is dishwasher safe as well.)
This is a true air fryer in the sense that it has presets rather than a bunch of different cooking modes. It does have toast and bake, which are different from air fry, but otherwise you can choose from different food-specific presets like french fries, shrimp, frozen foods and more. While that’s not so great if you want a multipurpose device, it’s ideal if you’re just looking for an air fryer that can do exactly that very well. Not only was the Cosori machine fairly quiet, but it also only took between three and five minutes to preheat in most cases, and everything I cooked in it – from tofu nuggets to french fries – came out crispy and flavorful.
Best dual-zone: Ninja Foodi Dual Zone Air Fryer
Most air fryers can make one thing at a time, but Ninja’s Dual Zone machine can handle two totally different foods simultaneously. Available in 8- and 10-quart capacities, the machine isn’t compact, so it won’t be a good option for those with small kitchens. However, if you have the counter space, it could be a good one to invest in especially if you cook for a large family. You can prep two different foods at the same time with totally different cooking modes, or use Match Cook to prepare foods in both chambers the same way. The heating zones are independent, so if you only want to fill up one side with french fries and leave the other empty, you can do that as well.
We appreciate how quickly the Ninja heats up (there’s little to no preheating time at all) and how it runs relatively quietly. It also has a feature called Smart Finish that will automatically adjust cooking times so that your chicken thighs in the first chamber and asparagus in the second will finish cooking at the same time, so you don’t have to wait for one part of your meal to be ready while the other gets cold. In general, dual-zone air fryers aren’t necessary for most people, but those who cook often will get a lot of use out of machines like this Ninja.
Nicole Lee and Valentina Palladino contributed to this guide.