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Instant Vortex Plus review: This 7-in-1 air fryer feels undercooked

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The Instant Pot has a devoted fan base and its maker, Instant Brands, has a line of small kitchen appliances that's expanded over the years to include more than just pressure cookers. We've seen the company release an immersion circulator, a blender and multicookers.

The Good

The Vortex Plus has seven unique functions, and handy accessories like a rotisserie spit and air-fry basket.

The Bad

It will take some trial and error to get times and temperatures just right for your foods, and there are some design dilemmas.

The Bottom Line

We're hoping the Vortex Plus will get a second generation or rerelease, as this model from the maker of the Instant Pot doesn't feel ready for prime time.

Now, Instant Brands is getting into the air fryer game with the $119 Instant Vortex Plus. I dubbed 2019 the year of the air fryer back in March, and this is proving my point. However, in true Instant fashion, it's not just an air fryer. No, no, my friends. This is a 7-in-1 countertop cooker that can bake, broil, reheat, air fry, dehydrate, roast and rotate for rotisserie-style recipes.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

This combination air fryer dreams big and gets a lot of things right, but it's not without its flaws, and my testing experience left me hoping Instant will make improvements and rerelease it. Should you buy the Vortex Plus? For now, I'd hold off and hang on to your old air fryer. Here's why.

Design

The Instant Vortex Plus looks good. It has a compact design, a stainless-steel front and an easy-to-navigate touchscreen panel up top. The door feels wobbly, but that's because it's removable. Release a latch inside the frame, and you can remove the door for cleaning. That's great for cleaning up crumbs. 

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Speaking of cleanup, all the attachments included (air fryer basket, trays, rotisserie spit parts) are dishwasher-safe. Points to Instant for making my after-dinner routine shorter in that regard. 

My first gripe has to do with the digital display. Plug in the air fryer, and the display reads OFF. Set the mode and temperature, and the display reads ON while preheating the oven. I would much prefer to see PRE or a real-time count up to the requested temperature. This isn't a dealbreaker, I just found the display a bit uninformative for a product that heats up to 400 degrees.

That leads me to my second complaint. That 400-degree temperature limit is a bit disappointing, given that more than a few frozen foods recommend heating your oven to 425. Several other countertop ovens, like the Panasonic FlashXpress, heat up to 500 degrees. 

The folks at Instant told me that the decision to stop at 400 degrees was based on customer feedback and research.

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The digital display on the Instant Vortex Plus shows the temperature once it's preheated. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

While you're cooking, the display alternates between temperature and time, and includes a helpful beep in air fry and roast mode with the corresponding message "Turn food" so you can flip what you're cooking or swap the top and bottom trays.

You'll also need to be careful when you remove the air fry basket or rotisserie accessories as they get very hot while cooking. That can be frustrating if you take out your food only to realize it needs to go back in for a few more minutes (because you couldn't cook it at 425). 

Cooking modes

Truth be told, the Instant Vortex Plus feels less like an air fryer and more like a toaster oven, thanks to the shape and the abundance of cooking modes. It has seven options: bake, broil, roast, reheat, air fry, dehydrate and rotate. All but one are adjustable by time and temperature. A feature called Smart Programs saves your last used time and temperature for each mode.

Admittedly, we're not huge fans of toaster ovens, but like this Vortex Plus they tend to offer different cooking modes while air fryers normally don't. Higher-end models like the $250 Breville Smart Oven and even budget models like the $90 Bialetti 35047 offer modes for specific foods like pizza, cookies and toast, as well as standard options like bake and broil. The Instant Vortex Plus feels more in direct competition with these than your countertop air fryer. 

Air fry

Multiple modes aside, the Vortex Plus is marketed as an air fryer first and foremost. It comes with slotted baking sheets as well as an air fry basket that clips into the fryer's interior chamber. All the equipment is there for a good air frying experience. 

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Molly Price/CNET

Bacon cooked on air fry was one of my favorite results in testing. It was crispy and the design of the slotted baking tray allows grease to drip through to a foil-lined crumb tray below, making cleanup nice and easy.

Air frying didn't always deliver such great results. Our first attempt at air-frying french fries by package directions in the fryer basket delivered soggy, undercooked crinkles. We added some time and put the fries back in for a nice golden finish.  

It's interesting that Instant chooses to market this as an air fryer, when it feels more like a toaster oven that can also air-fry. Standard air fryers with only that function look nothing like the Vortex Plus, and its air-frying functionality didn't yield the consistent crispy results of dedicated air fryers like the T-Fal Actifry FZ7002 and the SimpleChef HF-898

Dehydrate

This is perhaps the most interesting feature of the Vortex Plus. Not a common capability for your typical toaster oven or air fryer, this mode means you can make your own beef jerky, apple or banana chips and even homemade fruit rollups. 

I gave it a go with a popular online recipe, 2 pounds of thinly sliced top round beef and a tasty marinade. Set at 155 for 3 hours, I filled two trays with the marinated meat. Halfway through, I swapped the trays' positions. Once the 3 hours were up, I set the Vortex Plus to bake at 275 and cooked the jerky for 10 minutes to ensure food safety. 

While the jerky's flavor varies depending on the marinade you use, my top round jerky came out as good as what you can buy in stores and in under 4 hours. This is one of the redeeming qualities of the Vortex Plus. Dehydrating is easy to do, even for a first-timer following an online recipe.

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Our second round of fries came out crunchy and well-cooked.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Bake

Cookies were up next, and this is another great example of the trial and error required to get things right when converting from product directions. We first tried a batch at the time and temperature recommended on the package, but those were overdone. A second round baked at 25 degrees cooler yielded better results. 

This was an interesting experience, given that our french-fry test required more time than the package directions at the recommended temperature. 

Roast and rotate

The Rotate mode turns a motor on the right side of the oven that can be used to turn the rotisserie spit or the air fry basket. However, the weight limit is just 4 pounds, and that's smaller than most grocery store chickens. Anything heavier than that and you risk overloading the capacity of the motor. 

I was able to find just one chicken under 5 pounds at my local grocery, and it was labeled 4.2 pounds (still technically too large for the weight limit). I removed the packaging, giblets and some extra fat, and the chicken's final weight was 3.8 pounds. Small enough for the Vortex Plus, but not large enough to leave any leftovers for a family of four. 

Even trimmed down and trussed up, my small chicken still dragged the bottom of the foil-lined tray on each rotation. I cooked it at 380 for 1 hour, and it came out done, but pretty average with less than crispy skin. I'd recommend lower and slower if you're going to cook a full chicken in the Vortex Plus, or try experimenting with a smaller bird like a guinea hen if you can find one at your local butcher.

I took this rotisserie chicken conundrum to the folks at Instant. Here's their point of view:

The Vortex can accommodate a chicken larger than 4 pounds, if it is placed on the baking tray. We know consumers want appliances to be compact for counters, so it was more about keeping the overall footprint smaller.

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The Instant Vortex Plus includes a rotisserie spit and two forks to secure each end of the food. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Reheat

The reheat function serves as a basic replacement for your microwave. It warmed up my macaroni and cheese lunch with ease, but there is one restriction. You won't be able to adjust the temperature for your reheat cycle, only the time. The air fryer sets to 280 degrees. That's low enough to reheat your food without overcooking.

Broil

Broiling in the Instant Vortex Plus is simple enough. Set the time and temperature, then add the food when instructed. I used it to broil top-round beef at 400 degrees and the meat cooked evenly. You don't get the reminder to turn your food in the broil, reheat and dehydrate modes, so if that's required for your meal you'll need to set your own timer.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Time and temperature

Like with the Instant Pot, there will be a learning curve with the Instant Vortex Plus. It isn't as straightforward as following the oven or air-fry directions on your packaged foods. You'll probably need to lower the temperature while you're baking and the air fry mode may need to run longer than expected.

Of course, that will depend on what you're cooking, and therein lies my biggest issue with this machine. The Vortex Plus leaves most of this guessing game up to you. The manual provided in the box includes a small table of recommended times for a few foods, but for most, you'll have to go through some trial and error to get a good result. I'm not a fan of wasting time or food, and I wish the directions were clearer on this front. 

Instant also recommends starting with conventional oven directions on food packages as a guide for temperature and time, not directions for deep frying.  

Should you buy it? 

We've come to expect the best from the maker of the Instant Pot, and the Instant Vortex Plus doesn't feel quite like it. While I loved the dehydrate feature and enjoyed watching a small chicken rotate on a spit, there are still some rough edges here. With a handful of design issues, a less than helpful product manual and cooking times that won't always match up with your food's directions, I'm hoping Instant will revisit the air fryer and improve it.

But maybe you really want it. Maybe you're Team Instant Pot forever and you've just got to have it. That's fine, just pack your patience. You'll need some practice assembling the accessories and a few tries before you figure out just how to cook your favorite meals. For the rest of us, I'd recommend holding on to your current air fryer or toaster oven for now.

Are you curious about all the other air fryers we tested out? Check out our air fryer roundup here.

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6.8

Instant Vortex Plus

Score Breakdown

Performance 6Usability 7Features 8Maintenance 7