What do air fryers do?
As the name suggests, air fryers cook using convection heating: they circulate hot air around food. This gives a crispy, crunchy coating without the need to deep fry.
Air fried food shows evidence of the Maillard reaction, which is a chemical effect produced between amino acids and reducing sugars that browns food and gives it a distinctive taste. (If you cook at a higher temperature, you’ll get caramelisation. Higher than that and you’ll turn your food into charcoal. Avoid.)
In other words, an air fryer will provide the taste and texture of fried food, without you having to immerse your dinner in oil.
Are air fryers a healthier way to cook?
That depends on what you’re comparing them to.
If you’re going to use your air fryer to cook items like oven-ready, batter-coated or crumb-coated fish, chicken nuggets or oven chips, they won’t make the items any healthier than cooking them in the oven.
But, if you were planning to deep- or shallow-fry food, you’ll save yourself a big calorie hit.
Deep fryers can use up to 50 times more oil than an air fryer. And although your food will only absorb a relatively small proportion of that oil, deep frying is still the most calorie-dense way to cook.
Frying food also produces acrylamide, a compound linked to cancer development. Air-frying may help to lower the amount of acrylamide in the food you cook. However, it won’t affect the formation of other harmful compounds associated with cooking foods at very high temperatures.
You’ll still also need to use some oil if you’re cooking fresh food, although it’ll only be between a teaspoon and a tablespoon if you're making food from scratch. Pre-prepared items such as oven chips and nuggets won’t need added oil.
How does air frying compare with oven cooking?
Although there’s no health advantage to cooking oven-ready items in an air fryer, you'll probably find that you can roast items in an air fryer using less oil than you’d use in an oven. If you parboil potatoes and spray them with oil, you can pop them in an air fryer and get very crisp roast potatoes in half an hour.
Another advantage is that air fryers get extremely hot very quickly, and the circulating air means that food will get perfectly browned all over. This means you’ll be able to cut your cooking time and up the crunchiness in the finished product. It also makes it easier to cook things like sweet potato fries, which can go limp in an oven.
An air fryer will be faster than oven cooking. Because of the quicker cooking time and the smaller size of an air fryer compared to your oven, it’s more energy efficient. This means that it's a more environmentally-friendly cooking option and one that'll save you (some) money in the (very) long run.
Like oven cooking, you’ll still need to keep an eye on your air frying food and probably turn it over once mid-way through.
How does air frying compare with deep frying?
Although it’s much faster than baking in an oven, air frying will take twice as long as deep frying. On the plus side, it is much easier to clean up afterwards and the appliance will contain the smell of fried food, so it won’t linger around your home the way pan-fried food does.
There are also the health benefits, as mentioned above, although it’s worth saying that fried food shouldn’t be eaten every day and if you succumb to the convenience of an air fryer and its health claims, you could end up eating too much fried food.
What can you cook in an air fryer?
The obvious items are chicken, chips, frozen burgers, plus other frozen food like nuggets and fish fingers.
Fresh fish, including salmon, can also be air fried. So can bacon.
You can also use it in more inventive ways, for example to make homemade crisps, toasted seeds and nuts and roasted vegetables such as Brussels sprouts.
If you get a compatible pan, you can cook some baked goods, including cookies and desserts. They will be done more quickly, using much less power than the oven.
Finally, it can be used to heat up leftovers.
What can’t you cook in an air fryer?
You won’t be able to fry items in a wet, homemade batter, although if you adjust your recipe, you can fry items in a homemade breadcrumb mix. Cheesy items (apart from perhaps frozen mozzarella sticks and the like) should also be avoided. Batter and cheese will just melt into a gloopy mess under the tray in your air fryer.
Broccoli and similar vegetables will either dry out or wind up soggy. Leafy veg will be blown around and will not cook evenly.
Dry food coated in seasoning will end up losing its seasoning as it cooks.
And if you like a rare burger or steak, forget it. By the time the outside has browned, the inside of the meat will be well done.
That being said, there are recipes for all kinds of air-fried foods, including some of the above, so technique is important and you may just have to experiment to see what works for you.
How do you clean an air fryer?
Air fryers are easy to clean and should be cleaned properly after each use. The pan, tray and basket can be washed in warm water and washing-up liquid or (most) can go into the dishwasher. The appliance itself should be unplugged and wiped down after use.
Like other counter-top appliances, an air fryer should stand on a heatproof surface.
How large is an air fryer?
Air fryers come in different sizes, so you need to take into account both the external dimensions (do you have space for it?) and the internal space (is it large enough to contain the portion sizes you’ll most often prepare?).
One of the limitations of an air fryer is that if food is crowded inside, the cooking performance will be affected. It cooks by circulating hot air, so if the air can’t get to the food, it won’t cook properly.
The internal capacity of air fryers ranges from approximately 1.5 litres to 5.5 litres. At the smaller end, you’ll be able to cook a side dish like fries for one to two people. At the larger end, you’ll be able to cook a main course for four people. The cooking capacity may also be shown in kg or quarts if you’re in the US.
In terms of counter space, bear in mind that it’ll need several inches of free space around it while it’s in operation.
Where can you buy an air fryer?
Air fryers are now available from most online retailers. Prices start at about £50 and go up to £100 or more. At the budget end of the range, you'll get a basic air fryer with a smaller internal capacity (1.5-2.5 litres). At the top end of the range, you'll get more internal space, plus other cooking options, such as grilling and baking.
For £39, you can buy the Tower Air Fryer from Amazon UK. It's a straightforward 1.5 litre air fryer with a small footprint: 32.2 x 27.5 x 27.5cm. It has a 30-minute timer and adjustable temperature setting. It doesn't have an automatic shutdown feature, so you'll need to keep an eye on it.
If you have a bit more to spend, you can buy the Morphy Richards 480003 health fryer for £69. It has a 3 litre capacity, manual dials for cooking time and temperature and an automatic shutdown.
If you're after something a bit larger still, the Tefal Easy Fry Precision EY401840 digital air fryer is available for £97.17. It has a 4.2 litre capacity, a 60-minute digital timer, plus eight automatic programmes to cook fries, cutlets, pizza, shrimp, fish and cake, as well as roast and grill. The interior elements are removable and dishwasher-friendly.