If any kitchen appliance has taken the internet by storm, it’s the air fryers. And honestly, it makes sense. Everyone wants to satisfy their fried food cravings without all the guilt, so who wouldn’t want an air fryer?
Finger food you’d typically fry can go in an air fryer instead. Fries, certainly, but add to the list chicken wings, chicken nuggets, jalapeño poppers, cheese sticks, even pizza bites. You get the idea. Most have small capacities, from 2 to 5.8 quarts (often smaller than claimed, according to our measurements).
If you’re a fan of convenience cooking and crispy foods, you may have found yourself perusing articles like, well, like this one, wondering if you should get yourself an air fryer (a.k.a. “the best new thing since Instant Pots”).
On the one hand, they can take up sometimes precious countertop space. On the other, they’re incredibly efficient at heating (or reheating), and getting foods quite crispy and delicious without a lot of oil or mess. Though they’re not necessarily for everyone, many home cooks swear by their air fryers and get daily use out of them.
How air fryers work?
An air fryer combines several different cooking methods in one convenient appliance.
An electric coil suspended above the food provides radiant heating, much like a broiler element or stovetop burner. This dry heat penetrates the food and warms it internally.
Meanwhile, a fan positioned above the coil creates a current of superheated air that flows around and under the food. This is convection heating, a cooking method often found in commercial ovens.
The convection action converts the small amount of oil you use into a fine mist that coats the food as it circulates. This action mimics the effect traditional deep frying has on foods submerged in hot cooking oil.
As the hot air flows, the food’s own moisture creates the steam needed to finish the cooking process.
5 Best Air Fryers in 2021:
The 5.5-quart Ninja Air Fryer Max XL was the top performer in our traditional, basket-style air fryer test. It scored the highest marks across the board for ease of use, thanks to its easy-to-use and -read buttons and clear owner’s manual. During our tests, the air fryer basket slid in and out easily, which made handling a breeze.
We’re fans of the basket’s slick, ceramic interior and removable tray, which makes it nonstick. The tray also fits snugly and securely on the bottom of the basket so you don’t have to worry about it falling out when you turn the food out onto a plate. Both are dishwasher safe and easy to clean, even if you choose to hand wash.
In addition to being easy to use, The Ninja Air Fryer Max XL scored the highest in performance. It produced crispy and even frozen fries, homemade fries, and chicken wings that were moist on the inside. The model we tested comes with a broiling rack for even quicker and juicier results and melty cheese.
It also features several cook settings, including max crisp and air broil, which reach 450°F, and dehydrate, which reaches a low of 105°F. The different settings are programmed with unique maximum and minimum temperatures, so you can intuitively achieve different cooking results. Another unique feature is the timer, which counts down to the second.
- Cooked food the quickest in our tests
- Easy to use with large, intuitive buttons
- Some reported issues with quality control
Air fryers are great, but how about if you want to do more than just whip up fried food with less oil?
Well, invest in the Cuisinart TOA-60 and you also get the advantage of a countertop convection oven so you can broaden your repertoire and menu considerably. How does this unit stack up, then?
Capacity is reasonable with 0.6 cubic feet of interior cooking space. This will allow you to toast 6 slices of bread, air fry 3 pounds of chicken wings, or roast a 4-pound turkey. You can even bake a whole 12-inch pizza giving you everything you need for a dinner party or a meal with the whole family.
Despite this interior real estate, the Cuisinart is pretty compact measuring up at 15.5 x 16 x 14 inches so it won’t dominate your entire kitchen counter.
The timer baked in is adjustable through 60 minutes and comes with an auto shut-off function for safety’s sake.
- Multipurpose air fryer with 7 functions
- Generous 0.6 cubic feet capacity
- Easily adjustable 60-minute timer
- Plastic knobs are fragile
One of the most annoying things about air fryers is that they tend to perform much better when cooking small portions than they do when cooking larger batches of ingredients. The COSORI air fryer has a square-shaped nonstick basket, which is large enough to fit enough french fries for your family. The basket is also dishwasher safe to make cleanup easier.
This air fryer is smart too, and it includes an app with 100 different recipes to get you started. You can control the air fryer using the app, or even voice-control the air fryer using Alexa.
You can just add your ingredients and say, “Alexa, cook French fries in the smart air fryer for 25 minutes.” You can see how much time your food has left without going in the kitchen, and you can schedule cooking times in advance (up to four hours ahead of time).
- Multipurpose cooking device
- Big enough for a whole chicken
- Bulky to store in small kitchens
- Heavier than most other air fryers
With eight preprogrammed settings for a variety of foods, a wide temperature range and an affordable price, the GoWise 8-in-1 Digital Air Fryer is our top budget pick. And rest assured, it’s no slouch at air frying either. You just might be able to convince your kids the French fries came from their favorite fast food restaurant.
In addition to having a large capacity so you can cook all your chicken in one batch, the GoWise has an alarm that you can set to remind you to toss or turn over your food during cooking to get even browning and crisping. You don’t have to preheat the GoWise which is a timesaver and the frying basket is both nonstick coated and dishwasher safe. If you need inspiration, the GoWise comes with a cookbook full of recipes.
- Digital touch screen with eight “smart” presets for different food types
- Wide temperature range
- Quiet operation
- Heat from the outer frame can melt nearby plastic items
- Tray liners needed to prevent nonstick coating wear
“This air fryer’s large, flat basket was key in producing an even crisp on the food’s surface,” says Johnson. She found that this air fryer from Philips produced the most reliable crisp on both the French fries and the chicken tenders.
It’s extra-large size is perfect for feeding a crowd — Johnson was able to fit 10 to 12 nuggets and two to three servings of fries in the basket. The easy pull-out drawer allowed for smooth and secure motion when checking the food for doneness.
The basket, drawer, and “fat reducer” heat plate are all dishwasher-safe, making for easy cleanup. “This is the most expensive unit, but it was also the most effective,” says Johnson. “This air fryer would be ideal for families with larger kitchens. It would be cumbersome to move from cabinet to counter, so the best case scenario is that it would live on the counter full time.”
- Relatively small footprint
- Intuitive controls with digital temperature and cooking settings
- Easy to clean with drawer-like design
How to choose the best air fryers for you
Air fryers range in size, shape, capacity and price. Those machines that cook enough for a whole family tend to be large and oddly shaped so will eat up some space on your countertop and aren’t easy to take in and out of a cabinet or closet. Typically, the best ones come with a relatively steep price but they are likely to come with digital temperature settings for precise control.
Here are the five things to consider when shopping for an air fryer:
- Size: Most air fryers are not only not small, but irregularly shaped. Be sure to measure the space on your countertop where you plan to keep your air fryer and the air fryer itself before making a purchase.
- Capacity: Air fryers are available with a wide range of capacities from about 2 ½ quarts to as much as 8. If you have a large family, go for a larger size. In a small air fryer you may only be able to fry a half pound of French fries or a couple of pieces of chicken while in a large one you can fry a whole bag of Frozen fries and 8 chicken pieces at once.
- Type of Controls: Dial controls are intuitive to operate but offer less precision. To set the time you’re basically turning a mechanical timer that dings when time is up.
- Other functions: Some air fryers do double duty as other appliances. This gives you more versatility and means you’ll have fewer products taking up space in your kitchen.
How We Tested
We evaluated each air fryer by making frozen, store-bought French fries, bone-in, skin-on chicken breast and prepared yellow cake from a mix to determine if the machine browned food well on the outside by the time it cooked inside and produced crispy texture on the outside.
We tested how organic the controls were to use, too, eschewing clunky manual dials that don’t pause themselves in favor of digital displays/buttons that were easy to set and paused themselves when you opened the baskets to check your food.
Extras like how aesthetically-pleasing the models were, how much noise they made while cooking, and how cumbersome they were to interact with were also measured as tiebreakers to separate the best machines from the regular joes.