A Guide to Air Fryers: Everything to Know Before You Buy
Five years in and I still love my air fryer just as much as the day we met. Here's all you need to know about the popular countertop cookers.
David WatskySenior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's logged more than a decade writing about all things edible, including meal kits and meal delivery subscriptions, cooking, kitchen gear and commerce. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the eats business from slicing and dicing as a sous-chef in Rhode Island to leading complex marketing campaigns for major food brands in Manhattan. These days, he's likely somewhere trying the latest this or tasting the latest that - and reporting back, of course. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
ExpertiseKitchen tech, cookware, small appliances, food innovation, meal delivery and meal kits.
Air fryers burst onto the kitchen scene more than a decade ago and became an instant hit. Air fryers found favor with home cooks as a faster, more convenient alternative to cooking in a large oven and as a healthier alternative to frying with oil.
Despite the name, air fryers don't actually fry but rather, mimic the results of cooking with hot oil. Air fryers are also faster than just about any other type of convection oven and most nonstick basket-style air fryers take no more than a minute or two to clean. And most air fryers are relatively inexpensive, providing big value considering all the heavy lifting they can do.
If you're new to the popular small appliance and have questions about air fryers, I've outlined everything you need to know before you buy an air fryer for your kitchen, dorm or RV.
In this air fryer explainer and buying guide, you'll find the best uses for trendy air fryer ovens along with the various purchase options and factors to consider -- size, type, features, cost -- to help you find the best possible air fryer.
Let's start at the beginning.
What even is an air fryer?
Contrary to the name, an air fryer doesn't actually fry at all. Instead, the air fryer works more like a convection oven, circulating hot air with a fan. The main difference between a regular convection oven and an air fryer is that the air fryer fan blows faster and the compartment in which food is cooked is often (but not always) smaller. Because of these two things, all that hot air hits food more rapidly and so it doesn't lose as much heat in transit. Most air fryers come with a grated rack or perforated basket so the air can travel through and hit the food on all sides.
This fast, hot roasting or "super convection" will quickly brown chicken, potatoes, frozen snacks, veggies and fish without overcooking the inside. That's very similar to how deep-frying works, which is where both the comparison and the name come from. While it isn't the case for everything, I've air-fried many foods that taste nearly identical to if they'd been deep-fried. In fact, some things taste better (in my opinion) since they are not saturated with heavy oil which can overpower the flavor of the food.
Is it healthier to use an air fryer?
It all depends on what you're making in your air fryer but cooking something in an air fryer is almost universally healthier than deep-frying or pan-frying it in oil. Less oil means less fat and fewer calories too.
What can you make in an air fryer?
Foods that are at their most delicious when fried -- chicken wings, fried chicken, french fries, mozzarella sticks -- are often typically great candidates for an air fryer, too. You'll get similarly crispy and browned outsides with insides that don't overcook. But you can also make roasted vegetables such as zucchini, stuffed peppers, sweet potatoes and cauliflower in an air fryer in less time than it would take in a large oven.
Some favorites to cook in an air fryer include "fried" chicken with the skin on; just a quick dredging of egg and seasoned flour and then 25 minutes on high. Brussels sprouts, frozen dumplings (with a light coating of oil), and seasoned mushrooms with chopped garlic are a few more easy sides and appetizers to make in an air fryer.
Speaking of appetizers, popular frozen foods such as bagel bites, premade chicken tenders, jalapeno poppers and fish sticks or crab cakes are excellent candidates for cooking in an air fryer.
What shouldn't you make in an air fryer?
Air fryers are extremely versatile, but there are a few foods that shouldn't go in an air fryer. Leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale will likely dry out and turn crispy in an air fryer. The same goes for broccoli, although you can avoid burnt broccoli by wrapping it in aluminum foil before sticking it in the air fryer.
While not impossible, steaks are also tricky to successfully cook in an air fryer and tend to dry out. I don't recommend cooking any cuts of beef, especially good ones, in an air fryer. Save that for the grill or cast-iron skillet.
Short answer: No, you don't need oil. But some foods do well with a light spray or coating of cooking oil. Vegetables including green beans, broccoli, asparagus, and even potatoes will dry out if you blast them in an air fryer so a light spritz of avocado or olive oil can go a long way.
Remember, you're still using far less oil than deep-frying or even pan-frying in which food sits in oil or is submerged the entire time it's cooking. Anything with some inherent oil content, like chicken or salmon, will have plenty of natural oil to baste itself while cooking.
How much do air fryers cost?
Like anything else, you can pay a whole lot for an air fryer but in our experience, the most expensive air fryers aren't necessarily the best. A basic air fryer is actually not a terribly complex machine so you really needn't break the bank. Small no-frills air fryer models start at $25 or $30 and I've found they will do a serviceable job. That said, if you bump up another $30 or $40 you're going to get a better build, sharper look and generally a bit more power too.
If you're cooking for one or two people a 2- or 3-quart air fryer should be large enough. From there, I would suggest adding a quart of capacity for every person that you're regularly cooking for. So, if you plan to air fry for five people on a regular basis, spring for a 5-quart model.
Size matters when it comes to air fryer prowess but maybe not in the way you expected. A smaller air fryer means food is going to get blasted faster and more often than inside a larger model where the air has further to travel and more time to lose heat. I've found that small and powerful air fryers including the Magic Bullet 2-5-quart model and Instant Pot's Duo Crisp (which actually has a small air frying capacity once you load the air fry basket in) work exceptionally well and very quickly.
The smaller air fryers mean less overall capacity so you may have to cook in batches.
Using medium chicken thighs as a unit measurement, a 2.5-quart air fryer can fit three thighs. A 5-quart model will comfortably fit six thighs and so on. If you spring for a hybrid oven with multiple racks, you can cook as many as 10 or 12 chicken thighs at once, but it will take longer than with a smaller air fryer
What are the different types of air fryers?
Solo air fryer: Best for most people (and most budget-friendly)
The most basic of air fryers looks like a small robot. They are generally just a cylindrical base with a basket to hold the food that pulls in and out. These come as small as two quarts and can be as big as six or seven. These models come with digital controls or manual dials. There are also air fryers with dual compartments so you can make two types of food at different temps simultaneously. Ninja makes a particularly good one with two 4-quart cooking baskets (8 quarts overall).
Solo air fryers are the least expensive too, and they can be had for as little as $30. I'd say if you just want to try air frying but don't want to commit a lot of money or kitchen space, opt for one of these.
Air frying toaster oven: Bake, broil, roast and toast
These models look and function much like a standard countertop toaster oven but they have an air fry function as well. An advanced version is almost like adding a second main oven to your kitchen since they can broil, roast, bake, toast and much more. Some even come with a rotisserie function. For someone who hosts Thanksgiving or big family gatherings, the extra oven space these provide may feel like a godsend. Plus, they air fry; although due to their larger size, these models usually don't cook as quickly or quite as intensely as smaller solo air fryer ovens.
Breville makes an excellent (and large) model as do KitchenAid and Cuisinart. My favorite in a test of these types air frying toaster ovens was Ninja's Foodi, which blasted chicken wings and french fries to crispy golden perfection -- I suspect that was large in part due to the smaller cooking cavity which helps the air fry function work properly. It also made wonderful broiled salmon and perfect toast.
These air fryers start at around $150 and go up from there.
Air fryer and multicooker: An air fryer that does it all
These are the most advanced and versatile air fryers and they do a whole lot more than air fry. Think Instant Pot but with an air fryer function as well. Ninja's Foodi multicooker and the Instant Pot Duo Crisp are two popular models, and if you want an air fryer and multicooker or pressure cooker but don't have a lot of kitchen space to relinquish, one of these is a great option. I've used the 6-quart Duo Crisp a bunch and find it works really well, turning out some of the most delicious fried chicken ever (with no frying at all.) These models generally retail for about $175 to $250
You can buy an air fryer attachment for your Instant Pot
If you already have an Instant Pot, you can buy an Instant Pot air fryer lid ($90) to attach or a Mealthy ($60) which will clamp on top and air fry food down below. I found the air fryer lids work exceptionally well, although they don't have a large capacity for cooking.
Should you get a digital air fryer over an analog? Meh, not really.
This depends on your personal preference but the controls don't have much to do with the performance or end result. Digital air fryers have presets for things like chicken wings, french fries, fish and such, but I find that even if the presets exist, it takes me just a few runs to learn how long things need and the correct temperatures, and I end up bypassing them anyways. Digital air fryers tend to cost a bit more and you run the risk of the panel shorting out, but having a digital readout of the temp and cook time can be nice.