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 make naughty foods nice by cooking them in an air fryer
- Our experts have reviewed 21 popular air fryers, scoring them on things such as how well they cook chicken nuggets and roast pork
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, streamline meal prep, and generally offer a convenience superior to conventional ovens, air fryers are the appliance du jour, knocking the old slow-cooker off its designated spot on the kitchen bench. But do they deserve the hype?
Oprah's 'favourite thing'
The air fryer's trajectory to meal time must-have has been meteoric since Oprah Winfrey declared it a 'favourite thing' in 2016. With models on offer for less than $100, it doesn't take a huge investment to try out this fad that seems to promise 'fried' without the fat.
Those who've already adopted the air fryer into their culinary repertoires are almost reverential. At CHOICE, we asked our wonderful social media community whether they had an air fryer and if they preferred it to their oven – and the response was enthusiastically in favour of the air fryer, with many people saying they no longer use their normal oven.
Pros and cons
If you're on the fence about yet another kitchen purchase, allow us to clarify your concerns or confirm your suspicions.
As with every appliance, air fryers have their pros and cons, so read on to find out if it's the modern-day microwave equivalent that's missing from your home – or if you should probably just take a pass.
If you do decide to take the plunge, check out our expert air fryer reviews before you buy to make sure you get the best value for your money.
And if you're budget-conscious, you could always buy one of these three air fryers for under $200 that meet with the CHOICE seal of approval.
An air fryer. This is what all the fuss is about.
What exactly is an air fryer?
CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair says the biggest misconception is that air fryers fry food. Given the name of the appliance, you can be forgiven for assuming they do. But in fact an air fryer works more like a small fan-forced oven and bakes food, rather than fries it.
Fiona explains: "It has a fan and an element and the fan circulates the heat from the element around a small cavity. The element surrounds the fan positioned at the top of the unit.
"A pull-out drawer with a basket or removable grill rack allows the hot air to flow around the food, which works the same as a fan-forced oven."
Are air fryers the healthy alternative to enjoying fried foods?
Not exactly. It all comes down to what you're cooking in your air fryer.
You can use it to cook similar things as you would in a normal oven, such as grilled meats and vegetables and homemade chips. But if you're cooking pre-packaged frozen foods that are highly processed, it's not going to be a healthier option.
And 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.
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
"It's just smart marketing to make people think they can get the same results as deep frying without all the oil used, but this is not the case," says Fiona. "You need oil to give the flavour and texture to the food to call it fried."
It's not a deep fryer
She 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 be exactly like their fried counterparts, but they will be somewhat better for you.
So let's now take a more detailed looked at the main pros and cons of air fryers.
Pro: They're great for frozen foods and convenience
Air fryers really shine when it comes to cooking pre-packaged foods, such as chicken nuggets, fish fingers, spring rolls and chips. This suits people who eat a lot of these types of foods, and families that cook kids' meals with these types of foods separately.
According to Fiona, convenience for families is one of the biggest upsides of air-fryers, especially those who eat at different times or don't have a great oven.
Pro: 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.
Con: They have limitations
Convenient though they are, air fryers are not set-and-forget appliances. Fiona says you still need to be around to give the chips a shake and turn your chicken wings during cooking – or you'll find them 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.
Pro: They're great for small households
For downsizers and empty-nesters who find themselves cooking smaller meals, the air fryer can just about replace the conventional oven. It's also great for renters who may have substandard ovens, or for small spaces that don't have an oven at all. If you love camping or live in a tiny home, an air fryer can also be handy.
Con: They do take up valuable bench space
Air fryers are yet another appliance jostling for precious real estate on your benchtop. Fiona advises that to get the most out of your air fryer, you should leave it out rather than shove it in a cupboard.
The problem is, they're not small, so if you entertain or have many mouths to feed but have minimal space, you may be better offer sticking to your normal oven.
Pro: They're easy to use and safe
Fiona cites ease of use and safety as two of the top-three advantages of an air fryer. You need only select the temperature and cooking time, or choose from the pre-programmed settings, and you're away. "They're great for teenagers looking to make themselves an afternoon snack, whom you trust with an appliance," she says.
Con: 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. Larger families 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, the twin-drawer air fryer has now arrived, which could be a game-changer.
Don't be tempted to overcrowd the basket, though, as Fiona warns this will result in uneven cooking. "If you're wanting to cook multiple foods, use your oven," she says.
Worth a fry? Or not for you?
So after weighing up the pros and cons, which side of the air-fryer debate do you stand on?
If you do decide you want to see what all the fuss is about, and are in the market to buy your first air fryer – or if you're one of those die-hard fans who's on the hunt for a second air fryer – we're here to help.