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You’ve got your coffee machine, toaster oven, essential knives set, Instant Pot and that pile of clutter you’re meaning to take care of — countertop real estate in your kitchen might be tight, especially as you navigate ever more time inside. But you may want to push something aside and make room for an air fryer.
“I was prepared to say in the beginning, ‘Who needs this thing?’,” says Lisa McManus, executive tasting and testing editor for "America’s Test Kitchen". That’s because cooking on a sheet pan in your oven can give you similar results. But it turns out, the air fryer is fast, easy and convenient. So when cooking in the oven feels like too much work, you might want to fire up the air fryer instead.
Ben Mims, author of "Air Fryer Every Day: 75 Recipes to Fry, Roast, and Bake Using Your Air Fryer," says he doesn’t like gadgets unless they do something better than anything else. He says air fryers are convenient for one or two people, faster than the oven, and create more ideal textures in certain foods: “They’ll get crispier, more dried out and browner.”
HOW DO AIR FRYERS WORK?
An air fryer is not really a fryer. It doesn’t fry food like deep frying or pan frying does — it’s more like oven fried. “It is basically a little hot air chamber convection oven. It cooks a little faster, distributes heat more evenly, and suspends food in a perforated basket. It can really speed things up — sometimes you need some good food fast,” says McManus.
Most models don’t need to preheat, so that saves time, and they cook food quickly. In warmer climates and summer months, they won’t heat up your kitchen the way your oven can.
WHAT ARE THE BEST FOODS TO COOK IN AN AIR FRYER?
A lot of people turn to the air fryer to cook packaged frozen foods like tater tots, chicken nuggets and French fries, and many parents like that their children can come home from school and safely prepare a snack in the air fryer. But that’s not all it can do.
“This is not a device you have to use for convenience meals. You can make your own items from scratch,” says Brandi Crawford, author of "The Super Easy Air Fryer Cookbook: Crave-Worthy Recipes for Healthier Fried Favorites."
“Anything you can bake you can make in an air fryer — chicken breasts, burgers, steak, lamb chops — they don’t have to be breaded. The air fryer cooks them to the perfect temperature — they’re juicy and tender,” Crawford says.
Air fryers are great for cooking vegetables. A light spritz of olive or avocado oil will get your veggies to brown and crisp up. “Most veggies are done in under 10 minutes,” Crawford says. She’s a big fan of green beans, broccoli and mushrooms and she says asparagus and baked potatoes also cook nicely in the air fryer.
McManus raves about Brussels sprouts: “They’re really easy and super delicious.”
And Mims says okra and eggplant are two of his top air fryer choices — they get crunchy on the outside and soft but not gooey on the inside. “The things I like most are things that benefit from partial dehydrating and partial crisping,” he says.
He’s also a fan of chickpeas, which crisp up to a level between a corn nut and a regular chickpea, and using the fryer to crisp-cooked grains like rice and quinoa to add to a salad.
You can also bake in the air fryer, with accessories like loaf pans and muffin molds.
And the air fryer is great for reheating leftovers, especially pizza. “It revives it and makes it crispy,” Mims says.
Some people think you can’t air fry food with wet batter, but that’s not the case. Crawford shares her tip for foods like onion rings — after you dredge them, freeze them for about 10 minutes so the batter doesn’t drip inside the fryer.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN AN AIR FRYER?
Unlike pressure cookers, a single brand like Instant Pot doesn’t dominate air fryer sales. There are a few features and factors you should keep in mind if you’re in the market for the best air fryer for you.
- Loading. Some styles have front drawers for loading and unloading the food, while others have a flip-top lid. Our experts prefer the drawer-style models for convenience and safety.
- Ease of use. Are the controls simple to understand and operate? You might want everyone in your household to be able to use the air fryer. “A handful of people read the product manual — everybody else want to walk up and wing it,” McManus points out. It should also be easy to detach and clean the basket.
- Controls. Most models can set temperatures up to 400 degrees, but some have just one temperature setting. A lot of people like to have a reheat button for leftovers, as well as presets for foods like fish and chicken.
- Functionality can make a difference. Can you pause cooking to flip or stir your food? With some models you have to reset the time and temperature.
- Size. Most countertop models are big enough for one or two people. If you’re cooking for more, you’ll probably need to prepare more than one batch or buy a larger model, which can take up a lot of counter space. Some models combine a toaster oven and an air fryer, so you can save some space if you replace your toaster oven.
BEST AIR FRYERS TO SHOP FOR IN 2020
A larger air fryer will give you the space to roast a chicken, and some include a rotisserie, Crawford says. She prefers the Cosori 5.8 quart model, and she likes its square basket, since things like a whole chicken or a turkey breast fit better in that than in a round basket. She’s such a fan of the air fryer that she owns several versions, and on a typical weeknight, she will cook her veggies in one and her meat or chicken in another.
Mims, though, prefers smaller air fryers and feels that for cooking bigger batches you can get comparable results using your oven. He likes the Crux 2.6-quart model.
America’s Test Kitchen reviewed nine air fryer models and the Philips TurboStar came out on top.
They gave the best buy nod to the GoWise USA.
I JUST GOT MY NEW AIR FRYER. NOW WHAT?
To start, take the basket out and make sure there’s no cardboard or packaging in it — Crawford says she’s heard horror stories of people testing their air fryers without fully unboxing them. Set it on a flat surface with nothing directly behind it, since that’s typically where the heat circulates. Then do a test run according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Follow recipes at first. They might specify what size the food pieces should be, and whether you need to move them around during the cooking process. The air fryer heating element is often at the top, so for foods like chicken, fish or beef you’ll want to turn food during cooking so it doesn’t burn on top.
New users sometimes find their food isn’t brown or crisp enough. You might be overcrowding the fryer basket. “People put way too much stuff in there. You can’t load it up to the brim with French fries — they’re not going to crisp or cook evenly,” Crawford says.
Mims agrees: “You need to do only one layer. You can’t pack it full like a deep fryer.”
You may also be skimping on oil, even though you don’t need much. “You need just a spray of oil so [your vegetables] brown and don’t dry out,” Mims says. He says if you don’t want to use any oil at all, you’re better off using a nonstick skillet instead of an air fryer.
You need to be sure to use oil in a spray bottle, not nonstick sprays like Pam, which can damage the basket surface, Crawford says.
WANT AIR FRYER RESULTS WITHOUT BUYING ANOTHER APPLIANCE?
The air fryer is fast and easy to clean, but you can get similar results cooking in your oven on a rimmed sheet pan with a cross-grid wire rack, which you likely already own or could buy for less than $20. Food will take longer to cook, though.
AIR FRYER RECIPES TO TRY
These recipes for air fryers will get you started with your new favorite kitchen appliance:
- Chicken parmesan
- Easy chicken kebabs
- Coconut shrimp
- Crispy homemade onion rings
- Brussels sprouts
- Eggplant with harissa yogurt
- Garlic roasted green beans
- Crispy chickpeas
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