Air fryers promise tasty 'fried' foods without the oil. Although they perform more like mini-ovens than deep fryers, they can be used to cook many food items you'd normally deep fry, shallow fry or grill – and some can even roast and bake food. They can also be used to make your own crispy fries from scratch, cook frozen foods such as chicken nuggets, and grill smaller cuts of meats.
Here we explain how air fryers work, what you can make in them, controls and features to look out for, and much more.
An air fryer is a small benchtop oven that circulates hot, dry air to produce crispy food, much like a wall oven in fan-forced mode. Just like with an oven, food being cooked in an air fryer needs to be regularly rotated or shaken to ensure even browning.
There are three different ways this is achieved, depending on the design of your air fryer.
Air fryers with a pull-out drawer and basket require manual shaking every five minutes or so to ensure even cooking. Most models don't have a timer or alert to remind you to shake your food, so you'll need to make an effort to remember this yourself. These models are best for foods you'd normally shallow fry or grill, such as fish, chicken, meatballs, vegetables and crumbed foods.
Self-stirring air fryers have a paddle that gradually stirs the food around the bowl throughout the cooking process. This eliminates the need to manually shake the food, but some models stir better than others and it's still possible to end up with unevenly browned food or items that have been bent or distorted by the stirrer.
These models are best for foods that are usually deep fried, shallow fried or baked such as small portions of meat, vegetables or chips. Some models may come with an extra bowl without a paddle suitable for roasting meats or even baking a cake.
Rotating basket multi-cooker
These more versatile air fryers have a rotating basket which automatically rotates the food inside. They include accessories that allow for additional functions such as roasting, baking and grilling. Some models can even cook a whole chicken.
Air fryers we've tested cost anywhere from $129 up to $599.
An air fryer would best suit:
- people living in one-person or small households who enjoy frozen pre-cooked foods
- university students living out of home
- those living in a caravan, campervan or a home with no oven
- those who like to reheat food more than cook
- teenagers who can be trusted with such an appliance, wanting an afternoon snack
- home cooks who enjoy experimenting with crispy foods such as vegetable chips (sweet potato or kale)
- people who struggle with overheating kitchens in the summer, as an air fryer doesn't heat up a room like an oven does.
You probably don't need an air fryer if:
- you have a large household and you already have an oven, a grill and a cooktop
- you want to cook battered foods (an air fryer can't replace a deep fryer).
Is a double basket or dual air fryer worth it?
This depends on how many people you're cooking for.
Dual air fryers have two separate cooking baskets side-by-side. They allow you to cook two different food types at the same time using different cooking functions and temperature settings. You can even set up each basket to finish cooking at the same time. The idea is that you can cook a complete meal in one go, but this may only be the case if you're cooking for two people.
If you're cooking for a family, you might find that you need both baskets to cook only one type of food. In this case you may be better off with a single basket air fryer that has a larger cooking capacity.
First, make sure you know how much bench space you have available. If you make chips regularly, you might want to leave it out permanently. The two basic shapes are tall and fat (Philips Vivo Air Fryer, Bellini Digital Air Fryer and the Kambrook AirChef) and short and slightly fatter (Tefal Actifry and DeLonghi Multifry). Be aware that top-opening models could be out of the running if you have restricted space above the bench, as the lid needs to be opened upwards. If you're planning to pack your air fryer away after use, look for a compact size with a uniform shape to slot easily into a cupboard.
Claimed capacity or volume
Take the manufacturer's claimed measurements with a grain of salt 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. 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.
Air fryer parts are reasonably easy to clean and fit into a domestic sink. Most parts are dishwasher-safe, but they're also easily cleaned by hand if they have a non-stick coating.
There are two types of controls: dial or digital. Dial controls are more basic and less accurate, consisting of just a temperature dial and a timer dial that dings when the timer ends. Look for a timer that can be set for longer than 30 minutes. Digital controls have a touch display with an accurate timer, temperature readings and some may also have pre-programmed settings. Look for models with easy to understand icons and an alarm that sounds when cooking is completed.
Air fryers are smaller in size compared to ovens so they generally heat up quicker as their element sits close to the basket. Some manufacturers even say you can do away with pre-heating. In some cases, cooking time can be faster in comparison to an oven and this makes an air fryer more energy-efficient.
However, this depends on the quantity of food you're cooking. If you need to cook multiple batches to complete your meal, it would outweigh the energy savings in which case you may be better off using your oven where you can cook the whole meal at once and potentially save time by doing so.
- Unless you buy a double basket (or dual) air fryer, you can only cook one food at a time.
- Because the element sits close to the basket it can overcook and dry out food.
- The size of the cooking area can be restrictive, so you'll need to make sure the food can fit in the drawer/cavity – in some cases it may be better to use an oven with fan-forced mode.
- Air fryers generally have a small capacity, so multiple batches may be needed when cooking.
- Most air fryers don't have a viewing window so you can't see what's happening during cooking.
- It can take some trial and error to get the time and temperature for cooking right.
- They can take up quite a lot of space – consider that your air fryer might be a permanent fixture on your bench or make sure you'll have the space to store it before you buy.
- Some air fryers can use more energy than an oven.
Air fryers use dry heat so they're great for cooking foods that require roasting or baking. And if you want to fry without all the oil they're great for that too.
When air fryers were first released they were marketed more as a great way to cook pre-fried frozen foods like chips, nuggets and battered fish. However, as the use of air fryers has evolved and their popularity has grown, there has been a lot more experimenting in the kitchen. Now you can join online communities where they share recipes and tips to getting the most out of your air fryer.
Lovers of air frying also boast that you can make whole meals with one, too – roasting meat, baking fish and veggies and even making cakes, desserts, granola and roasting nuts is all possible in an air fryer.
Keep in mind that air fryers produce high temperatures in a small space very quickly, so you may need to adjust cooking times to avoid burning food.
Do you need to add oil?
You'll only need up to 1 tablespoon of oil for 1 kilogram of fresh food when cooking with an air fryer. While oil adds flavour to food, it isn't needed if you're cooking pre-cooked frozen foods.
Can you reheat food in an air fryer?
Air fryers are great for reheating, especially if it's food that you want to keep crispy and not soggy, like pizza and battered foods.
How many chips can you make in an air fryer?
An air fryer may look like a big appliance, but the actual capacity is much less than an oven. Depending on the capacity of the model, you can make between 500g and 1kg of chips, which is enough for 2–4 people. Be aware that the manufacturer's claimed capacity may sometimes be misleading. For example, a '10 litre' model may only be able to cook around 500g of chips.
Check the specifications for 'working capacity' or 'cooking capacity' to get a better idea of how much the air fryer can cook at one time.
Tips for homemade chips
To achieve the perfect crunchy chip, cut the chips evenly and soak in water for at least 30 minutes to remove the starch. Then dry completely by laying them out on a tea towel in a single layer. Place them in a bowl and toss through oil until evenly coated. Cook according to the instructions for your air fryer.
Always check the manufacturer's instructions before using baking paper or foil in your air fryer. While it is possible, you need to be careful with it and consider the effect it can have on the end cooking result. Some manufacturers recommend against using baking paper or foil because by covering the bottom of the basket you could disrupt and reduce airflow, and in turn affect cooking performance.
If the manufacturer's instructions allow it, lining the bottom of your basket with baking paper can be great if you're cooking sticky and greasy foods that would otherwise stick to the basket, like marinated chicken wings. Not only does the baking paper act as a non-stick surface but it can also mean less mess to clean up when cooking is finished (for this reason it's also great when cooking crumbed foods).
Do not use baking paper or foil during pre-heat – because the air fryer is circulating hot air, the baking paper or foil could potentially fly up into the heating element and burn. Only use it once it's weighted down by the food you're cooking.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.