Air fryers have become hugely popular for their speed, convenience and the perceived health benefits of cooking with less oil.
But do these wonder machines really live up to their 'mythical' status – and should you buy one? To help you decide, we asked CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair, who's been testing air fryers for years, to bust the myths surrounding this kitchen craze.
Myth 1. Air fryers 'fry' your food
Despite its name, an air fryer doesn't actually 'fry' your food at all – it bakes it.
"The biggest misconception is that air fryers cook foods the same as deep frying," says Fiona. "They cook as an oven would, so foods are more oven baked than deep fried."
An air fryer is basically a small benchtop oven with a fan and an element, says Fiona. The fan circulates the heat from the element and a pull-out drawer with a basket or removable grill rack lets the hot air flow around the food. It essentially works in the same way as a fan-forced oven.
An air fryer doesn't actually 'fry' your food at all – it bakes it
But a kitchen appliance called an 'air fryer' sounds more appealing than an 'air baker', right?
"It's just smart marketing to make people think they can get the same results as deep frying without all the oil used, but that's not the case," Fiona says. "You need oil to give the flavour and texture to the food to call it fried. Food cooked in an air fryer is the same as oven-baked food."
That said, air fryers do generally have faster heat transfer capabilities than most ovens, which can shorten the cooking time of certain foods and create a crispier outer layer – not unlike that of fried food. So let's say it's a 'perceived fryer' rather than an actual fryer.
Myth 2. Air fryers are just a fad
Now that air fryers have become common appliances in many kitchens across the country, I think we can all agree they're more than just the hot new fad. You can find countless air-fryer-specific recipes online, as well as dedicated cookbooks, and big brands are releasing newer, fancier models to get in on the air fryer action. Because air fryers do have genuine benefits that their fans swear by.
"Airfryers do have their place in certain households. They can be convenient for families who eat at different times, or if you don't have a great oven," Fiona says. "Or for single-person households who want to cook a small amount of food in less time. They also don't heat the kitchen up like ovens can and are fairly safe to use."
Air fryers do have genuine benefits that their fans swear by
To get the best out of your air fryer, keep it on the benchtop rather than hidden away in a cupboard. That way you'll use it more often and save the hassle of dragging it in and out (some of these appliances can be quite bulky!).
Myth 3. Air fryers are just for junk food
Think air fryers are just for cooking chips, nuggets and other frozen foods? Think again!
"Air fryers can be used for cooking similar foods to what you cook in the oven, like roasting and grilling meats, vegetables, nuts and even reheating," Fiona explains. "The health benefits are the same as cooking in an oven – very little oil is needed."
Air fryers vs oven: How do they compare?
The list of foods you can cook in an air fryer is a long one. You can cook everything from salmon fillets, steak, roast chicken and baked potatoes to vegetable chips, cakes, muffins and more in this versatile appliance.
Air fryer fans have also reported boiling an egg, toasting a sandwich, popping some popcorn and even baking bread in their air fryers. They are essentially a mini oven, after all. But if you're wondering how an air fryer compares to the results you get from a standard oven, one CHOICE staff member has done the testing for you, pitting the Aldi air fryer against her oven and barbecue to find out which one comes out on top.
Although our kitchen experts say that air fryers are indeed versatile, the results you get may vary, depending on the model you're cooking with and various factors, such as the size of your appliance.
"Whatever you'd like to cook, you'll need to ensure your air fryer is big enough to accommodate the food – some are not very large. If you have a smaller one, you may not be able to fit a whole roast chicken in, for example," says Fiona. "You should never overcrowd the basket and, unless you have an air fryer with a rotating basket, you'll need to remember to shake the food to ensure even crispness (this depends on what you're cooking of course!)"
Fiona recommends looking for a model that has pre-programmed settings for the food you'd like to cook, or good digital controls with cooking alerts, temperature guide and timers.
Crispy kale made in an air fryer.
Myth 4. The more accessories, the better
It's easy to get sucked in by all the bells and whistles some products offer. But when buying an air fryer, your top priorities should be how well it performs and how easy it is to use.
"A standard air fryer doesn't have any accessories other than a pull-out drawer with a perforated basket or a grill rack that sits on the base," Fiona says.
"A rotating basket can be useful because you don't have to remember to shake the food midway through cooking. This accessory is most common with the benchtop-oven varieties."
Other new accessories becoming available are things such as air-fryer-friendly silicone moulds for baking items such as muffins and cakes in your air-fryer, and liners – these can be handy to avoid messy mixtures dripping down through the basket.
Whether you prefer your air fryer to have a drawer, shelves or a top lid is entirely up to you. But you should consider how easy the air fryer is to clean, how efficiently and evenly it cooks, and whether it has an 'overheat cut-out' safety component.
Homemade chips are a favourite air fryer food.
Myth 5. Air fryers make food super healthy
If only! Yes, there are health benefits to reducing your fat intake by eating foods that are air fried rather than deep fried. But you still have to consider the foods you're cooking – and your portion sizes – to ensure it's healthy overall.
And remember, if you're eating lots of air-fried nuggets and hot chips instead of healthier food options such as fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and healthy proteins, you aren't doing your health any real favours in the long term – even if you're cooking with just a tablespoon of oil.
The best way to make sure your air fryer becomes your healthy sidekick is to avoid using it to cook processed convenience foods.
If you're eating lots of air-fried nuggets and hot chips ... you aren't doing your health any real favours
"It's really easy to make homemade potato or sweet potato chips in the air fryer, which can be a better alternative to frozen," says Fiona. "Roasted nuts are also simple to do in the air fryer – just toss two cups of natural nuts in a bowl with half a tablespoon of oil, half a teaspoon each of cumin and paprika, and one teaspoon of salt. Mix, shake and enjoy!"
Myth 6. More expensive models are always better
We independently test air fryers from brands including Philips, Tefal, Breville, Ninja, Nutribullet, Sunbeam, Kmart Anko and more.
Our expert testers have found that you don't need to spend a fortune to get a quality product. In fact, a few of our recommended air fryers cost around half the price of the most expensive model we tested.
Our reviews also include benchtop ovens that have air fry functions. "These tend to come with more functions such as a rotisserie and even a rotating basket," explains Fiona.
"They have a large capacity and can accommodate a whole chicken, but are bulky and can take up a large area of your kitchen bench."
A few of our recommended air fryers cost less than half the price of the most expensive model
If you're in the market for an air fryer then, as well as looking at our air fryer reviews, Fiona suggests choosing a model that has:
- a shake or stir indicator
- a durable non-stick coating (look for BPA-free or cooking surfaces made of ceramic, stainless steel or other non-toxic materials)
- a large basket or rotating basket that is perforated
- digital controls, which are more accurate than dials
- a clear indicator and preheat light
- an easy-to-clean exterior and interior.
Myth 7. You can 'set and forget' an air fryer
These appliances exude convenience like a kind of charm, but just how 'easy' are they to use? Well, there's no hard and fast answer because not all air fryers are created equal – how simple they are to operate will depend entirely on the model.
But if you're under the impression that 'easy to use' means you can leave your air fryer unattended like a slow cooker, unfortunately this isn't so.
'Supervision is important'
"Supervision is important," says Fiona. "No matter which air fryer you have, you will have to check, shake or turn the food at some stage – and more than once is my advice for better evenness of browning and cooking."
Not all models will beep to tell you it's time to shake the food. Fiona suggests buying one with digital controls, pre-programmed settings and a timer that lasts more than 30 minutes.
"These features will be essential if you want to use your air fryer for roasting meats and vegetables, and not just for reheating frozen foods," she says.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.