Need to know
- Despite their name, air fryers don’t actually fry – instead, they work like small fan-forced ovens
- They're only as 'healthy' as what you put in them, so don’t be fooled into thinking you can improve the nutrition of a food by cooking it in an air fryer
- Our experts review popular air fryers from brands such as Philips, Kmart, Aldi, Kogan and DeLonghi. We score them on aspects such as how well they cook chicken nuggets and roast pork, and how easy they are to use
The air fryer has amassed a dedicated following since it came onto the scene promising more convenience and healthier cooking. Hailed as the better way to enjoy fried foods and streamline meal prep, air fryers are the appliance du jour.
But do they deserve the hype? As with every appliance, air fryers have their pros and cons.
CHOICE's kitchen experts have tested dozens of air fryers over the years and say that while they have certainly come a long way in terms of features and convenience, air fryers aren't for everyone.
And as we often find in our CHOICE testing, there's quite a difference in terms of the performance and usability of each model. So if you're investing in one, it's important you choose the best one for your needs.
Read on to find out if an air fryer is just what you need, or if you should just take a pass. And if you're ready to buy, our current CHOICE air fryer review, available exclusively to CHOICE members, includes over 30 models to compare.
An air fryer: Kitchen nightmare or your new bestie?
What is an air fryer?
An air fryer is essentially a mini, portable oven that sits on your kitchen benchtop. Despite its name, an air fryer doesn't actually 'fry' food. It works more like a small fan-forced oven and bakes food by circulating hot air around it.
CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair explains: "An air fryer has a fan and a heating element and the fan circulates the heat from the element around a small cavity that your food is placed within.
"A pull-out drawer with a basket or removable grill rack allows the hot air to flow around the food, working in the same way as a fan-forced oven.
"The simplest type of air fryer has a pull-out drawer with a basket, while others may look more like a small square oven with a drop-down door, and include a rotating basket you can place food inside."
Do air fryers make fried food healthy?
This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions about air fryers, and the marketing messages can be misleading. Whether an air fryer is 'healthier' depends on what you are cooking and what you are comparing it to. Generally, cooking foods in an air fryer will be healthier than cooking them in a deep fryer, however it won't magically make processed foods such as chips or nuggets better for you.
Your air fryer can be used to cook healthier foods such as fish, lean meats or vegetables the same way you do in an oven (and it may do so more quickly than in a standard oven), but if you're cooking pre-packaged frozen foods that are highly processed, it won't make them healthier than if you cooked them in an oven.
Although air-fried foods are better than deep-fried foods in that they use much less oil, it's no different from using oil to roast or grill in a conventional oven
"The way many of these air fryers are marketed make it sound like you can get the same results as deep frying without all the oil used, but this is not the case," says Fiona.
"If you were choosing between deep-frying home-cut chips or cooking them in an air fryer, the air fryer option will likely be better as you'll use less oil, however the resulting flavour and texture of the food will be quite different."
It's not a deep fryer
Fiona also warns against using your air fryer as you would a deep fryer. Wet, homemade batters will slip right through the basket and off the food.
But there are a few traditionally fried foods, such as doughnuts, that can be made in an air fryer. They may not taste or look exactly like their fried counterparts, but they will be somewhat better for you without the oil.
Pros of owning an air fryer
1. They're convenient and great for frozen foods
After cooking with air fryers in the CHOICE test kitchen for many years, Fiona says that convenience is one of their biggest advantages. If you are someone who needs meals ready fast, or your family eats at different times, or you just don't have a great oven, an air fryer can be pretty handy.
Air fryers have quick pre-heat times (or sometimes no pre-heat is required at all) which means food is ready faster than if you were using an oven.
They really shine when it comes to cooking frozen pre-packaged foods, such as chicken nuggets, fish fingers, spring rolls and chips. They're also good for making some foods for easy family-friendly dinners, such as salmon fillets or marinated chicken wings.
So, if you cook dinner for the kids separately and just want something ready quick-smart for the table, you have older kids who can use it themselves to cook a snack, or you live on your own and want a meal for one in less time, an air fryer could be a great buy.
2. Reheating is a cinch
Rather than waiting for your oven to heat up just to warm through last night's pizza, the air fryer makes short work of reheating jobs. It's quick and efficient, uses less energy for small portions and, unlike the microwave, your leftover pie will be delightfully crisp, not sad and soggy.
That said, if you need to do a few batches, you'd be better off using your oven. And although reheating in the air fryer is speedy, as there's no need to preheat, food doesn't necessarily cook any quicker.
Some air fryer enthusiasts claim to have stopped using their conventional ovens altogether.
3. They're great for small households, and could save you money on your energy bills
If you have a smaller household and are cooking meals for just one, two or three people, an air fryer could well replace your oven.
While most air fryers can not accommodate anywhere near the amount of food you can cook in an oven at one time, this may not be an issue for smaller households.
And if you use an air fryer instead of your oven, you may make small energy savings, depending on how long you are cooking for and what temperature you are cooking the food at (plus, it won't heat up your kitchen like an oven does).
It's also great for renters who may have substandard ovens, or for small spaces that don't have an oven at all.
According to our CHOICE Community, many people also love to use their air fryer in their caravans or take it on camping trips.
4. They're (generally) easy to use and safe
Although the latest generation of air fryers are introducing more fancy features, Fiona says they're usually straightforward to use with few safety issues. You just need to select the temperature and cooking time, or choose from the pre-programmed settings, and you're away.
You should check the CHOICE expert air fryer reviews before you buy though, as some models are definitely easier to use than others. Our testers look at things such as the controls (digital vs manual), the instructions that come with the appliance, and how easy they are to assemble, store, operate and clean.
You just need to select the temperature and cooking time, or choose from the pre-programmed settings, and you're away
"Look for functions that will make the air fryer cooking experience easier," says Fiona.
"Things such as digital controls, an accurate timer and temperature readings. Many also now come with pre-programmed settings. Look for models with easy to understand icons and an alarm that sounds when cooking is completed.
"Some also have a rotating basket that will move the food automatically, to save you from shaking it yourself."
5. You can cook desserts and more
As air fryers have become mainstream, you'll find countless recipes online for all the things you can cook in them. While you may get varied results, air fryers can be used to cook a huge array of foods including everything from cheesecakes and cookies to steaks and boiled eggs.
We tested how good one of the air fryers was at making chocolate-chip cookies, and we also put the Aldi air fryer to the test against an oven and barbecue to cook a gozleme danish, a salmon fillet, a steak and boiled eggs.
CHOICE home economoist Fiona Mair is an air fryer expert.
6. You don't have to spend a fortune to get a good one
As with most appliances, there is quite a price range when it comes to air fryers. We've tested models costing under $100 all the way through to $500 or more.
The most expensive models don't always rate highest in our testing, so it pays to do your research, and there are certainly some cheaper models that are worth considering if you're on a budget.
"The more expensive air fryers will likely have more sophisticated features, come with more accessories or have a wider range of pre-programmed settings which may be worth paying more for, however we have found some mid-range air fryers that still score quite well. The best thing to do is to check our reviews before you buy," says Fiona.
Cons of owning an air fryer
1. They have limitations
Convenient though they may be, air fryers are not set-and-forget appliances.
Unless you have an airfryer-oven with a rotating basket, you still need to be around to give your food a shake or a turn during cooking – otherwise it won't cook evenly and you might find your food is deliciously golden on one side and pale on the other.
The air fryer is unable to crisp and brown on the base of solid foods, so if your model doesn't let out a beep to remind you to attend to your meal, you'll need to set a timer or remember to do it yourself.
2. They take up valuable bench space
Air fryers are yet another appliance jostling for precious real estate on your benchtop. And to get the most out of your air fryer, you would probably like to leave it out rather than store it away in a cupboard.
The problem is, they're not small. In fact, in our latest test, we noticed air fryers are getting even bigger, particularly the air fryers with twin drawers or those that function more like multi-purpose mini ovens. So unless you have a large kitchen with benchspace to spare, or space in the cupboard (and you don't mind getting the air fryer out every time you want to use it), you may have to weigh up whether this is an appliance you really need.
3. They really only cook one thing at a time – and not a lot of it
Despite their size and the area they occupy, the interior capacity of an air fryer isn't huge. Although some models have pull-out shelves or a divider for multiple ingredients, everything you put in will need to cook at the same temperature and has to physically fit in the air fryer.
You should take manufacturer's claims with a grain of salt, too, as the claimed capacity or volume can be misleading. Some manufacturers measure the whole space inside the air fryer and not the actual useable capacity. For example, a '10-litre' model may only be able to cook about 500g of chips and a '2500-gram' model won't actually be able to accommodate that weight of food.
Don't be tempted to overcrowd the basket, as this will result in uneven cooking
Larger households still may find they need to cook in batches or, as many in our social media community have done, buy a second air fryer to handle the workload. That said, air fryers are getting bigger, and there are now twin-drawer air fryer models available which can cook two foods at different temperatures at once. In some cases the baskets can be synced to complete cooking at the same time, so your salmon fillet will be ready at the same time as your hot chips.
However, keep in mind that sometimes the capacity of these two baskets may just be the same as one air fryer with a big basket.
Another thing to remember when considering the size of air fryer you buy, is that you shouldn't overcrowd the basket, as this will result in uneven cooking.
"If you're wanting to cook a large amount of a couple of different types of food, it's probably best to opt for a conventional oven," says Fiona.
Should you buy an air fryer?
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.