It doesn’t feel like 2019 should be the year of fried food. Aspirational “wellness” goals rule everything around us, encouraging us to ditch booze, sugar, sugary booze, and any breakfast that doesn’t include chia seeds. Paradoxically, air fryers have over the past two years become the sought-after small kitchen appliance, often mentioned in the same reverent tone as Instant Pots. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear air fryers aren’t antithetical to our dietary efforts—they guarantee the best of all possible worlds.
“They’re really promising you the moon,” says Kimberly Janeway, a multimedia content creator with Consumer Reports, which has tested roughly two dozen air fryer models. “The whole allure is the promise that they deliver the delicious crunchy taste of fried food using little or no oil. Some of the claims are—I’m looking at some now—‘great taste with 75% less fat,’ ‘crispy fried texture with fewer calories.’ They’re promising you can have this great food and it has less fat or it’s low-fat.”
Fried food taste, without fried food fat or calories. The appeal is clear, but are air fryers’ claims too good to be true?
“It’s not really a fryer in any sense of the word. Essentially, it’s a convection oven,” Janeway says.
Like convection ovens, air fryers’ fans circulate heat. Because food is placed in a small basket inside the fryer, it cooks relatively quickly and gains a crispy exterior. But there’s no satisfying oily-battered shell, which is where the caloric and fat savings come in. How precisely you expect an air fryer to replicate a deep fryer is the line between loving one or hating it. As one Wired reporter who test-drove an air fryer put it: “Good lord, fried is fried, and ‘air fried’ is not that. Better to eat well most of the time then go to your favorite fried chicken place on your birthday.”
But Janeway and other Consumer Reports testers found that once they gave up on the idea of fat-free fried chicken wings—“staffers did like the food, they really did, but none of them thought it tasted like deep-fried”—air fryers consistently cooked food fast and effectively. In fact, air fryer models were so similar in the quality of the food cooked that the testers removed this as a scoring criterion, instead focusing on the size of the fryers’ baskets, how easy they were to clean, and how much noise they produced. Prices, though, ranged based on the fryers’ sizes, from $40 to upwards of $200.
The surprise for Janeway and her colleagues came not in cooking chicken nuggets, French fries, or other traditionally battered and fried foods, but in cooking healthier dishes like cauliflower, corn on the cob, and salmon. She says the air fryers blistered asparagus so beautifully even one tester’s picky-eater kids loved them.
It’s the fast, high-heat cooking that produces that blistered-crispy exterior, but that speed can also be difficult for some people to adjust to. Unlike a frying pan full of oil or a standard oven, air fryers’ baskets keep food out of sight. There’s no peeking through the oven door to check for browning, so sometimes food can burn inside the air fryer. On the flip side, cram a small air fryer basket too full of food and the air won’t circulate properly, leaving food mushy.
Ultimately, whether an air fryer is worth buying for your kitchen—or gifting to someone else this holiday season—comes down to expectations. Do you intend for the air fryer to produce the same succulent, slightly oily fried chicken you’d pluck from a Dutch oven? Then prepare to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a countertop appliance that cooks dinner much more efficiently than your wall-unit oven, then it might be worth the expense.
“Like Instant Pots, air fryers’ Facebook community shows they have some solid support. But I don’t know if this is going to be like the hot-air popcorn popper, because there are countertop appliances that are big for a while and then go to the graveyard,” Janeway says. “If you look at comments on our story, though, some people absolutely love them.”