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A guide to air fryers: Everything you need to know before you buy

Considering an air fryer to make healthier meals in 2022? We answer all your burning questions about the trendy countertop cookers.

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We explore the trendy appliance in all its forms to help you find a perfect air fryer fit.

CNET

Air fryers have made a whole lot of noise in the kitchen appliance space over these past few years. If you've become a little air fry-curious, there are some questions you might want to have answered before you invest in yet another small kitchen appliance. If starting from scratch, you'll want to know exactly what an air fryer does and how it's used. Does an air fryer actually fry? And are air fryers healthier than normal ovens? Also, what can you make in an air fryer, and which type of air fryer oven is best for your cooking habits? Most importantly, is an air fryer worth buying with so many other kitchen appliances available, or are these trendy countertop cookers just a bunch of hot air?

Whether or not an air fryer is right for you is ultimately a decision you'll have to make. But as someone with the chance to try much of the latest kitchen gadgetry, I can say that the air fryer is one of my personal favorite small appliance additions. It's one I fire up at least a few times each week and recommend to folks who are considering buying one. Air fryers cook in a way that nothing else in my kitchen does. They're also incredibly simple to operate and easy to clean. What's more, air fryers don't cost very much, especially if you know what you want and what to look for.

In this air fryer explainer and buying guide, I'll explore the best uses for the trendy air fryer, and break down the various types of air fry ovens along with average costs to help you make a more informed purchase. 

First, a little background.

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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The perforated basket helps the hot air hit food on all sides and crisp 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 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.

Are air fryers healthy?

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 cook in an air fryer?

If you think about the best fried foods -- chicken wings, fried chicken, french fries, mozzarella sticks -- those are all great candidates for an air fryer. You'll get similarly crispy and browned outsides with insides that don't overcook. 

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

David Watsky/CNET

An air fryer can actually do quite a bit more than a solo air fryer since it's really an oven. You can cook fish (salmon is a popular air fryer pick), vegetables, pizza and bread. You can also warm food or reheat leftovers and much more. 

Some of my all-time 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. I also love potato wedges in the air fryer as well as Brussels sprouts, dumplings (with a light coating of oil), and seasoned mushrooms with chopped garlic. 

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

Do you need to use oil in 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.

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

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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.

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.

How big should an air fryer be? About a quart per person, but bigger isn't always better.

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.

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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

Read more: The best air fryers in 2022

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.

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

CNET/KitchenAid

Read moreBest countertop oven and air fryer in 2022

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

Air fryer attachment for your Instant Pot is a great option

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.

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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

Read more: Best Instant Pots of 2022

Should you get a digital air fryer over 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. 

So which is the best air fryer?

Another question that depends on your needs and budget. Fortunately, we've tested the best air fryers in 2022 and the best air frying toaster ovens with picks in various sizes, styles and prices to help you decide.

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