Electric deep-fryers promise to take the fear out of deep frying. They are purported to make frying easier, safer, and less messy than frying in a Dutch oven with a probe thermometer attached, which is how we typically deep-fry foods in the test kitchen. The machines are essentially metal bins with an electrical heating element suspended inside: You pour oil up to a maximum fill line, turn the machine on, and, in most cases, set the desired temperature for the oil. Once the oil is ready, you lower the food into the oil (usually via a basket) and often stick on a lid, which helps contain any messes and supposedly contains unwanted odors.
Still, most of these fryers are fairly big—about the size of a toaster oven. Do any of us really need to spend more money on another space-hogging appliance? To find out if any of these machines had advantages over our tried-and-true Dutch oven, we bought six products, priced from about $36 to about $130, and put them to work, using them to cook frozen mozzarella sticks, Classic French Fries, North Carolina Dipped Fried Chicken, vegetable tempura, and cider doughnuts.
To our surprise, we found that there was a lot to like about these fryers. In almost every test, every model performed well, making crispy, well-browned, evenly cooked food. The only time the fryers faltered was when making vegetable tempura: Because none of the models can heat above 385 degrees, tempura that emerged from the fryers was a little greasier than tempura that had been fried at the correct temperature of 400 degrees in a Dutch oven. In most cases, however, we fry at temperatures that are well within the limits of these machines (325 to 375 degrees), so unless you plan on doing a lot of high-heat frying, this won’t be too much of a problem.
Using probe thermometers to check the temperature of the oil, we were pleased to find that all the machines heated to within 5 degrees of the temperature we had selected on their dials or digital consoles. And most models did a good job of letting us know when the temperature had been reached, either with a beep or by turning an indicator light on or off. Only one machine had no temperature control or indicator, heating to a single temperature of around 375 degrees and giving us no sign when the oil was ready; as with a Dutch oven, we had to use a probe thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. The controls on the other machines were all easy to use, though some had nonstandard temperature benchmarks (e.g., 374 degrees), since the temperatures had been converted to Fahrenheit from Celsius. Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to hit exact temperatures when frying; as long as you can get within a fairly close range, your food should turn out fine.
Another benefit to these machines? Fitted with electric heating coils, they all heat fairly quickly. Depending on how much oil the machine holds (from 6 to 19 cups), it can take from 10 to 17 minutes to bring it all up to 350 degrees, compared with about 20 minutes for the standard 12 cups of oil that we heated over medium-high heat in our heavy, thick-walled, enameled cast-iron Dutch oven.
The machines did a great job of maintaining their heat, too, rebounding to the desired temperature just as quickly as when we fried foods in a Dutch oven. Best of all, they regulated the temperature without requiring us to adjust the heat, as we have to do when deep-frying on the stovetop. This set-and-forget temperature control gives the deep-fryers a significant advantage, making it easier to fry without worrying that the oil will overheat or that the temperature will fluctuate too much.
Testers preferred deep-fryers that came with fry baskets. The baskets allowed us to move whole batches of food into and out of the hot oil safely, without dangerous splashing; plus, when the food is done, the basket can be hooked onto a tab high on the fryer’s interior wall, allowing excess oil to drain off the food and back into the bin. This feature proved especially useful when we fried chicken: With the chicken pieces sitting securely in the basket, it was easy to check their interior temperature. When we fried chicken in the Dutch oven or in the one fryer that had no basket, the same task proved somewhat more precarious as we juggled hot chicken with a spider skimmer or a pair of tongs in one hand and a thermometer in the other.
The fry baskets also proved critical in determining the functional capacity of each fryer. We had assumed that the capacity of the fryers would be dictated by the volume of oil that each fryer held—from 6 to 19 cups in the models we tested. But in practice, the volume or depth of oil wasn't quite as important as we'd thought; instead, it was the surface area of the baskets—which we used nearly every time we fried—that proved more important. This is because for many applications, you may need to add food to the fryer in a single layer. Doing so can prevent dredged or battered foods from sticking together and losing their coating, or prevent fragile foods such as doughnuts from bumping into each other and becoming misshapen. One fryer had a huge oil capacity of 16 cups, but because the basket it came with had such a small surface area, there was a real limit to the amount of food we could put in a single layer.
Our favorite Dutch oven has a total surface area of about 97 square inches. By contrast, most of the fry baskets we tested had a usable surface area of just 50 to 60 square inches. The smaller surface area made it harder to reach in and flip food to ensure even cooking, and it required an extra batch or two to get through the entire yield of a recipe. When you’re frying for only a minute or two, as with mozzarella sticks, doughnuts, or tempura, an extra batch isn’t a big deal. But when you’re frying food that takes longer, such as chicken, another batch can add 15 minutes to your total cooking time, and two extra batches, as required by some fryers with especially small baskets, can add a full half hour.
Happily, one fryer distinguished itself from the rest. With a large basket that provided 84 square inches of usable space, our favorite fryer rivaled the Dutch oven, holding just as much food and completing every recipe in about the same time and number of batches.
Another quality testers appreciated: How neat almost all the fryers were. Frying in a Dutch oven can require a commitment to deep-cleaning your kitchen afterward, as oil can spatter all over your range, counter, exhaust hood or surrounding cabinetry. By contrast, most electric deep-fryers do a great job of containing those splatters. First, because they have relatively high walls, the food and oil sit fairly low inside the bin—as long as you observe the maximum fill lines. And second, all but one model came with lids that held in any spatter that might have managed to escape during cooking.
The trouble is, whatever time you gain from not having to clean your kitchen is lost again when you have to clean the machine itself. With most electric deep-fryers, you’re still going to have to get out a strainer and a coffee filter to clean the oil after every session, as we do after frying in a Dutch oven, removing old bits of batter or food that would otherwise burn and give your oil off-flavors during future frying sessions. (We’ve found that filtered frying oil can be cleaned and reused up to 3 times with no adverse effect on flavor.) Two machines had a small advantage: They featured built-in filters through which oil could be drained, eliminating the need to dirty extra tools.
But those filters couldn’t take away from the bigger problem: Once the oil is filtered and removed, you’re still going to have to clean the machine. That’s where things can get messy. Most of these fryers have a lot of parts, all of which get covered in oil and/or debris during cooking. The lids, bins, and baskets can be dropped in the dishwasher, but for best results, they first need to be wiped down thoroughly to remove as much oil as possible; often, they also require some scrubbing or detailing to get out any stuck-on bits of food. The control consoles and heating elements can’t be put in the dishwasher at all, but must be carefully cleaned by hand. By contrast, the cleanup after frying in a Dutch oven is pretty simple: Just wash the pot, probe thermometer, and whatever tool you used to fish out your food.
If you do a lot of frying, you might want to give the T-Fal Ultimate EZ Clean Fryer some space in your kitchen. It is neat and easy to use, offers effortless temperature control, and can cook just as much food in one batch as our Dutch oven can—and just as well, as long as you’re not frying at temperatures above 375 degrees. Like most of the other fryers we tested, it has more parts to clean than a Dutch oven does, but it also has a number of nifty features that make cleanup slightly less onerous. A built-in filter cleans the oil, and, unique to this model, a container at the bottom of the unit handily collects and stores that filtered oil for future use.