They’re all the rage in health-conscious circles for “frying” food without added oil, and anyone who loves all things crispy can’t get enough of theirs...but, err, what is an air fryer? It’s a question that might feel silly to ask since everyone from your grandmother to that super-popular food blogger is using one almost daily. But have no fear, plenty of “food people” have a hard time coming up with a definition. We're de-mystifying this ultra-popular kitchen appliance below.
In short, an air fryer is a countertop appliance that acts like a mini convection oven. Instead of using a ton of oil or fat, it harnesses wind from an internal fan and heat to cook your chicken wings thoroughly and crisp up your French fries with ease. Both of those cooking elements—the fan and heat—are located above whatever the fryer is cooking and while the food sits in a slotted basket. That super-heated air gets around every side of your steak or asparagus to cook it all the way through, and fast, as if by magic.
How Do You Use an Air Fryer?
Remember those “set it and forget it” infomercials? They were onto something, because an air fryer works similarly. Some fryers prefer you to pre-heat them—a step that takes far less time than a conventional oven—even if your recipe doesn’t call for it. After that, you set the amount of time your food will cook and at which temperature, then coat your food in a tiny bit of oil (like, a teaspoon) or cooking spray and place it in the basket. Depending on what you’re cooking, like a burger, you might want to flip it halfway through cooking, but this step isn’t always necessary. Your recipe will let you know what to do, but it’s that simple.
What Can You Cook In an Air Fryer?
Some things, like fried chicken or breaded cauliflower florets, might seem obvious to let your air fryer tackle, but the sky's the limit with this little workhorse. Air fryers can take frozen foods, like mozzarella sticks and personal pizzas (if they fit in your basket) and “fry” them to melty, cheesy, crunchy perfection. They can bake brownies and cakes, roast vegetables, cook bacon, rotisserie a chicken (if you have that attachment), and bake bread, just to name just a few. Most fryers also come with a handy little booklet with recipe ideas, too.
Air fryers have taken off because they’re easy to use, thanks to few settings and minimal prep time, and because it’s a much healthier option to make delicious food. Regardless of your health status, the way that air fryers use extremely minimal cooking oil to get the same crisp and juicy result as deep-frying is a great alternative. Air fryers are also faster than standard ovens, so dinner is on the table in record time, and heating up leftovers in an air fryer will give you better, fresher-tasting results than that boring old oven — and they stop cooking when then timer goes off so there’s virtually no risk of over-cooking. They’re also easy to clean. Most of the few pieces that need to be cleaned can go in the dishwasher safely or are easy to take care of yourself in the sink.
So, What Are the Best Air Fryers?
Depending on the size of your household and how inventive you want to get with your air fryer, the make and model you choose are important. We listed a few options below with the specs for each to get you started.
Finding a quality air fryer under $100 is difficult (trust us), but this one checks all the boxes while being inexpensive, too. As mentioned, this guy can bake, roast, fry, and reheat takeout all without running the risk of drying everything out. This Chefman has a 2-quart capacity, so it’s compact for small kitchens and best for a single or two-person household. This one is special because its super-flat interior basket means it can hold more food than one with curved sides.
An air fryer that doubles as a toaster oven (hello, precious counter space) and has smart, one-touch features? Sign us up. Breville is on the pricier side of the air fryer spectrum, but the brand is known for making quality, high tech products that are surely worth it. The convection design here reduces normal cooking time by about 30 percent, and since it’s so smart, the fryer can sense and eliminate any potential cold spots so food cooks evenly every time.
Big enough to feed a family, this larger air fryer is Amazon’s best-seller because it fits a ton of food and performs a number of functions with the touch of a button — which you can customize as well. It’s no surprise that this fryer is the brainchild of Instant Pot, a brand that delivers time and time again on simple, handy appliances that work for busy families.
Do you love your air fryer? Tell us your favorite things to make in it below!
This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.
See what other Food52 readers are saying.