Why Is the Air Fryer Such a Must-Have Kitchen Appliance?

Here, we explain how an air fryer works, what it cooks best, and which models are worth the money and counter space.

air fryer on kitchen counter
Photo: paulaphoto / Getty Images

More and more people are cooking with—and raving about—the air fryer. They argue that it has earned its place in the kitchen alongside your microwave, toaster oven, and multicooker. So, what is an air fryer, and do you really need one? To get those answers, we asked Bruce Weinstein, who wrote The Essential Air Fryer Cookbook: The Only Book You Need for Your Small, Medium, or Large Air Fryer ($13.29, amazon.com) with coauthor Mark Scarbrough, to weigh in.

What Is an Air Fryer?

This new countertop appliance is lauded for producing deep-fryer results with little to no oil, but it works with familiar technology: a heating element and a fan. "Imagine a counter-size convection oven where the air is much hotter, the fan spins much faster, and the fan is much closer to the food," says Weinstein. Air fryers come in two main styles: the drawer style, in which a drawer containing a basket is pulled out from the base, and the shelf style, which looks like a toaster oven complete with a shelf and a hinged door. "Because air fryers are designed so that the food sits in baskets or on vented shelves, superheated air can get under foods as well as around and over," says Weinstein. That heated air is what's "frying" the food, which, for best results, requires that either the food contains fat (like chicken wings) or is tossed, brushed or sprayed with a small amount of fat (like potatoes, salmon, or schnitzel).

Much like a traditional oven, air fryers work best when preheated, but their small footprint means they heat more quickly than a large oven, and they generally cook the food faster as well.

What Foods Does an Air Fryer Cook Well?

Meats and poultry that naturally contain fat—like pork ribs, skin-on chicken, hamburgers, bacon, and sausages—cook nicely in an air fryer. Weinstein also noted that fattier salmons and lamb chops cook up beautifully in these appliances, too. Leaner fish, meats, and skinless chicken do well when brushed with a bit of oil, as do breaded proteins that are spritzed with cooking spray. What's more, vegetables also cook well in the air fryer. Fans of crispy Brussels sprouts and potatoes, blistered green beans and shishito peppers, and roasted asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower will be pleased with the air fryer's output.

Unsurprisingly, frozen foods designed to turn out crispy from the oven are successful from an air fryer, such as tater tots, french fries, chicken nuggets, and mozzarella sticks. Some companies even make frozen foods labeled for the air fryer that are designed for the appliance and include instructions for them. Weinstein does caution that not all classic deep-fried foods transition easily to the air fryer: "Wet batters do not work well. By the time the batter would even start to set, it's all dripped through the tray," he explains. But crusted foods, like arancini and even fried mac and cheese, will do just fine.

Air fryers can also be used for baking when set to lower temperatures. Weinstein says he makes muffins, cakes, and cookies in his: "I love spreading cookie dough into a springform pan and baking one giant, thick cookie. With cake batter under the fan, the top will look like it's been blown on, but it will bake the cake."

What to Look for When Buying an Air Fryer

Consider the surface area: Weinstein stresses that you want to cook foods in a single layer in an air fryer so the air can circulate and the foods cook evenly. He advises shoppers to look at the available surface area of the fryer's basket or shelf. "Buy the biggest one you can manage to store," he says, "because that will give you the flexibility to make more food at once. You could always put one chicken breast in a big air fryer, but you can't put four in a small one." Air fryers are labeled according to volume (six quart, for example), so it's important to note that this figure includes the height of the cooking chamber. The height matters for cooking large items like a whole chicken, but Weinstein values the larger surface area, even if the design is a little shallower.

You'll also want to consider how easy a model is to use. In terms of drawer styles, determine how easily the drawer slide sin and out. Can you maneuver it one-handed, or does it require two hands? How tightly does it shut? When looking at shelf styles, see if the door hinges down or opens to the side, then think about how that will work with the space you have. Weinstein also suggests looking at the number of shelves in an air fryer because, he notes, those with two shelves often don't cook evenly without rotating items. You'll also want to check if the controls seem intuitive and easy to press or turn, whether or not they allow manual settings, and if there are preset cooking options.

Air fryers are generally either metal or plastic, but which material is best? Weinstein values a bit of heft when evaluating air fryers: "To me, heavy is usually better because it tends to mean the materials are thicker. If it's a little more solid, it's probably going to last a little longer. But that's not always the case," he says. He notes that you might prefer a lighter machine if you have to move it often or have limitations that prevent lifting heavy machines. You'll also want to look at cord length and storage. How long is the cord for the appliance, and will it work with your kitchen set up? Does the design allow you to fold the cord into a compartment or wrap the cord around a holder? If you don't want cord clutter or need to store the machine when not in use, cord storage can be important.

Last but not least, how easy is it to clean? Check the owner's manual to evaluate the cleaning instructions. Each manufacturer and model is different, and you must follow the directions for that appliance. But you do need to clean air fryers after each use—fat can drip and be blown around—to prevent smoking from fat buildup on the element.

Editor's Picks

The field of air fryers has expanded rapidly, so you have lots of choices. To help you select the right one for your home and needs, we're sharing a few we like.

Instant Pot Vortex Plus 7-in-1 Air Fryer
Courtesy of Walmart

Instant Pot Vortex Plus 7-in-1 Air Fryer

This shelf-style air fryer, from the makers of the Instant Pot multicooker, offers all the bells and whistles. The seven features are: air fry, bake, broil, dehydrate, reheat, roast, and rotate. It has a large surface area and a 10-quart capacity. It includes a spit, which you can use to roast a chicken or to attach an air fry basket, as well as two air fry trays and a drip tray, which speeds cleanup. You can also adjust the time and temperature while the Vortex is cooking.

Shop Now: Instant Pot Vortex Plus 7-in-1 Air Fryer, $119.99, walmart.com.

Ninja Air Fryer Max XL
Courtesy of Amazon

Ninja Air Fryer Max XL

Ninja's basket-style model air fries, roasts, bakes, broils, reheats and dehydrates. It has a 5.5-quart capacity and includes a removable rack for better results when broiling or dehydrating. The ceramic-coated basket is nonstick and dishwasher safe, which helps simplify cleaning the appliance.

Shop Now: Ninja Air Fryer Max XL, $119.99, amazon.com.

Dash Compact Air Fryer
Courtesy of Amazon

Dash Compact Air Fryer

A simple basket-style air fryer like this one from Dash is ideal for those with limited counter space, those who cook for one, or for kids looking to make a quick snack. It has a 2-quart capacity and a 30-minute timer, so it's designed for small batches. Bonus: In addition to black, it comes in aqua, gray, red, and white.

Shop Now: Dash Compact Air Fryer, $48.92, amazon.com.

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