I Think Air Fryers Are Overrated—Except When It Comes to Cooking This One Thing

While I do own an air-fryer toaster oven, I barely use the air-fryer function. Here's why.

an illustration of an air fryer with an X over it
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Several years ago when air fryers first came on the scene, we tested several in the EatingWell Test Kitchen. Our methods included testing french fries (both fresh and frozen), cornmeal-crusted chicken and salmon fillets. We cooked each item in air fryers and conventional ovens and compared them side-by-side in blind tastings.

Before I get to my very opinionated feelings about air fryers, let's talk about what they are. They're not deep fryers. Air fryers work by circulating very hot air around your food, and that heat penetrates the food, achieving crispiness without a lot of—or any—oil. If it sounds kind of like an oven, you're not wrong: air fryers are essentially convection ovens. You may have a convection oven, or a convection setting on your oven. Some new oven models even have an air-fryer setting.

So back to those tests we did. I'm not going to lie; I was seriously underwhelmed by the results. Over the decades of making healthier recipes in our Test Kitchen, we have finely tuned a really terrific way of "frying" breaded foods in the oven—from crispy fish to parmesan-crusted zucchini—and I thought our cornflake-crusted drumsticks were way better prepared that way. Same goes for the fresh french fries, although perhaps the frozen bagged ones were a little bit crispier in the air fryer? It wasn't a huge difference.

But here's where the air fryer won, hands down: that salmon fillet. All we did was sprinkle it with salt and pepper and pop it in a cold air fryer. In 10 minutes flat, that piece of salmon was cooked to absolute perfection, with an almost-crisp exterior and moist interior.

You may be surprised to hear me say that I do own an air fryer. I bought a Cuisinart AirFryer Toaster Oven two years ago during a Black Friday sale. I was already a toaster oven person, and we were ready for a new one. Why not get one with air-frying capabilities, I thought? I do have a convection setting on my oven. But I don't always want to turn on my oven, especially in the heat of summer. My kitchen faces west and has a lot of windows, so it's wicked hot in there by dinnertime. (We don't have air conditioning.) Maybe I'd use the air-fryer setting more in the summer.

But I don't! I started to use it to make eggplant Parmesan last summer. But I quickly realized that not only would I have to make three or four batches of eggplant, I'd still have to turn my oven on to finish the dish—there's not enough room to put a casserole dish in there. It was going to take me twice as long. After making a batch of eggplant in there, I turned on my oven.

I'm not mad I bought it. I use our toaster oven every day. It doesn't take up much more space than our old toaster oven (it's mostly higher, not really wider). It heats up pizza really well, returning it to its crispy-crust state. And if my husband and daughter were out of town, I might be inclined to use it to make a meal just for me.

But, lucky for me, it's the perfect size to cook three pieces of fish to perfection.

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