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Small Appliances

How to fry foods without using oil

The secret? An air fryer.

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The Viva Air Fryer

Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Can you make deep fried foods that are less greasy and actually healthier? What about frying foods without using a vat of hot oil? That's the promise of air fryers, the latest in trendy appliances.

Black & Decker, Simple Chef and T-Fal claim their trusty countertop appliances can give you the taste of deep frying without all the grease. If you want to eat healthier but can't bear giving up tater tots, this seems like a godsend.

That all sounds awesome, but do air fryers actually live up to the hype? And should you get one?

How it works

Air fryers come in all different shapes and sizes, from 2.75 quarts to around 6 quarts, but they all work basically the same way.

Each one has a basket (and sometimes removable racks) that you put food in. The basket slips into a cavity in the unit. When you turn the air fryer on, the food is blasted with hot air.

The name is perplexing

No, it doesn't actually fry your food. It runs on circulating hot air, which makes it more like a countertop convection oven than a fryer. So basically, with the air fryer, you're baking.

I bake plenty of things that are supposed to be fried -- like tater tots and French fries -- all the time. They still come out pretty crispy, especially if I toss them in a light coating of vegetable oil first.

Getting a dedicated appliance that bakes when you have an oven can seem redundant, though.

Redundant or genius?

There are some benefits to air fryers though.

If you live in an apartment or dorm without an oven, an air fryer might be your best bet to cook these kinds of foods. Plus, they take less energy to cook up a few servings of fries than an oven does, and they won't heat up the whole kitchen.

The air fryer also retains more moisture in the food while it cooks. This can lead to more succulent chicken wings and fried fish.

One last perk? Air fryers can cook much faster than an oven. In fact, when CNET's Ry Crist tried out the Simple Chef HF-898 Air Fryer, he found it cut cooking times by as much as 50 percent.

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What exactly can air fryers cook?

Well, it all depends on which one you buy. Some can cook homemade wings, fried chicken, corn dogs, chicken strips and even donuts, as well as straight-from-the-freezer classics like mozzarella sticks, fish and vegetables. Basically, if you can cook it in an oven, you can cook it in an air fryer.

Other air fryers claim they can cook a wide range of foods, but are best just for cooking fries. Be sure to check out our hunt for the best air fryer to sort out which is the best for all-around cooking.

Check out the extra features

While most air fryers are just a basket or rack and a heating unit, there are a few that come with some useful features you may want to take advantage of. For example, the DeLonghi Multifry 1363 comes with a motorized mixing paddle. The paddle mixes your fries and tots so they're all cooked evenly.

Also, look for features that make the unit easier to clean. The Philips Avance XXL Twin Turbostar Airfryer comes with a nonstick basket and a drawer that are dishwasher safe, for instance.

Some units also come with a two-tier cooking rack so you can bake flat items like fish fillets.

Cost

Air fryers range from around $70 to $300. One of our favorites, the T-fal ActiFry, costs around $150 on Amazon, for example.

If you're living on a budget, it may be a better idea to choose a toaster oven with a convection feature because it's more versatile. With a toaster oven you can toast, bake and broil using one appliance, while an air fryer can just bake.

If you just love fries and you have the space and the budget for an air fryer, though, go for it. Many models offer up crisp deliciousness with very little oil, just as advertised.  

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