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Testing Air Fryers

By Chase Brightwell Published

We cooked thousands of french fries and more than 50 pounds of chicken to answer one question: Which air fryer reigns supreme?

Air fryers are all the rage, and for good reason. The best models cook food quickly and efficiently, and because they're essentially countertop convection ovens, they can be used in place of a toaster oven or wall oven. Our new favorite, the Instant Vortex Plus 6-Quart Air Fryer, can fit enough food for four people, has an easy-to-use basket that slides into the appliance like a drawer, and features intuitive digital controls.

What You Need to Know 

Despite their name, air fryers don’t fry your food. They’re essentially small convection ovens with powerful fans that circulate hot air around food to approximate the crisp and juicy results of deep frying. They require less oil—mere tablespoons, as opposed to quarts—and are less messy than deep frying. Air fryers are also marketed as a smaller and more convenient alternative to conventional ovens; they generally cook food quicker, shaving off 5 to 10 minutes from most recipes. They need to be preheated for only a few minutes, if at all, and they won’t heat up your entire kitchen. Even people who already have a convection oven may appreciate the speed, convenience, and extra cooking space that these appliances offer. Throughout years of testing air fryers, we’ve concluded that even the best models can’t achieve the perfect golden crispiness that deep frying offers, but some come impressively close. With a little finessing, some of our favorite oven and deep-fry recipes can work quite well in an air fryer.

Both in color and crunch, air-fried french fries (middle) were very similar to those we prepared in a convection oven (left). Deep-fried french fries (right) get a little crispier and more golden.

We tested three styles of air fryers: drawer-style models with baskets that pull out from the front; flip-top models with lids that lift up from the top to reveal the baskets inside; and bigger, cube-shaped models with doors that swing open in the front and multiple racks inside like an oven. The oven-style models often include revolving rotisserie baskets or propeller-shaped auto-stir attachments, both of which automatically rotate to toss food around, supposedly for more-even heating and crisping. After testing models with all sorts of innovations, we found an exciting new winner. Its capacity is bigger, it cooks better, and it costs less. What more could you want?

Air fryers aren't just for after-school snacks and frozen foods. You can make some really elegant and satisfying meals in an air fryer, including staff favorites Roasted Cod with Lemon-Garlic Potato Galette (left) and Spicy Fried-Chicken Sandwich (right).

What to Look For

• Drawer-Style Models: No matter the size or capacity of the air fryers we tested, the best results came from those with drawer-style frying baskets. Each had a single large handle that allowed us to easily maneuver the basket and shake it to redistribute food midway through cooking. This kept our hands away from the air fryers’ heating elements and gave us a place to hold the basket without using oven mitts. The baskets sat inside plastic or metal trays, which caught crumbs and debris for easy cleanup.

The air fryers we tested come in three main styles. Our favorites (left) had drawer-like baskets that slid straight out. We didn't like models with flip-top lids (middle) because those lids were heavy and threatened to fall on our arms. Models with doors that opened like an oven (right) worked well with only very small amounts of food.

• Wide Cooking Spaces: Just because an air fryer claims to have a larger capacity doesn’t mean that it has more usable cooking space. Since air-fried food cooks best in one layer, the width of an air fryer’s cooking surface mattered more than the height of its cooking space. We preferred one wide cooking surface to multiple racks for this reason. Our favorite models had cooking surfaces that measured more than 10 inches by 10 inches, offering enough room to accommodate recipes that serve up to four people.

Most air fryers are only big enough to hold two chicken cutlets, which means that you can really only prepare enough food to serve two people. Our new favorite is an exception: It can comfortably fit four chicken cutlets and prepare meals for four people.

• Simple, Responsive Controls: Our top-performing models required only a couple pushes of a few buttons or turns of a single knob to operate. While we did like a few of the analog models, our favorites had digital controls, since we were less likely to accidentally knock digital controls when adding or removing food. Digital models were also more precise.

• Nonstick Interiors: Frying baskets and crumb-catching trays with nonstick coatings were easy to clean, even when they were covered in cooked-on cheese or sticky sauces. Because air fryers generally can’t heat to more than 400 degrees, there’s no risk of the nonstick coatings getting hot enough to release toxic fumes.

• Auto-Pause Timers: For the best results when cooking in an air fryer, you need to remove the basket or racks and shake, flip, or turn food as it cooks. We preferred models whose timers automatically paused when we opened the doors or lids and resumed when we closed them. This saved us from having to push another button to continue cooking, which was easy to forget.

To ensure that food cooks evenly, you need to remove the drawer and shake the contents once or twice. Our favorite models paused cooking when we pulled out the drawer and restarted once we put it back rather than shutting off completely and requiring us to re-enter the remaining time.

• Automatic Shutoff: The best models in our lineup also shut off automatically at the end of the programmed cooking cycle, ensuring that food didn’t overcook if it lingered in the machine for a few extra minutes. Another perk: We didn’t have to remember to turn off the models.

What to Avoid

• Air-Fryer Ovens: All the oven-style models we tested were difficult to use and produced lackluster results. They had bigger footprints but couldn't actually fit much more food inside. Having multiple levels of racks didn't work well in any of the air fryers we tested. The upper rack blocked heat from reaching the lower rack, resulting in unevenly cooked food. Despite our efforts to manage this uneven heating by switching and rotating the racks, the food never finished cooking at the same time. And because the cooking racks and baskets didn't have handles, we had to use oven mitts. Crumbs and drips fell through the perforations in the racks and onto the floor of the ovens or, more frustratingly, onto our kitchen floor. They were also a pain to clean; crumbs stuck to their bases and hinges and were impossible to remove.

Models with oven-style racks were largely disappointing. Food cooked unevenly and crumbs fell onto the floor of the oven and our countertops, making a mess.

• Flip-Top Models: Most air fryers with flip-tops had heating elements in their lids that were completely exposed when the unit was open—and their heavy lids threatened to drop those heating elements right onto our hands. We also found some flip-top models to be inconveniently large. When we flipped them open, they wouldn’t fit under our cabinets.

• Rotisserie and Auto-Stir Attachments: A few models came with rotisserie baskets (barrel-shaped mesh cages) or frying baskets with propeller-shaped auto-stir attachments. Both accessories were designed to agitate the food, thus eliminating the need for manually shaking the baskets midcook, a common air-fryer requirement. But they were fussy to use and didn't make better food (and in some cases, they made things worse).

• Sharp-Edged Baskets and Racks: A few models had wire cooking racks and/or baskets with sharp edges that trapped sticky foods, shredded our sponges, and ensnared the bristles of our scrub brushes.

Other Considerations

• Preheating: Unlike conventional ovens, many air fryers don’t require preheating. Just pop in the food and press a few buttons. However, a few newer models we tested—including our winner—do recommend preheating. They took only about 2 minutes to reach 400 degrees, as opposed to the 10 to 15 minutes it takes to heat oil for deep frying or preheat a conventional oven. Preheating an air fryer for a mere 2 minutes offers an advantage: It ensures that the frying basket is hot when the food touches it, allowing for faster and more-even cooking. One important note: None of the recipes we developed for our cookbook Air Fryer Perfection calls for preheating, but they'll still work well in a model that uses a preheat cycle.

Most air fryers don't need to be preheated, but the manufacturer of our favorite model recommends preheating it for about 2 minutes. We didn't mind because it was such a short length of time and it helped ensure that food cooked perfectly.

FAQs

• What Size Air Fryer Should I Buy? We liked a few smaller air fryers with stated capacities of about 3 quarts. They cooked food evenly and efficiently and were easy to use and clean. The catch is that they hold only enough food for two people. If you want a larger air fryer, you need to shop carefully. We found that the external dimensions and stated capacities of air fryers are not reliable indications of how much food they can cook at once; most extra-large models can still really cook only a pound of fries or two chicken cutlets. However, our winner—the Instant Vortex Plus 6-Quart Air Fryer—holds twice as much food as the other models in our lineup. It’s also only 1 inch taller and 1 inch wider than our favorite smaller models (and also roughly $100 less expensive). We think there’s no downside to buying this larger air fryer, even if you’re routinely cooking for only two people.

With the right recipe, you can successfully "roast" foods you would usually prepare in an oven, such as this butternut squash side dish.

• What Surprising Things Can I Cook in an Air Fryer? Just because it’s called an air “fryer” doesn't mean that it produces only crispy, “fried” food. You can do much more than crisp up french fries and fish sticks—though air fryers do a great job of that. We’ve found that you can cook hearty main dishes such as crab cakes and glazed salmon and vegetable sides such as brussels sprouts and butternut squash. We were even able to roast a whole chicken in our winner.

• Do I Need to Add Oil to an Air Fryer? Some form of fat is helpful in almost all cooking; it conducts heat and amplifies flavor. Many frozen fried foods such as frozen french fries or chicken nuggets have already been cooked in oil. It’s not necessary to add oil to these foods when cooking them in an air fryer, but a small amount of added oil could help them get crispier. When cooking fresh foods in an air fryer, it’s usually necessary to add a little oil, but just a few teaspoons is generally sufficient.

Because the baskets of our favorite air fryers have nonstick coating, they're a breeze to clean. All you need is a sponge and hot, soapy water.

• How Do I Clean My Air Fryer? The most important things to remember about cleaning your air fryer are to never submerge the main body of the appliance in water and to avoid getting the heating element wet. You can clean the removable parts of an air fryer with warm, soapy water and a sponge. You can wipe down the interior as well.

How We Tested

• Cook frozen french fries according to the manufacturers’ instructions (cook a double batch of frozen french fries in models with stated capacities of 5 quarts or more)
• Make homemade Air-Fryer French Fries
• Make chicken wings in models with stated capacities less than 5 quarts
• Make Air-Fryer Chicken Parmesan (make a double batch in models with stated capacities of 5 quarts or more)
• Make Air-Fryer Sweet and Smoky Pork Tenderloin with Butternut Squash
• Test the attachments where applicable 
• Clean the air fryers after each test

Equipment Review Air Fryers

We cooked thousands of french fries and more than 50 pounds of chicken to answer one question: Which air fryer reigns supreme?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.