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 to charcoal.)
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 with.
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, depending on what you’re making. 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 may 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.
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’d like a rare burger or steak, forget it. By the time the outside has browned, the inside of the meat will be well done.
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?).
Bear in mind that one of the limitations of an air fryer is that if food is crowded inside, the cooking performance will be affected as the appliance cooks by circulating hot air. 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, 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 many online retailers, although it’s a popular product at the moment and many websites are out of stock. Here are the best deals we’ve found.
Amazon in the UK has a good deal on the Tower T17022 air fryer, which is available for £49.95, down from an RRP of £69.99 (it's pictured at the top of the article). It has a 4.3 litre capacity, which will be more than enough for a meal for two to four people, depending on what you are cooking and portion size. It has a pull-out drawer and detachable basket and its exterior dimensions are 28.7 by 35 by 32.6cm. It has an adjustable temperature control and a timer but no cooking presets.
If you’re in the US, Amazon has a good deal on the highly-rated Ninja AF101 air fryer, on sale for $99.99, down from $129.99 (it's pictured above). It has a four-quart capacity and four programmable cooking functions. Its exterior dimensions are 13.6 by 11 by 13.3 inches.