What Is an Air Fryer? Here’s What It Really Does to Your Food

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Air fryer recipes are sweeping the nation, but what is an air fryer and how does it work? Here's the lowdown.

There’s no question that air fryers are hugely popular. But if you’ve ever wondered, “what is an air fryer?” or “how does an air fryer work?” this guide breaks it down.

What Is an Air Fryer?

The air fryer is essentially an amped-up countertop convection oven. (But there’s a difference between air-frying and baking.) Patented by Philips Electronics Company, the small appliance claims to mimic the results of deep-frying with nothing more than hot air and little or no oil.

This gadget has surged in popularity over the last few years—nearly 40% of U.S. homes had one as of July 2020, according to the market research firm NPD Group. There are all kinds of things you can air-fry—from frozen chicken wings and homemade french fries to roasted vegetables and fresh-baked cookies.

How Do Air Fryers Work?

The top section of an air fryer holds a heating mechanism and fan. You place the food in a fryer-style basket and when you turn it on, hot air rushes down and around the food. This rapid circulation makes the food crisp—much like deep-frying, but without the oil.

Here’s how to use an air fryer:

1. Place your food in the basket

Depending on your air fryer’s size, the basket may hold anywhere from 2 to 10 quarts. In most cases, you’ll want to add 1 or 2 teaspoons of oil to help the food get nice and crispy.

2. Set the time and temperature

Air fryer cooking times and temperatures typically range from 5 to 25 minutes at 350° to 400°F, depending on the food you’re cooking.

3. Let the food cook

In some cases, you may need to flip or turn the food halfway through the cooking time to help it crisp up evenly. Once you’re done cooking, it’s important to clean your air fryer.

What Are the Best Air Fryers?

Our Test Kitchen put several models to the test to find the best air fryer, and three brands rose to the top. We’ve been fans of the Philips Avance Turbo-Star Air Fryer for years, and our experts were also impressed by the Black + Decker Purify Air Fryer and the PowerXL Vortex Air Fryer.

These gadgets range in price depending on their size and features. In addition to the appliance itself, you may want to pick up some air fryer accessories.

What Can You Cook in an Air Fryer?

While many of the best air-fryer recipes are foods that are typically deep-fried, you can also use this appliance to roast vegetables, cook meat and bake cookies.

Frozen Finger Foods

The air fryer is a star when it comes to preparing frozen foods that are meant to taste deep-fried. Frozen french fries, mozzarella sticks and chicken nuggets are some of the many frozen air-fried foods you can make.

Homemade Finger Foods

If you prefer to make your finger foods from scratch, the air fryer is a great option for making crispy homemade snacks and sides—try Air-Fryer Sweet Potato Fries, Air-Fryer Pickles or Air-Fryer Papas Rellenas.

However, while air-fried frozen mozzarella sticks are delicious, fresh cheese melts into a gooey mess (so homemade cheese curds are out).

Chicken, Fish and Meat

You can make air fryer chicken that’s tender and juicy. Try air-fryer chicken recipes, like Air-Fryer Nashville Hot Chicken. For a healthier option, Air-Fryer Keto Meatballs are a great choice. When it comes to fish and seafood dishes, we love this Air-Fryer Crumb-Topped Sole.

Roasted Vegetables

Since air fryers are essentially small convention ovens, they’re great for roasting vegetables—especially if you’re only cooking for one or two people. Some of our favorite air-fryer vegetable recipes include Air-Fryer Herb and Lemon Cauliflower and Air-Fryer Garlic-Rosemary Brussels Sprouts.

However, when you’re using this gadget to cook veggies, skip the leafy greens.

Some Baked Goods

Air fryers can be great for making single-serving desserts, including small baked goods like cookies and apple fritters (here’s how to make air-fryer cookies). You can also try making these Air-Fryer Peppermint Lava Cakes for the winter holidays or these Air-Fryer Mini Nutella Doughnut Holes for an indulgent treat any time of year.

However, you can’t make anything that uses a liquid batter (unless you freeze it first).

Air Fryer Tips

Is air-fried food healthy?

You could argue that air-fried food is healthier than deep-fried food because it uses less oil. Frozen french fries prepared in the air fryer contain between 4 and 6 grams of fat versus their deep-fried counterparts, which have a whopping 17 grams per serving.

What are the pros and cons of air fryers?

Pros: Air fryers make it easy to whip up frozen foods, and they can do so in a way that is slightly healthier than deep-frying. The results are much better than oven-frying, and your kitchen stays cool.

Cons: Even the largest air fryers have a limited capacity, so you’ll likely have to cook in batches—especially if you’re preparing food for a crowd. Bigger than a toaster, air fryers also take up valuable counter space. Finally, they can be pricey, depending on the model you get.

Is it worth getting an air fryer?

With numerous models on the market, this popular appliance has come down in price in the last few years—many models cost less than $200 and some cost less than $100. Still, springing for an air fryer is likely only worth it if you whip up fried foods—either frozen or homemade—on the regular.

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Sue Stetzel
Sue has been working with Taste of Home since 2011. When she isn’t writing, she’s answering your burning cooking questions and working with our team of Community Cooks. She spends her free time cooking, crafting, and volunteering for various organizations in her home town.
Teddy Nykiel
Teddy is an associate digital editor at Taste of Home specializing in SEO strategy. As a home cook herself, she loves finding inspiration at the farmer's market. She also enjoys doing any sport that involves water and taking long walks with her black lab mix, Berkeley.