We cooked more than 3,600 frozen french fries, 60 potatoes, and 40 pounds of chicken to answer one question: Should you buy an air fryer?
Curious about extra-large air fryers? You can read our review here.
Update, August 2020: Our winning digital air fryer and its analog counterpart which has a simple dial control were both recently redesigned to include new “fat removal technology.” To see how the new models performed, we bought fresh copies of the two machines and tested them by making frozen french fries, homemade french fries, and chicken Parmesan in each. We didn’t notice any difference in the food prepared with the new “fat removal technology.” Like before, they made food that was closer to oven-baked foods as opposed to deep-fried foods. They were both easy to use and had compact footprints. The digital version is still our winner and the analog version is still our highest-rated analog product. The full testing results are listed below.
How We Tested
Air fryers are large countertop appliances that offer a bold promise: perfectly fried food using very little oil (often less than a tablespoon). While we’ve never been shy about frying (which usually requires cups or even quarts of oil), a gadget that promises to do the job faster, with less oil, and with less mess sure seems appealing. But does the air fryer’s claim have merit or is it just marketing? To find out, we tested nine air fryers, priced from about $60 to $250, using each to cook frozen French fries, homemade French fries, chicken wings, and chicken Parmesan.
Dispelling Air Fryer Myths
First things first: Air fryers don’t fry food. When you fry, you’re using oil to convey heat to food. Since oil transfers heat much faster than air does, fried food becomes shatteringly crispy before the insides have time to dry out; the added fat also provides incredible richness. No matter how you cook food in an air fryer, it won’t resemble deep- or shallow‑fried food in either flavor or texture. The name “air fryer” itself is just clever advertising; these gadgets are actually mini convection ovens (ovens that use a fan to circulate hot air) with perforated food baskets to promote even airflow. Quite simply, an air fryer doesn’t do anything you can’t already do with your home oven, a baking sheet, and a wire rack.
The best point of comparison for air-fried food is baked food, sometimes called “oven-fried” food. Since air doesn’t transfer heat as well as oil does, the outsides don’t get as crispy and the food dries out a little. You can’t mitigate this by adding more oil to air-fried food, though. In fact, most air fryer manufacturers note that you shouldn’t use more than 3 tablespoons of oil in the air fryers, since the excess oil can drip through the perforated basket and burn at the bottom of the machine. We found in our testing that food cooked in a conventional oven with the same amount of oil emerged identical in taste and texture to food cooked in an air fryer. And because fat is essential to “fried” flavor, air-fried and oven‑fried foods taste a lot leaner than deep-fried foods.
With this in mind, we tempered our expectations a bit. We weren’t expecting the air fryers to produce deep-fried-tasting chicken or French fries; instead, our new goal was food that was comparable to (or even better than) oven-fried food.
Air Fryers Crisp Your Food Faster Than the Oven
After more than nine tests, we found that our goal was attainable, but there was a learning curve. We typically had to make a food three times before we figured out how to achieve our ideal flavor and texture—first according to manufacturers’ recommendations, which mostly resulted in undercooked food such as soggy French fries; then using adapted versions of our own oven recipes, which often resulted in overcooked food such as dry chicken wings; and finally using tweaked times and temperatures that fell somewhere between those of our recipes and manufacturers’ instructions, which turned out crispy fries, juicy chicken wings, and tender chicken cutlets.
Most air fryers we tried maxed out at about 400 degrees, a bit below what we recommend in our recipes for oven-fried foods. This wasn’t a problem, though, because air fryers—like most convection ovens—convey heat more efficiently than traditional ovens. Since a fan is constantly circulating the air, the food usually cooks faster. Once we made adjustments—typically using a lower temperature and less time—we were able to get crispy fries and tender chicken a few minutes faster than in the oven. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that small, fast-heating air fryers don’t need to be preheated, which shaved another 10 to 15 minutes off our total cooking time.
Ultimately, the food was more than “just acceptable”—it was actually just as good as or better than oven-fried versions. Fries were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, chicken wings were juicy, and chicken Parmesan had a crunchy crust and bubbly, browned cheese. Despite the machines’ perforated baskets, we didn’t experience any dripping when cooking our oven fries, which use a wet cornstarch batter. The result was shatteringly crispy potato wedges comparable to those made in the oven. With the exception of one air fryer that gave off a rancid oil smell that permeated the food (the company says this is manufacturing grease that should burn off in one to two uses, but we found that it was still lingering after nine tests and multiple washings), all the air fryers produced really good, crispy food comparable to our oven-baked versions once we learned the proper tweaks for each machine.
A Good Air Fryer Is Both Safe and Easy to Use
Although all the air fryers cooked food well, usability was a different story. Even though air fryers are constantly circulating air, the cooking isn’t completely hands-off; you still need to shake the basket a few times during cooking to promote even browning of foods such as French fries and chicken wings. Still, a few air fryers required more attention than others.
Some air fryers had analog dials for setting cooking temperatures; these were very easy and intuitive to use, but we often knocked them out of place and inadvertently changed the heat setting whenever we opened or moved the unit. Testers preferred digital dials and displays that were flat and couldn’t be bumped or that had to be confirmed before the cooking temperature was changed.
Other models had “innovations” that ranged from benign—presets for foods such as French fries and fish, which we found mostly useless—to downright baffling, such as an air fryer with a mixing paddle that sliced right through French fries, a machine with 11 different attachments but no handle to lift out the basket, and one model with its own temperature system of “levels 1–4” with no mention of degrees.
Inserts that were hard to clean were also a no-go: One air fryer’s thin mesh-like basket was made from metal that stained, ripped our sponge, and warped when we tried to clean it. We preferred sturdy nonstick surfaces that cleaned up effortlessly.
Air fryers are also big—in most cases larger than a full-size food processor. But some were actually gigantic (up to a foot and a half wide), hogging a whole counter’s worth of space, with flip-up lids that banged into our cabinets when we tried to open them. With such a wide footprint, we expected an extra-large capacity, but most of these larger units could hold only a bit more than smaller air fryers (about three chicken cutlets rather than two). There definitely wasn’t room to cook food for a crowd in any of the air fryers; all maxed out at about a pound of fries or wings—between one-third and one-half of what our recipes usually yield. We preferred slimmer, shorter machines that gave us more room on our counters.
We also preferred drawer-style models, which have a front-facing basket that pulls out like a drawer, to flip-top models. Drawer‑style air fryers not only took up less space but were also much safer: Most flip-top products had heating elements in their lids that were completely exposed when the unit was open—and their heavy lids threatened to drop those heating elements right onto our hands. We liked how drawer-style air fryers kept their heating elements hidden up and away in the machine, a big boon to safety.
So, Should You Get an Air Fryer?
We were pleasantly surprised to find that we liked a fair number of the air fryers and ultimately recommended about half the models we tested. That said, an air fryer isn’t for everyone. If you usually cook for more than two people or are expecting deep-fried food from one of these, then an air fryer probably isn’t for you. Air fryers hold only one or two servings, and the food ultimately isn’t any different from what you can achieve in your home oven.
However, if you prepare a lot of frozen foods, cook in small batches, or find waiting for an oven to preheat a big pain, then an air fryer might be a good choice. These gadgets also won’t heat up your kitchen the way a conventional oven does (in fact, the outsides almost always stay cool to the touch), which is nice for hot days. And because our favorite models have automatic shutoff functions and hidden heating elements, they’re about as safe as a microwave, making them handy for teenagers looking to make a quick after-school snack.
The Best Air Fryer to Buy
Our favorite air fryer was the most expensive one in our lineup, the Philips TurboStar Airfryer, Avance Digital (about $250). We loved its slimmer footprint, which maxed out at about 14 inches. Its digital controls were easy to use, and cooking was all-around effortless. However, if you have 2 more inches of under-cabinet clearance and are willing to sacrifice the intuitive controls, we can recommend the GoWISE USA 3.7-Quart 7-in-1 Air Fryer (about $75). This drawer-style model also produced great food at a more affordable price; it’s our Best Buy.
We tested nine air fryers priced from $60 to $250. We used each to prepare frozen French fries, homemade French fries, our Lighter Chicken Parmesan, and fresh chicken wings. In every case, we tested using the manufacturer’s instructions (if available) and our own recipes for baked or “oven-fried” foods, comparing the results with food cooked in a conventional oven along the way. No model produced acceptable results on the first try, so we retested up to two more times, making adjustments to time and temperature until we achieved ideal results. Testers also measured each air fryer’s height and footprint and evaluated how easy and safe it was to load with food, to set time and temperature, to remove food, and to clean. Products are listed in order of preference.
COOKING: Products were awarded full stars for food that, with tweaks to time and temperature, ultimately emerged crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with no off-flavors.
EASE OF USE: We evaluated how easy it was to load food into each air fryer, set the time and temperature, and remove food. We awarded top scores to products with intuitive digital displays.
CLEANUP: We preferred air fryers made from nonstick materials, which could be cleaned easily with a quick scrub. Products lost stars if their baskets held on to stains or warped after cleaning.
SIZE: We liked slimmer, smaller machines that could fit under standard cabinets and didn’t hog counter space but still had room to fit at least two chicken cutlets or a pound of wings or fries. We also preferred drawer-style air fryers to flip-top models, since flip‑top machines often banged into our cabinets when we opened them.
SAFETY: Full stars went to products with concealed heating elements and a body that stayed cool enough to touch during cooking. We also prioritized air fryers that automatically shut off once the timer had expired, reducing the possibility of burning food. Products lost points for ineffective shutoff systems or exposed heating elements.