Finding the best air fryer opens you to a world of possibilities. They give you the crispy texture and deep flavor of fried foods without all the calories—and in a fraction of the time it takes to preheat your oven. Who doesn’t want guilt free air fryer chicken wings, bacon and french fries once a week? (Okay, maybe twice.)
But you’ll find many different versions of this user-friendly appliance on the market, and they’re all not created equal. Read on to learn about what makes air frying different from deep frying, how it works, and the many types of these gadgets, from pint size units to full ovens.
We’ll also share our top picks for the best air fryer models of all sizes to meet your dinner and snack time needs.
Is Air Fried Food Healthier Than Deep Fried?
Typically, deep frying foods means submerging them in hot oil. Picture a basket of battered chicken fingers getting dipped into a bubbling vat at the county fair, or a hot funnel cake coming out and being dusted with powdered sugar.
You don’t need us to tell you that it’s difficult and messy to do this at home, even if you have a dedicated deep fryer, not to mention that you’ve got to be very careful when cooking with hot oil. (It’s definitely not safe for kids to make their own after-school snacks this way.) Nor is deep frying the healthiest cooking method, since your food absorbs the oil as it cooks. That’s not great for anyone to eat regularly, and people who have high cholesterol, diabetes, or heart disease certainly need to steer clear.
To make deep frying healthier, your only option is to cook with a healthier oil. For instance, you can fry with peanut oil, which is high in cholesterol-reducing monounsaturated fats, instead of highly processed vegetable oil. But in the end, you’re still consuming the extra fats and calories from the oil in addition whatever’s in the food that’s under the batter.
By contrast, air fryers require little to no oil. They crisp up food by surrounding it with zero-calorie, fat-free hot air. That makes this cooking method a less messy, easier, safer, and—yes—healthier way to cook, reducing calories by 70 to 80 percent according to the Cleveland Clinic.
We’re sorry to say that, even though it is healthier, you still shouldn’t eat air-fried food every day.
What’s the Difference Between Air Fryers and Convection Ovens? It’s All in the Basket
All of them actually use a variation on convection mode. When you turn on a convection oven or the convection setting to bake or roast in your regular oven, you activate a fan and exhaust system that circulates the hot air more evenly. Depending on your device, it may activate an additional heating element. This cooks your food faster and browns it more; it also reduces the moisture in your oven so the food gets crispy and browned on the outside and stays juicy inside.
Countertop versions concentrate all this heat in a relatively small cavity, so food gets extra crunchy.
In an oven, the setting is basically the same as convection except you place your food on a perforated sheet pan or basket that’s designed to let air flow around it and give your food maximum crispiness.
What Do Air Fryers Do?
Well, that depends on what type you’re talking about. There are two basic types: standalone units and oven settings.
A countertop air fryer is equipped with a removable cooking basket or tray that you place your food into before cooking. (Some machines, like the mighty Ninja Foodi 2-Basket Air Fryer, have two baskets so you can cook different items at the same time.) Then, you tap a few buttons—many contain several preset programming options—and let the principles of convection cooking work their magic as hot air circulates inside around the food. The result is a delectably crispy sweet potato fry, cauliflower bite, or what have you, without the excess calories and fat from frying food in oil the traditional way. Since they’re fairly compact, you can leave these gadgets out if you’re a heavy-duty user, or store it in a cabinet when not in use if you’ll only be using it a few times a month.
An air fryer oven, also known as an air frying oven, has this hot air circulation built in among all its other features, so you don’t need a separate appliance to get an air-fried delight on the table. They also have the advantage of more space, so you can cook in larger batches. (With a countertop model, you may find that the basket size is too small to cook for a large group in one fell swoop.) To use, you typically put your food on a specially designed, perforated tray or basket, turn the air fry mode on, and sit back and relax while the oven convection cooks it to perfection.
If you’re thinking, Hey, don’t microwaves have convection too?, you’re right. Be sure not to miss our number five pick below.
What Can You Cook in an Air Fryer?
Frozen foods, for starters. They’ll come out extra crispy. Any little frozen appetizers or finger foods are ideal candidates: french fries, mozzarella sticks, potato or cauliflower tots, onion rings, popcorn shrimp, chicken wings, samosas, empanadas, egg rolls, falafel.
Breakfast toast is another quick hit.
Some veggies—think Brussels sprouts, eggplant medallions, okra, beans; anything you want to have a crispy texture and lose some moisture in the process—come out nicely too.
You can also try out some of your go-to dinner and dessert recipes. Anything that benefits from convection bake or roast works well. That means chicken breasts (or even a whole chicken), salmon fillets, pizza, steaks, and bacon, and cookies can get a crispness boost in an air fryer.
For larger foods like these, it’s just a matter of how many you can fit.
What Should You Not Cook in an Air Fryer?
Generally, you don’t want to put raw foods in. This covers wet things like fresh veggies, which mostly will dry out (except for the ones we mentioned above, which by all accounts taste delicious air fried); wet batter (too messy); and uncooked rice or grains (ditto—save them for your instant pot). Avoid melty things like cheese, too—unless you’re talking frozen mozzarella sticks, in which case bring them on.
Pro Tip: If you’re following a recipe designed for a countertop model in an oven, keep a close eye on your food. The cooking time may vary.
What Are the Disadvantages of an Air Fryer?
Any single-function appliance could become just one of many gathering dust in your cabinets if you don’t use it very often. Compared with a microwave oven or toaster oven, they’re not appliances you’ll necessarily use every day. But if you make lots of snacks or appetizers for parties, you may find it justifies its presence in your kitchen.
Is an Air Fryer Worth It?
You’ll get your money’s worth out of a standalone unit if you or your kids like eating healthier fried food (okay, or chicken nuggets) regularly. These small appliances tend to give you crispier results since the hot air is concentrated in a smaller area.
As for a toaster oven or microwave, if you’re in the market for one anyway, you might as well get one with an air fryer feature. This is really just a variation on the convection mode they’ve always included. And if you already own a relatively new one, surprise—it likely has the function, and may even have come with a special baking tray or basket. Try it out and see how you like it. You probably won’t get much out of a separate appliance.
We feel the same way about full-size ovens. If you’re already shopping for a new one, you might as well consider one with this feature among all the other smart features. Manufacturers Frigidaire, Samsung, and LG make a range of reliable options with the technology built right in.
What Features Should I Look for in an Air Fryer?
Think about how you’ll be using it. If it’s just you in your household, a countertop appliance will likely do the trick. If you’re cooking for a hungry crew, you may want to consider an oven with an air fry setting, so you can crisp up larger batches at once.
If you decide to go the countertop route, look for these features:
- Capacity: Do you want to be able to cook a whole chicken in there, or will a couple of mozzarella sticks or veggies suffice? Most range from five to 16 quarts, but there are 3 quart and up versions available. See our number four pick below.
- Temperature range: 200 to 400 degrees F is the sweet spot for air frying and reheating leftovers (another great use for these devices).
- Size: How much counter space and/or cabinet storage space are you willing to spare?
- Dishwasher compatibility: Don’t forget that easy cleanup is important, so be sure to look for models with dishwasher-safe parts and pans, like the basket and drip tray, to help you get your gear squeaky clean.
- Ease of use: Seek out machines with intuitive buttons and positive online customer reviews from, you know, real-life people who need to make dinner in a jiffy.
- Bells and whistles: Features like handy presets are time savers and a nice, easy to read digital display or a touch screen interface makes cooking quick and easy (again, who doesn’t want hot french fries at the touch of a button?). And speaking of french fries, look for options that come with a rotating mesh basket. These help to ensure even results.
We’ve done the grunt work for you to make selecting an air fryer a breeze. Read on to get our picks for a countertop air fryer, a toaster oven air fryer, a microwave air fryer, and a full-on air frying oven, plus some stylish bonus picks.
The 6 Best Air Fryers of 2021
1) Best Air Fryer Overall: Ninja AF101 Air Fryer
At $99, this stellar air fryer has 25,862 five-star ratings and counting on Amazon (as one rave review put it, “don’t know how I managed without one for so long.”). Even with its compact footprint, it can cook up to four quarts of food at one time—in snack terms, that’s roughly two pounds of French fries.
What’s more, the sleek black and gray unit looks lovely on your kitchen counter. Its temperature starts at 105 degrees F and goes up to 400 degrees F. We also love that the parts are all dishwasher safe, so it can go straight in when you’re finished cooking. Bonus: This machine gets consistently high reviews for crisping up frozen food, so you can look forward to tater tots galore.
2) Most Attractive Air Fryer: Beautiful Kitchenware 6QT Touchscreen Air Fryer
This attractive little air fryer is made by the aptly named Beautiful Kitchenware, which launched in March 2021. It’s part of a line of matching kitchen appliances that debuted at Walmart as part of a collaboration between actress Drew Barrymore and Made by Gather founder and CEO Shae Hong.
With a five-pound food capacity, this little cooker makes easy work of air frying, roasting, reheating, dehydrating, and preheating food. The touch-activated display couldn’t be simpler to use, and the removable tray and pan are dishwasher-safe to boot. PS: By the looks of it, nobody will guess it cost you less than $100.
3) Best Air Fryer/Toaster Oven-In-One: Cuisinart TOA-60
Since air fryers are selling like hotcakes, we don’t blame conventional toaster oven makers for adding “air fryer” to their product description. This $279.95 multitaster saves you precious kitchen real estate with its ability to do multiple jobs—no need to schlep it out of storage every time you want to fry. We like this one’s convenient presets for mealtime favorites like wings, fries, chicken nuggets, snacks, vegetables, and more.
With a capacity of up to three pounds of food (it can accommodate a 12-inch pizza, six bagel halves, or a small chicken), there’s plenty of room, and a large display makes it easy to use. Another neat feature? A temperature range that starts at 80 degrees F (it extends all the way to 450 degrees F) allows you to slow cook, proof dough before baking, and dehydrate food.
When it’s time to clean up, simply put the dishwasher-safe baking pan and air fryer basket on the rack with your other plates and bowls.
4) Best Extra Large Air Fryer/Toaster Oven: Cosori CS130-AO 32 Quart Smart Air Fryer Toaster Oven
Most countertop models have room for five to 16 quarts of food. The biggest have three times that space, up to 32 quarts. This Cosori unit is one of the big boys. It also has more than 7,000 five star reviews on Amazon.
You can cook a whole chicken on its rotisserie. That means you have lots of space to cook all your favorite foods, like a 13 inch pizza. A nonstick air fry basket makes cleanup easy.
And because it’s Wi-Fi connected, you can monitor your food (or keep an eye on your kids’ cooking) from anywhere, and select a “keep it warm” function when it finishes.
5) Best Air Fryer in a Microwave: Sharp SMD2499FS
Sharp’s new microwave drawer is the only one on the market with convection, making it the only one that can air fry as well. The SMD2499FS is also wifi enabled, and has a unique touchless system that lets you open it with a wave and set your food inside. Its large 1.4 cubic foot capacity lets you fit up to three dinner plates, and it’s tall enough to reheat a 20-ounce coffee cup.
A hidden control panel along the top edge makes it a very sleek addition to your kitchen. You’ll love that you can put all the racks and baking pans in the dishwasher. For air frying, it has four convenient preset cooking modes, and requires zero oil.
6) Best Air Fryer Range: Frigidaire Gallery FGEH3047VF
Air fryer fans, all hail Frigidaire. It holds the title of first company to bring a full-size air fryer oven to the market with this freestanding range. A powerful convection fan and a third heating element keep the temperature in the oven nice and even. We like that it has a 30-minute steam cleaning inside too.
The roomy, flexible electric cooktop with a quick boil burner and smudgeproof stainless steel finish make other cooking and cleanup tasks easier. One note: If you want Frigidaire’s ReadyCook perforated try, which the company says cooks food faster than nonstick cookware, be sure to buy it separately.
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SIDENOTE. This post was last modified on October 9, 2021. However, we regularly update our content as we test more products and new models are released. We also listen to the feedback of our customers and make changes to our product recommendations based on their experiences. So don’t be surprised if you see some old comments below! Since reader comments contribute to the topic, we have decided not to delete them.