What is an air fryer? It’s the healthier way to eat fried food!

How to choose the best air fryer for your needs based on its type, features, capacity and cost

What is an air fryer?
(Image credit: Tefal)

There’s been a bit of an explosion in the choice of the best air fryers on the market of late. That’s hardly surprising really as fried food treats like French fries, spring rolls and chicken wings are delicious, especially with the added bonus of their tantalizing crunch appeal.

While you used to have to fry food in a dedicated deep fat fryer, or a pan of very hot oil, air fryers allow you to cook and enjoy fried food but with less, or indeed none of the oil in the cooking equation. Air fryers generally employ convection-style heat using an element and fan combination to effectively blow hot air over your chosen dish. Some examples even move the food around as it cooks.

As a result, the best air fryers work fast and efficiently, deliver brilliant crispy food and remove the need for sloshing vats of hot oil around. They’re quick, easy and pretty clean. If you and your family find the lure of fried food irresistible then an air fryer will allow you to indulge in a rather healthier variation on the theme. Here's our  guide on what to look for...

Ninja Foodi Dual Zone Air Fryer

(Image credit: Ninja)

What types of air fryer are there?

Air fryers actually work on a fairy simple principle. You generally get the main unit, which comes with a pull out tray or basket, or models that feature a bowl inside which ingredients are placed for cooking. Depending on the model, its set of features and price point, cooking is controlled using either presets or manual settings via buttons and/or dials.

Temperature and time are the core settings for most air fryers, though many models offer a variety of built-in settings that can be selected if you want one-touch convenience. However, one of the key things about air frying food is to reply on the powers of observation. While settings and the device itself will do the hard work, keeping an eye on how your food looks could make the difference between delicious fries and disaster.

This is because air fryers are very efficient. Failure to check on your chips or stopping to give them a shake could result in scorched results. The upside to this efficiency is that you might find it’s easier to use an air fryer than turn on your oven. Buy an air fryer with the right amount of capacity and it’ll easily do the same job as a conventional oven. Often, it'll get the job done much more rapidly.

Philips Air Fryer XXL

(Image credit: Philips)

What do you need to spend on an air fryer?

There are loads of air fryer models on the market, with many offering the same or similar functionality. However, prices vary wildly. You can get an entry-level budget model, with little in the way of features or functions for less than £50/$80. 

In many cases it might do just as good a job of producing crispy French fries as a model that costs five times as much. Part of that will be down to the design, but again there’s the visual aspect of successful air frying to think about too. Keep an eye on those fries and they should turn out great, just as long as you know when to press the stop button. Not sure? Pick a model with preset options.

While many budget air fryers will suffice it really is worth considering a pricier model if you’re looking to cook other things in your appliance. Air fryers have become really popular with people who love their fried food, but many models are very good at handling other mealtime tasks too. In fact, lots of the best air fryers can also roast, grill, bake, toast, keep warm and reheat dishes.

More sophisticated models will allow you to either choose a function from the preset menu options, or have you dial in your own manual settings. Everybody likes food done differently, so if you’re particular about how dishes are cooked then pay a little more and get the added flexibility of a greater range of features and functions. Of course, if you’re frying chips once a week then a budget model will doubtless suffice.

What is an air fryer?

(Image credit: Tefal)

Which air fryer features are essential?

Being able to fry food quickly and easily, without oil is naturally the key thing when buying an air fryer. However, you’ll want to consider capacity and that isn’t always related to cost either. If you’ve got a family then you’ll probably be looking for more volume, so the bigger the pan or basket the better.

A larger capacity means you can cook everything in one go, although bigger portions do need to be stirred or shaken to ensure even cooking. Especially when it comes to fries.  If you’re a solo eater or a couple then a smaller machine with less capacity is absolutely fine. Smaller portions also mean things cook faster and more efficiently, although you’ll still need to apply the visual checks as outlined above.

Alongside capacity, lookout for those control options and preset programmes. As mentioned, many air fryer models lets you fry, roast, grill and bake, with the added ability of being able to choose settings manually. The other function to consider is the on-board timer, which lets you set the exact period of time the food cooks for. Getting the heat and timing right will allow you to cook your food just how you like it.

What is an air fryer?

(Image credit: Instant)

What air fryer extras should I look out for?

While different air fryer models are essentially variations on a theme, some models boast extra features that give them an added edge. The Tefal Actifry Genius XL 2in1 is a classic example of this as not only does it have the benefit of a two in one design, with a bottom bowl and a top tray, but it also boasts a paddle in the bottom bit. This automatically moves food ingredients around, which ensures more consistently cooked food that is less inclined to get burnt.

At the very least though you’ll find your air fryer comes with a pan or basket, often with a metal or non-stick-type grill in the bottom. Food sits on top and any oil drips down into the pan for disposal. Ultimately this is the reason air fried food is generally healthier and less greasy. It’s also the reason that food crisps so nicely during the cooking process. It’ll definitely mean you’ll cut down on oil usage too.

What is an air fryer?

(Image credit: Ninja)

What are the best ways to control an air fryer?

Any decent air fryer will come with two core features. It’ll have a timer, either as a dial or as part of a touchscreen or button arrangement. Secondly, there’ll be a control for setting the temperature during cooking. The third part of this process is using your own eyes to monitor cooking progress. 

If you’re buying a more expensive model then lookout for programmable modes, which cover common cooking tasks including frying, baking and reheating with one-touch simplicity. Lookout too for accompanying apps, which can often help you with recipe ideas and, in some cases, offer a step-by-step guide on what ingredients to put into your air fryer and when. 

What is an air fryer?

(Image credit: Philips)

Are air fryers easy to clean? 

If you’ve been used to a deep fat fryer then having an air fryer in your life will be a revelation. Of course, there’s still cleaning to be done, but there’s much less oil in evidence. If you’ve cooked something like a roast chicken then expect a reasonable amount of oil to accumulate in the pan or basket. This can be easily drained off though, and the pan along with other components such as the grill tray can generally be put into the dishwasher.

Air fryer units themselves can be wiped over, although you’ll need to avoid too much water due to their mains power connection. There might be LCD displays and buttons that also need to be wiped over carefully too. Nevertheless, compared to many kitchen appliances the air fryer has to rate as one of the easier gadgets to keep clean. Most designs are pretty easy to put away when you’re not using them too, just be sure you’ve let it cool down properly after use though as these things get hot.

Rob Clymo
Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.