It's been around a decade since air fryers blew onto the market. They never quite had enough puff to make it mainstream, until recently. Suddenly, air fryers started to come to the fore on department store shelves; and then, as if to confirm the trend, Ben Mims released Air Fryer Every Day: 75 Recipes to Fry, Roast, and Bake Using Your Air Fryer. In the world of cooking, there's no greater confirmation that an appliance has landed than when it gets its own cookbook.
But what exactly is an air fryer? Essentially, they're relatively large plastic boxes that blow hot air onto whatever food is placed inside. Usually, they come with a basket for the ingredients, several pre-settings (chips, prawns, chicken, etc.), and temperature and time controls for ad-libbing. The machine will either have proper buttons or a slightly annoying touchscreen – although, Luddite grumbling aside, all the touchscreens I tried were fairly responsive.
You'll end up doing a lot of experimentation, but it's all relatively easy, and the baskets can be removed halfway through cooking, either to give everything a good shake-up or just to check if it's ready.
How do air fryers work?
Air fryers cook your food by circulating hot air around the food. Crispiness is promised via the Maillard effect – the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that, in common speak, translates to brown and crispy deliciousness. Supposedly, the system guarantees minimal steam and moisture, so the inside of food retain its moist, succulent character (on this point, some work better than others).
What can you cook in an air fryer?
Practically anything – the world's your homemade chip. And chips amounted to around 90pc of my air fryer output while reviewing products for this article, because there's no better fried food than chips (sorry, fried chicken). Overall, my chips were crispy on the outside and fluffy within. Having said that, lacking copious amounts of oil, they tasted more like oven chips than proper chips.
But I experimented with all sorts. Fried chicken, on the whole, was crispy and succulent. Frozen and fresh burgers, sausages and even sausage rolls cooked quickly and evenly. A soft Spanish goat's cheese was a slight failure as it oozed through the basket (doh!). While I didn't try this, air fryers supposedly work wonders on old pizzas.
Are air fryers healthier than regular frying?
Yes, in short. Sian Baker, a nutritional therapist at Lifelab Testing, explains: "Using an air fryer in place of traditional frying can reduce the amount of oil used by as much as 80pc, therefore lowering the fat content and calorific value of a meal considerably. It might also be preferred by those with intolerances and allergies, as it would decrease the risk of cross-contact with other materials and potential allergens."
Having said that, it's still not as healthy as steaming, boiling or grilling, and if you're anything like me, you'll add a touch more oil than you need, for flavour purposes.
Which one should I get?
I tested several, looking out for various factors when assessing which I liked best, including ease of use, price and end product. I also placed emphasis on the accompanying recipe booklet, because we all like a little help from time to time (and we won't all have access to that cookbook I mentioned earlier).
Here are the best air fryers currently on the market, starting with my favourite...
1. Philips Avance Collection Airfryer extra large
Why we like it: Good looking and consistently excellent results
Big, bulky, noisy (it sounds like someone’s hoovering next door), and expensive – so why number one? The proof’s in the pudding, as they say. I found the output of the Philips Avance (yes, lots of chips), was consistently top notch. Though controlled by touchscreen, it was really easy to use, with no lag. It was big enough for a whole chicken, should you wish. And, despite its size, I actually found it quite good to look at – the monochrome black made it quite smart and inconspicuous.
The Avance quickly cooks up whatever grub you’re after, through a patented rapid air technology. There’s little-to-no setting up (plug it in and you’re good to go). And all the parts are machine washable, so it’s a doddle to clean up.
But now the fun stuff – the food. The accompanying recipe booklet is very well explained, containing 30 recipes – more than most others – and even extends to pastries and desserts. There's an app with plenty more, should you wish.
Of course I started with chips. A very detailed recipe (which included 15 minutes of drying inside the machine, unlike the others) turned my Maris Pipers into incredibly golden, crunchy, fluffy fries.
Fried popcorn chicken was crunchy on the outside and moist inside. And a breaded cod fillet was superbly tender and well crisped, although I had to add a couple of minutes to the recommended cooking time.
Overall, an excellent appliance. Yes, it’s pricey; yes, it’s noisy. But when the end product is this good, and the machine is this easy to use, those shortcomings can be forgiven.
2. Morphy Richards health fryer
Why we like it: A high-performing option at an attractive price point
A more affordable option, which I found to be almost as good as the Philips in output, and much quieter too. To look at, it’s nothing special, utilitarian more than stylish. But ultimately, it lost out because the end product was slightly less impressive – though still very good.
I started by following the recipes from the booklet (much fewer in number than the Philips, but still quite well explained). My first batch of chips, cooked just as recommended, came out not totally ready – not a huge problem, just adjust the time and put them back in.
‘Rosemary roast potatoes’ took just 30 minutes, much quicker than oven-cooked roasties. While they were fluffy inside and had a nice herby kick, they just weren’t crispy enough, which is essential.
Other dishes were more successful. Chicken nuggets were crispy and tender, and ready in 15 minutes. Frozen veggie sausages came out just like they would from the oven, but apparently air fryers use less energy, so there’s a bonus. Burgers were juicy-ish, but didn’t have that charred element that’s so crucial to a good burger.
Nevertheless, I was impressed overall with the Morphy Richards, and it’s much cheaper than some of the higher end models, while hardly skimping on quality.
The Tefal is really not a looker – it looks like something out of Star Wars, and has an intimidating aura. When on, it lets off a slightly screechy noise – almost like a dishwasher. But I like that you can see into the pan while cooking, which minimises even further the risk of burning. And it deserves a podium finish for producing some of the best chicken wings (from a recipe provided) I’ve ever had.
The Tefal works slightly differently in that it doesn’t have a basket into which the food is placed. This means, if you are using oil, or a naturally greasy food (like chicken wings), a lot of fat stays in the food, which diminishes the health aspect. It works like a rotisserie – a paddle turns the food slowly, presumably to better distribute the heat. This is fine, but don’t make burgers (it squashed mine into partially broken meatballs).
Chips were a little oilier than others. A spoonful of oil from a provided spoon is recommended – and it’s a big spoon. However, the chips were up there with the best – thick, fluffy, crispy and, yes, a bit greasy (no basket). But the chicken wings were the star turn (and probably the best thing I made overall, on any air fryer). A simple recipe from the booklet – just salt and pepper, and I added some paprika – and 22 minutes cooking. It looked amazing, all golden and crispy, smelt delicious, and tasted like heaven.
A little noisy – more air conditioning unit than vacuum cleaner. It’s quite compact, which is better suited to the kitchen worktop in my opinion (but less well suited to huge batches of chips). The controls were also pretty straightforward.
Speaking of chips… not bad at all. In almost no time, I had super crunchy fries that were nicely fluffy inside. Sausage rolls turned out crispy on the outside and golden within, and cooked in less time than when I do them in the oven.
The major let down was the booklet. There weren’t many well-explained recipes at all – more guidance on general cooking time and temperature of certain foodstuffs (frozen fries, steaks, burgers, etc). This isn’t the greatest problem ever, but because you've probably not owned an air fryer before, it means you’ll be doing more trial and error, playing about until you get it right.
5. Swan family size fryer
I really like the retro vintage design, the bright red colour and the twisty knobs for the timer and heat setting (though it was harder to accurately gauge time and temperature). It’s relatively quiet when on, like someone hoovering two rooms away.
However, like the Tower, the Swan lost some points for its relatively basic recipe booklet, which left a little too much to trial and error. Chips started off bland, getting crunchier and tastier as I added time, temperature and oil. They didn't seem to crisp as uniformly as some others, even though I shook them around as much as with the others.
Burgers were poor – more chewy meatballs again. Fried chicken turned out well, and tasted similar to the others I tried.
Not a bad appliance overall, just a few more negative points than with some others.
Is an air fryer worth it?
Overall, I was impressed. Positives are plentiful: They don't require much, or any, pre-heating – if you do want to, a couple of minutes is enough. They cook quicker than regular ovens. They're healthier (see above). Your house won't stink. You can do plenty of experimentation as they're easy to use. Cleaning is simple, as most components are machine washable. And overall they're not too expensive.
However, they're big, bulky and often ugly. They can be loud. And there's just that niggling worry that, like many other devices, they'll end up at the back of the cupboard. Make sure you really want one before buying.