Should you even bother with an air fryer? Advice from a product tester

The air fryer hype won't die down, but are they actually worth your money?

Should you buy an air fyrer? An Instant Vortex Plus Air Fryer, making salmon and broccoli
(Image credit: Instant)

The air fryer hype train shows no signs of slowing down and with Cyber Monday deals advertised all over the place, that's no surprise. But with such concerted marketing campaigns, it's smart to wonder if you should even bother. 

I'm saying that from personal experience. I was an air fryer skeptic for years. When I worked on other magazines testing vacuums and lawn mowers, I would scoff a little when colleagues would go off to the test kitchen to review an air fryer. I always thought of them as tiny heaters with a little heating element. In my mind, an air fryer was little more than a step up from an Easy-Bake Oven. 

But when I finally caved in last year and bought a big 8 quart model, everyday use totally changed my mind. Even when I recently switched to a humble 2 quart, I've found that a good air fryer is faster and easier to use than an oven. If you want a quick, no-fuss evening meal, one of these will do the the job for you. 

They're not perfect. Even the best air fryer can't replace a full sized oven. There are also legitimate health concerns surround these ovens. However, from my experience as product tester, as someone who uses an air fryer daily, and chatting to chefs and energy efficiency experts, I've been converted.

Are air fryers just glorified convection ovens?

Chef Dennis Littley told me that 'the main difference between air frying, baking, and roasting is the circulation of hot air. Air frying blows hot air directly onto the food from all sides for crisping but baking relies on ambient heat in the oven. Roasting uses hot air but at lower temperatures than air frying'.

That means that an oven can bake and roast low and slow in a way an air fryer can't match. We've roasted whole chickens in our air fryer tests and they always come out slightly drier than the equivalent recipe in an oven, because you're essentially broiling an entire chicken. Air fryers are much faster than traditional ovens, but they're far worse for baked dishes. 

What's more, after testing a fair few of these, I've found that lots of air fryers have separate baking, air frying, and roasting functions. You'd think these would mean an air fryer can bake like an oven, but I'm yet to see any real difference between these air fryer functions. That's because they all use the same basic method. Almost all air fryers have two broilers above and below the basket and fan to whip the hot air around and 'bake'. That's the same process across all of these functions, so the difference between any of them is either tiny or non-existent.

A headshot of chef Dennis Littley
Dennis Littley

Chef Dennis Littley is a classically trained chef with 50+ years of experience in the kitchen, who shares his time-tested recipes, knowledge, and chef tips to help you create easy-to-make restaurant-quality meals in your home kitchen.

Does air fryer food actually taste good?

Ultenic 2-Basket Air Fryer in a test kitchen.

(Image credit: Dooxly)

With that said, it might seem like air fryer food is worse. However, despite the differences, air fryers work on the same basic principle as an oven. There's no particularly culinary reason why food should be worse. They're most useful for quickly cooking frozen food; maybe it's not the most gourmet fare, but if your air fryer food tastes bad, that's probably user error. 

I can also say without hyperbole that I made some of the best roast asparagus I've ever had in a tiny little air fryer. Maybe the stars aligned and I was just on my game, but when I put the Instant Essentials 4 Quart air fryer to the test I made some laughably good roast asparagus. The tips were perfectly crisp, and the stems were well-cooked but juicy. The other tester and I stood in the kitchen in silence for a couple minutes and finished the entire plate. It had no right to be that good, especially in, let's face it, a basic, budget air fryer. 

Don't get me wrong, I've had bad food from an air fryer, but that's more to do with me nuking some chicken nuggets as a midnight snack than any issue with the method. If you can make good food in an oven, you can make good food in an air fryer. 

Are they actually faster than a convection oven?

Air fryers are much faster than a convection oven. My very rough rule of thumb when cooking with an air fryer is to halve the time you think you need. I've noticed recently that some bags of frozen French fries (don't judge me, I'm eating in a rush as I cover Cyber Monday) have recommended air frying times so you don't overcook them.

That's because air fryers are much smaller and therefore more efficient than full-sized ovens. They constantly whip hot air around your food rather than relying on ambient heat, and because they usually use a basket, they heat your food from all directions. The heating element is smaller, too, so the air fryer hits peak temperature much faster, and because they're smaller, your food is simply closer to the heating element. 

All in all, an air fryer is much faster. I have a tiny, no-brand air fryer at home – think the Magic Bullet 2 Quart, but even cheaper – and even this is incredibly fast. I love to make a proper cooked breakfast on the weekend, and now to save time I'll air fry sausages and hash browns. It takes 15 minutes in an air fryer with no oil, where it used to take half an hour or 40 minutes. When I've tested these for work, we've even made fries in 15 minutes. 

Do air fryers actually save money on your utility bills?

kitchen with cabinets, oven and stove

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Another place to be skeptical about air fryers is energy efficiency. They're often touted as reducing your energy consumption but Ben Dhesi, an expert in saving energy, says that 'any utility cost savings are generally minimal and contingent upon usage habits'. 

Hypothetically, air fryers are more economical than an oven. 'Air fryers heat much faster, so little preheating is needed; money and energy could be saved at that point,' says Ben. He adds that 'Air fryers also use less oil, so the ingredient savings could offset some energy costs.'  

But Ben ultimately told me that though air fryers are much faster than an conventional oven, 'the shorter cook times likely won't outweigh the wattage difference between a 1200-1400W air fryer versus a 2000-5000W oven'. He concluded that 'while air fryers are more energy efficient for smaller tasks, they likely won't make a significant dent in most households' utility expenses'. 

It's definitely slightly cheaper to use an air fryer for your tater tots than firing up a big convection oven, but ultimately you'll save a few cents. If you were planning on booking a vacation with the money you save on your utilities, think again. 

A headhshot of energy expert Ben Dhesi
Ben Dhesi

Ben Dhesi, the creator of the energy-saving mobile app HUGO, built his career providing energy-saving software to businesses. He has won two ‘Energy Buyer of the Year’ awards and the Energy Awards ‘Energy Technology Innovation of the Year’.

Are they healthier?

I think you should be very skeptical about some of the claims that air fryers are healthier. They use less oil, sure, but ultimately the difference is tiny. 

Compared to a deep fryer, there are fewer calories. That's simply because air fried food uses less oil. But calories in themselves aren't bad, and lots of air fryer food is ultimately the same as a deep fryer. Air fryers are great for quickly cooking frozen fries, but a French fry is a French fry. Delicious, sure, but the trans fats and additives are all still there.

More significant are worries about air fryer toxicity. When we looked into claims that air fryers are toxic, we found that they can be toxic, but under very limited circumstances. Most air non-stick fryers use PTFE, PFOA, and PFOS chemicals (think Teflon). It's not yet proven, but when heated, these chemicals can enter your food and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues. However, this can only happen if your air fryer is scratched or damaged, so the likelihood is very low. If you're worried, some air fryers use stainless steel, like the Instant Pot Duo Crisp with Ultimate Lid

The deals I recommend

Cyber week deals are wrapping up, but there's still a handful of air fryer deals worth recommending. 

Beautiful 6 Quart Touchscreen Air Fryer| Was $90, now $69 at Walmart
We were very skeptical when we got first saw celebrity-endorsed air fryer.

Beautiful 6 Quart Touchscreen Air Fryer| Was $90, now $69 at Walmart
We were very skeptical when we got first saw celebrity-endorsed air fryer. However, this little appliance from Drew Barrymore's 'Beautiful' collection is actually very good for the price. It's a little flimsy, but outside of sales periods it's far better than its competitors under $100. It's also available in a wide range of colors.

Read more in our Beautiful 6-Quart Digital Air Fryer review

Ninja AF101 Air Fryer | Was $129.99, now $79 at Amazon

Ninja AF101 Air Fryer | Was $129.99, now $79 at Amazon
This little air fryer is incredibly quick and can cook at high temperatures. It lacks a little precision and finesse, but it's fast, and it's also non-toxic.

Read more in our Ninja Max XL Air Fryer review 

Instant Pot Duo Crisp with Ultimate Lid | Was $229.99, now $149.95 at Amazon

Instant Pot Duo Crisp with Ultimate Lid | Was $229.99, now $149.95 at Amazon
One of my absolute favorite air fryer deals isn't even an air fryer. This is an upgrade on the original Instant Pot Duo Crisp, which I used to own. The original used two different lids for all the functions, which I found very frustrating to store and is one of the reasons I switched to a smaller model. Instead, this does it all in one pot. You can air fry, slow cooker, pressure cook and more. It truly does it all, and does it well. The only drawback is that the non-toxic stainless steel can be a little tough to clean. 

Air fryer FAQs

Can air fryers go in the dishwasher?

Some air fryer baskets can go in the dishwasher, but not all of them. It's best to check the air fryer manual to make sure that yours is dishwasher-safe.

Do I need air fryer inserts?

You don't need air fryer inserts, but they help. They're often a lot easier to clean, and if you're cooking breadcrumbed food, will stop crumbs from getting everywhere.

Can I make toast in an air fryer?

You can make toast in an air fryer, but you may need to flip it halfway through. It's faster and easier in a toaster.

Is an air fryer worth it?

Yes, but don't expect any miracles. I really like my air fryer and it makes quick meals when I get home from work, but the quality is far from cordon bleu. I think a little air fryer is handy for making quick meals or small portions for one or two, but don't believe all the claims about their magical speed or health benefits. 

Alex David
Head of eCommerce

As Head of eCommerce, Alex makes sure our readers find the right information to help them make the best purchase. After graduating from Cambridge University, Alex got his start in reviewing at the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, testing a wide range of household products and appliances. He then moved to BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, assessing gardening tools, machinery, and wildlife products. Helping people find true quality and genuine value is a real passion.