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Still Not Sure What an Air Fryer Is? Here's Everything You Need to Know

Feeling air-fryer curious? We break the countertop cookers down, including how they work, what they're good for and how much you should pay for one.

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David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now, he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or researching the best way to make bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
Expertise Kitchen tools, appliances, food science, subscriptions and meal kits.
David Watsky
8 min read
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We explore the trendy appliance in all its forms to help you find a perfect air fryer fit.

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It's hard to imagine life before air fryers. The small countertop convection ovens have been top of mind for curious cooks for the better part of the past decade. But there are still some misnomers about air fryers. Namely, that they do any frying at all (they don't). 

If you're late to the air fryer party, don't worry, we won't tell. We've devised a helpful guide that lays out everything you need to know about air fryers, including how they work and how much to pay for one. Spoiler alert: If you're paying more than $100 for a basic air fryer, you're probably paying too much. 

Despite the name, air fryers don't do any actual frying but rather, mimic the results. 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.

Read more: Air Fryers Are Perfectly Safe as Long as You Don't Do This

What 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.

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A perforated basket helps the hot air hit food on all sides to crisp it evenly. 

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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.

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When air frying vegetables, a light coating of oil goes a long way.

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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.

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The Instant Pot Duo Crisp air fryer and multicooker turned out some excellent air-fried chicken.

David Watsky/CNET

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.

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Many premade frozen foods are excellent candidates to cook in an air fryer.

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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. 

Steak dinner

Save your steaks for the grill or skillet.

David Watsky/CNET

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.

Read moreAir frying vs. oven baking: Which cooking method is best?

Do you need to use oil with an air fryer?

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 not a complex machine so you 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.

At the high end are the hybrid countertop ovens with air fry functions. These can go as high as $300, but you can get less advanced models from bargain brands or ones that are on sale for around $150.

What size air fryer should you get? 

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There are air fryers large enough to cook a Christmas ham, but I find small- and medium-sized models under 5 quarts net the best results.

Hazal Ak/Getty

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, 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 has a small air frying capacity once you load the air fry basket in) works exceptionally well and very quickly. 

The smaller air fryers mean less overall capacity so you may have to cook in batches.

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I find that smaller air fryers like Magic Bullet's 2-5-quart model ($60) do an excellent job but the trade-off is less cooking space.

Magic Bullet

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. 

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Ninja's basic air fryer oven is one of the best we've tested.

CNET/Ninja

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. 

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If you're shopping for a countertop toaster, why not get one that air fries too?

CNET/KitchenAid

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

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The Duo Crisp is a powerful air fryer but it's also a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and more. 

CNET/Instant Pot

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 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

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You can buy an air fryer lid for your existing Instant Pot. 

Instant Pot

If you already have an Instant Pot, you can buy a Mealthy air fryer lid ($94) that 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 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. 

What's the best air fryer?

Another question that depends on your needs and budget. Fortunately, we've tested to find best air fryers in 2024 and the best air frying toaster ovens with picks in various sizes, styles and prices to help you decide.