What Is an Air Fryer and Should You Buy One?

By: Julia Clancy

Our Test Kitchen tested and reviewed all the air fryers. Here are our editors' top picks and healthy air-fryer recipes to try. Plus, we break down how this appliance works, what foods you can air fry and if you need to add oil.

Pictured Recipe: Air-Fryer Chicken Nuggets

What is an air fryer anyway? An air fryer is a mini convection oven, in essence. Its promise: to match the taste and texture of your favorite deep-fried foods—minus the all the fat and all those extra calories.

This countertop kitchen appliance and its promise for crispy, close-to-fried perfection sounds promising. But, how does it work, what foods can you cook in it, do you need to use oil and does it live up to the hype? Read on to find out if it's right for your kitchen.

Related: 20 Healthy Air-Fryer Recipes

How does the air fryer work?

An air fryer uses superheated airflow above and around your food to convert tiny amounts of moisture into mist. The extra-hot cooking chamber lets dry heat penetrate the food from the outside in, yielding the familiar crispy texture food gets with a bath in the deep fryer.

Air-Fryer Popcorn Shrimp

Pictured Recipe: Air-Fryer Popcorn Shrimp

Does an air fryer use oil?

Most air fryer brands don't require oil for the machine to work, though a couple of teaspoons will improve the texture and flavor of air-fried eats. While it's possible to enjoy air-fried food with no oil, the beauty of the air fryer is that it only needs such a small amount.

There are only 40 calories per teaspoon of oil (120 calories per tablespoon). The little bit of oil you do add help everything brown, caramelize and get extra crispy and delicious. And compared to the amount of oil and calories in deep-fried foods, the amount you'll use in the air fryer is practically nothing.

Try These: The Best Healthy Fried Food Makeover Recipes

What can I cook in an air fryer?

You can cook just about anything you would prepare in an oven or deep fryer in an air fryer (which is a lot!).

Air-fried chicken nuggets and tenders are a possibility, as are air-fried chicken breasts and thighs. Air fryers aren't just one-trick ponies to replicate crispy traditionally-fried foods; you can also use them to roast or bake without turning on your oven. Use an air fryer to easily cook fish fillets, like salmon, in mere minutes!

Related: Why You Should NEVER Cook Bacon in Your Air Fryer

Make crispy air-fryer french fries with white potatoes or sweet potatoes. Whip up homemade air-fryer veggie chips from beets or potatoes—or go the sweet route and make apple chips. Even vegetables can get the crispy, high-heat treatment with delicious results.

The air fryer can tackle dessert, too: think fried hand pies and petite doughnut holes.

Try These Healthy Air Fryer Recipes:

Crispy Air-Fryer French Fries
Get crispy, crunchy fries with much less oil than deep frying requires with these air-fried spuds. For the best texture, keep each fry as evenly sized as possible. Try a mandoline to make quick work of equal fries if your knife work could use some help.
Air-Fryer Sweet Potato Chips
Thinly sliced sweet potatoes fry to a crispy crunch in the air fryer. These homemade chips also use much less oil, which cuts down on calories and fat. They're a naturally sweet side for sandwiches, burgers, wraps and more.
Air-Fryer Cinnamon-Cake Doughnut Holes
Deep-frying doughnuts adds a lot of unnecessary oil and fat. Air-frying doughnut holes, however, cuts the amount of oil you use but still delivers a delicious crispy crust. Serve these no-yeast doughnut holes warm for the best texture and flavor.
Air-Fryer Zucchini Fries
These crunchy, crispy zucchini fries turn very tender in the air fryer and have a delicate natural sweetness from the cooking process. The simple dipping sauce is very tomato forward, with just enough acid from the vinegar and mayonnaise to add incredible tang.
Air-Fryer Popcorn Shrimp
These air-fried popcorn shrimp get crispy and crunchy with very little oil. The unique flavors are inspired by Mexican fare, with a smoky, spicy dipping sauce and full-flavored shrimp coating. Look for the smallest shrimp you can find so they will cook evenly.
More Healthy Recipes

What is the best air fryer I can buy?

We put five machines through their paces, and two came out on top. Both Gourmia and Philips brands cooked golden fries (fresh and frozen) and a pound of cornmeal-crusted chicken drumsticks to our ideal level of crispness. They cooked these foods as well as a standard oven, but in half the overall time. Plus, both brands surprised us by cooking an 8-ounce salmon fillet perfectly.

Best All Around Air Fryer: Gourmia GAF520 Electric Air Fryer ($140)

gormia air fryer

Try the Gourmia GAF520 Electric Air Fryer ($140). Lightweight and sleek, the Gourmia provided the best, most consistent texture and flavor in the least amount of time. A digital touch screen with various presets from frozen foods to baked goods keeps cooking times and temps easy to read.

Best Air Fryer for French Fries: Philips Viva Collection Air Fryer ($200)

philips air fryer

Try the Philips Viva Collection Air Fryer ($200). The first fryer to hit the market, the Philips was our winner in the homemade french fry category. It also has a larger capacity than the other brands we tested. Another bonus: the basket and removable base are dishwasher-safe.

So should I buy an air fryer?

An air fryer is not unlike a more efficient, higher-output Easy-Bake Oven for adults: quick, compact and enjoyable once you actually read the directions. If you're looking for a low-fuss cooking device that gets things crispy with less fat, cooks foods fast and lets you leave your oven off, an air fryer is a good option.

Watch: How to Make Air-Fryer "Fried" Chicken Thighs

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

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