You’ve probably been tempted to jump on the air-fryer bandwagon in recent months and, if you have not yet taken the plunge, we’re here to help. Like the ubiquitous Instant Pot that came before it, air fryers and air fryer toaster ovens have surged in popularity as of late, promising extra crispy foods of all kinds without the mess and danger of a big vat of hot oil. These small appliances come in all shapes and sizes now and they can be a versatile addition to your kitchen, so long as you know what they are (and aren’t) capable of. For those who are still deciding on which kind of air fryer is right for them, our guide can demystify the space for you and highlight some of the best air fryers you can get right now.
What does an air fryer do?
Let’s clear one thing up first: it’s not frying. Not really. Air fryers are more like smaller convection ovens, ones that are often pod-shaped. Most work by combining a heating element and fan, which means the hot air can usually better crisp the outside of food than other methods. They often reach higher top temperatures than toaster ovens – which is part of the appeal.
For most recipes, a thin layer of oil (usually sprayed) helps to replicate that fried look and feel better. However, it will rarely taste precisely like the deep-fried version. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the air fryer, in its many forms, combines some of the best parts of other cooking processes and brings them together into an energy-efficient way of cooking dinner. Or breakfast. Or lunch.
Best air fryers for 2024
Buying guide for air fryers
You can separate most air fryers into two types and each has different pros and cons. Convection ovens are usually ovens with air fryer functions and features. They might have higher temperature settings to ensure that food crisps and cooks more like actually fried food. Most convection ovens are larger than dedicated air fryers, defeating some of the purpose of those looking to shrink cooking appliance surface area. Still, they are often more versatile with multiple cooking functions, and most have finer controls for temperatures, timings and even fan speed.
You may never need a built-in oven if you have a decent convection oven. They often have the volume to handle roasts, entire chickens or tray bakes, and simply cook more, capacity-wise, making them more versatile than the pod-shaped competition.
The flip side of that is that you’ll need counter space in the kitchen to house them. It also means you can use traditional oven accessories, like baking trays or cake tins, that you might already own.
Pod-shaped air fryers
Pod-shaped air fryers are what you imagine when you think “air fryer.” They look like a cool, space-age kitchen gadget, bigger than a kettle but smaller than a toaster oven. Many use a drawer to hold ingredients while cooking, usually a mesh sheet or a more solid, non-stick tray with holes to allow the hot air to circulate. With a few exceptions, most require you to open the drawer while things cook and flip or shake half-cooked items to ensure the even distribution of heat and airflow to everything.
That’s one of a few caveats. Most pod-shaped air fryers – there are a few exceptions – don’t have a window to see how things are cooking, so you’ll need to closely scrutinize things as they cook, opening the device to check progress. Basket-style air fryers also generally use less energy – there’s less space to heat – and many have parts that can be put directly into a dishwasher.
Some of the larger pod-shaped air fryers offer two separate compartments, which is especially useful for anyone planning to cook an entire meal with the appliance. You could cook a couple of tasty chicken wings or tenders while simultaneously rustling up enough frozen fries or veggies for everyone. Naturally, those options take up more space, and they’re usually heavy enough to stop you from storing them in cupboards or shelves elsewhere.
As mentioned earlier, you might have to buy extra things to make these pod fryers work the way you want them to. Some of the bigger manufacturers, like Philips and Ninja, offer convenient additions, but you’ll have to pay for them.
Air fryer pros and cons
Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of individual models, air fryers are pretty easy to use from the outset. Most models come with a convenient cooking time booklet covering most of the major foods you’ll be air frying, so even beginners can master these machines.
One of the early selling points is the ability to cook fries, wings, frozen foods and other delights with less fat than other methods like deep frying, which gets foods the crispiest. As air fryers work by circulating heated air, the trays and cooking plates have holes that can also let oil and fat drain out of meats, meaning less fat and crisper food when you finally plate things up. For most cooking situations, you will likely need to lightly spray food with vegetable oil. If you don’t, there’s the chance that things will burn or char. The oil will keep things moist on the surface, and we advise refreshing things with a dash of oil spray when you turn items during cooking.
Most air fryers are easy to clean – especially in comparison to a shallow or deep fryer. We’ll get into cleaning guidance a little later.
With a smaller space to heat, air fryers are generally more energy-efficient for cooking food than larger appliances like ovens. And if you don’t have an oven, air fryers are much more affordable – especially the pod options.
There are, however, some drawbacks. While air fryers are easy enough to use, they take time to master. You will adjust cooking times for even the simplest types of food – like chicken nuggets, frozen French fries or brussels sprouts. If you’re the kind of person that loves to find inspiration from the internet, in our experience, you can pretty much throw their timings out of the window. There are a lot of air fryer options, and factors like how fast they heat and how well distributed that heat is can – and will – affect cooking.
There’s also a space limitation to air fryers. This is not a TARDIS – there’s simply less space than most traditional ovens and many deep fat fryers. If you have a bigger family, you’ll probably want to go for a large capacity air fryer – possibly one that has multiple cooking areas. You also might want to consider a different kitchen appliance, like a multicooker, sous vide or slow cooker to meet your specific cooking needs.
You may also struggle to cook many items through as the heat settings will cook the surface of dishes long before it’s cooked right through. If you’re planning to cook a whole chicken or a roast, please get a meat thermometer!
Best air fryer accessories
Beyond official accessories from the manufacturer, try to pick up silicone-tipped tools. Tongs are ideal, as is a silicon spatula to gently loosen food that might get stuck on the sides of the air fryer. These silicone mats will also help stop things from sticking to the wire racks on some air fryers. They have holes to ensure the heated air is still able to circulate around the food.
Silicone trivets are also useful for resting any cooked food on while you sort out the rest of the meal. And if you find yourself needing oil spray, but don’t feel like repeatedly buying tiny bottles, you can decant your favorite vegetable oil into a permanent mister like this.
How to clean an air fryer
We’re keeping clean up simple here. Yes, you could use power cleaners from the grocery store, they could damage the surface of your air fryer. Likewise, metal scourers or brushes could strip away the non-stick coating. Remember to unplug the device and let it cool completely.
Remove the trays, baskets and everything else from inside. If the manufacturer says the parts are dishwasher safe – and you have a dishwasher – the job is pretty much done.
Otherwise, hand wash each part in a mixture of warm water, with a splash of Dawn or another strong dish soap. Use a soft-bristled brush to pull away any crumbs, greasy deposits or bits of food stuck to any surfaces. Remember to rinse everything. Otherwise, your next batch of wings could have a mild Dawn aftertaste. Trust us.
Take a microfiber cloth and tackle the outer parts and handles that might also get a little messy after repeated uses. This is especially useful for oven-style air fryers – use the cloth to wipe down the inner sides.
If Dawn isn’t shifting oily stains, try mixing a small amount of baking soda with enough water to make a paste, and apply that so that it doesn’t seep into any electrical parts or the heating element. Leave it to work for a few seconds before using a damp cloth to pull any greasy spots away. Rinse out the cloth and wipe everything down again, and you should be ready for the next time you need to air fry.
How to find air fryer recipes
Beyond fries, nuggets and – a revelation – frozen gyoza, there are a few ways to find recipes for air-fried foods. First, we found that the air fryer instruction manuals often have cooking guides and recipe suggestions for you to test out in your new kitchen gadget. The good thing with these is that they were made for your air fryer model, meaning success should be all but guaranteed. They are often a little unimaginative, however.
Many of the top recipe sites and portals have no shortage of air fryer recipes, and there’s no harm in googling your favorite cuisine and adding the words “air fryer” on the end of the search string. We’ve picked up some reliable options from Delish, which also has a handy air fryer time converter for changing oven and traditional fryer recipes.
And if you have a killer recipe or unique use for your air fryer, let us know in the comments. What’s the air fryer equivalent of the Instant Pot cheesecake? We’re ready to try it.