Not sure what an air fryer is or if you should buy one? Read our guide for the complete lowdown on these compact kitchen appliances
If you’ve seen air fryers in the shops, you might be wondering what exactly an air fryer is. The term air fryer is confusing; frying foods with air doesn’t make much sense and this means many people are uncertain about what air fryers are, how they work and whether they’re a useful kitchen appliance.
In essence, an air fryer is a device that uses convection heat to make foods that would typically be deep fried – such as chips – using a very small amount of oil. And while there’s no denying that the end result isn’t quite the same as a deep-fried chip, air fryers offer a healthier way to cook and enjoy these high-fat treats. The best air fryers are packed with an array of functions, allowing you to use them to prepare a wide range of foods, not just the ones you’d traditionally sling in the deep fat fryer.
How do air fryers work?
Unlike a deep fat fryer, where food is submerged in hot oil, an air fryer uses convection heat. Air fryers circulate hot air to cook the food, similar to a fan oven and rely on a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction to crisp up the exterior of food, with tasty results.
Most air fryers have either perforated trays or baskets that allow hot air to flow around food without restriction. This cooking method requires very little oil but can still achieve crisp, golden-brown results and is one of the reasons air fryers have a reputation for being a healthier way to prepare traditionally high-fat foods. Furthermore, some air fryers, such as Tefal’s Genius range, are equipped with paddles to automatically stir food, ensuring even cooking without the need to turn manually.
What is the difference between an air fryer and an oven?
As touched on previously, air fryers use convection heat, much like a fan oven, but they have plenty of qualities that set them apart. The most obvious difference is their size – air fryers are a countertop appliance and therefore, have a smaller capacity than a traditional oven. This compact size, combined with a powerful heat source and fan, means they can cook food much faster than a traditional oven, often with more even results. Additionally, many air fryers require little-to-no preheating time, making them a convenient way to speed up meal prep, particularly for busy families. While most air fryers use a cooking basket that resembles that of a deep-far fryer, some air fryers, such as the Tower Xpress Pro Combo 10-in-1 or Proscenic T31, mimic the shape and set-up of a counter-top oven.
Arguably the biggest benefit of an air fryer over a conventional is that the best of the best can cook some foods in half the time. In our tests, the Ninja Foodi Dual Zone cooked frozen potato lattices in half the time recommended on the bag for a standard fan oven, with deliciously crisp results.
What can I cook in an air fryer?
When most people think of air fryers, the first things that spring to mind are chips and fried chicken, but air fryers are so much more versatile than that. You can use an air fryer to cook most of the foods you would usually cook in a deep fat fryer or oven, with the exception of wet battered foods, as they can drip through the holes of the air fryer basket.
Vegetables cook brilliantly in an air fryer and come out with a light, crisp texture. Fish and meat also cook well in air fryers, with some models featuring two cooking compartments, so you can cook your meat and vegetables at the same time, without them touching.
Some air fryer brands go even further than this. For example, the Tower T17039 5-in-1 comes with a dedicated rotisserie function for cooking whole chickens, while the Tefal Actifry Genius XL can be used for stir-fries and curries. Several models also have a dehydrate function, so you can experiment with dehydrating fruit for delicious snacks and breakfast toppings.
Are air fryers healthy?
If you do a like-for-like comparison of chips cooked in a deep fat fryer to those cooked in an air fryer, the latter absorbs significantly less oil and therefore, has fewer calories. So if you’re swapping deep frying for air frying, you’ll definitely be making a positive change to your diet, with a significant reduction in the amount of fat you consume.
However, most air fryers do still require you to add oil to foods and sometimes, this might not be the healthiest cooking method you can choose. For example, air-fried broccoli isn’t as low in calories as steamed broccoli, which has no oil added. It’s therefore important to have air-fried foods as part of a balanced diet.
You can read more in our are air fryers healthy? guide.
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How much does an air fryer cost?
There are air fryers to suit all budgets, though typically the more you spend, the better the results. Premium models such as the Tefal Actifry Genius XL 2in1 will set you back as much as £270, but you’ll get a large capacity, a self-stirring paddle and lots of presets to walk you through using it.
If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, you’ll be pleased to know you can pick up an air fryer for as little as £40. Though budget models won’t always produce the same crisp, even results as their more premium counterparts. Our pick for the best budget air fryer is the Tower T17005 due to its impressive capacity and how well it crisped up food.
If you’re looking to spend somewhere in-between, you can pick up some great mid-range models around the £80 to £100 mark, such as the Ninja Air Fryer AF100UK. In addition to air frying, this model offers a number of other useful functions such as dehydrating and reheating. You can read our full Ninja Air Fryer AF100K review for more information.
In short, if you opt for a budget model, it’ll usually come with a limited range for functions and performance might not match the results you’ll achieve in a premium air fryer. And as with most purchases, buying the most expensive one doesn’t automatically guarantee you’ll get the best product for your needs. However, premium air fryers usually offer better performance and greater versatility, as well as being easier to use. To find out more about choosing the best air fryer for your needs, as well as our pick of the best for every budget, check out our best air fryers page, where we’ve rounded all the top performers based on our extensive testing and reviewing process.