It's easier and healthier than deep-frying. But is it as good? Well....
When it comes to the “latest and greatest” kitchen gadgets, I’ll be the first to admit I have some baggage. A few years ago, my brother nearly ruined Christmas dinner by using an “As Seen On TV” infrared oven (a gimmicky predecessor to the air fryer) to “re-fry” my mom’s Vietnamese imperial rolls. Not only did it take forever, but the rice paper wrappers emerged from the “miracle machine” with an extremely unappetizing plastic-like texture. It was a grim meal that my mother has never let him forget.
But after a few trusted colleagues raved about air fryers, I decided to reconsider. At my local home goods store, I eyed the futuristic, egg-shaped appliance with skepticism. Air fryers are basically compact convection ovens that rapidly blow lots of hot air onto food to cook it. I was intrigued but hesitant to commit due to its small capacity. I went home empty handed; I needed a little more convincing.
Knowing about my capacity concerns, my editor suggested the Power AirFryer Oven, which boasts a large capacity and multicooker functions (though there are a few others I tried and liked: See below). Gearing up for my maiden voyage, I watched the oven’s infomercial and perused its user manual. And then I went on an air-frying binge.
During a four-day period, I unleashed the machine on all of my fried favorites. Panko-coated shrimp and onion rings were crunchy, albeit lean tasting, an issue remedied by a dipping sauce. “Fried” Brussels sprout leaves were phenomenal with just a whisper of oil. Chicken wings and tofu developed terrific crispy exteriors. My large machine’s five racks allowed for air-frying zucchini sticks and eggplant rounds while roasting slabs of cauliflower at the same time. Pretty efficient multitasking, if you ask me.
However, I had to rethink my concept of frying—the major appeal of the oven. With little oil involved, air-frying can dehydrate things quickly and unexpectedly; you’re exposing food to a hot windstorm instead of bathing it in oil. For example, within minutes, my slightly limp French fries became dry sticks. You’ve got to pay attention.
After a week with the oven, I learned a few tricks. Briefly preheating helps avoid overcooking. A bit of fat, such as egg and a spritz of oil, helps coatings adhere to create crisp exteriors. Leaving air-fried morsels to cool slightly in the oven after cooking takes them from damp to crispy.
My ultimate goal was General Tso’s chicken, a dish that involves deep-frying the meat in a wok, pouring off the hot oil, then reusing the wok to make a lusty sauce to enrobe the chicken. The air fryer liberated me from the initial frying, and cleanup was much easier than deep-frying—wiping down the oven was a remarkable breeze. Many of us adore fried food, but few of us actually want to make it. Air-frying doesn’t fully replicate deep-fried flavors and textures. However, it’s perfect if you want to indulge with less guilt and less mess.
I’m even tempted to bring the air fryer to my mom’s house over the holidays and give it a shot at crisping up her imperial rolls. Wish me luck.
How to Pick the Right Air Fryer for You
With dozens of models to choose from, picking out the right air fryer depends on how much space you have and what functionality you’re looking for. Here are our top picks.
Best for Small Kitchens
If you’re tight on kitchen space and happy with an appliance that’s limited to air-frying, single-function egg-shaped models made by Philips and Crux are our top picks. Check the capacity before purchasing: Smaller than 3 quarts is good for two people; a 4- to 6-quart unit works for up to four.
Best for Versatility
Multifunction air fryers eat up more countertop real estate, but they’re designed to be kitchen workhorses. The Power AirFryer Oven air-fries, dehydrates, and roasts big batches, features easy-to-use digital controls, but puts out a lot of heat. The well-insulated Cuisinart Convection Toaster Oven Air Fryer (pictured above) bakes a beautiful batch of cookies and air-fries tortilla chips to a lovely crisp, but the old-school manual dials make precision timing tricky.