What is an air fryer?

Many of us love the taste and texture of fried food with its crispy exterior and tender centre. And air fryers—the latest in buzzy kitchen gadgets—promise to satisfy fried-food cravings more easily, safely and with way less oil than traditional frying. Plus, they can make everything from golden french fries and juicy chicken wings to crunchy cooked vegetables that kids will actually eat.

But before you consider buying yet another kitchen appliance for your already cluttered countertop, here’s a deep dive into everything you need to know about air fryers, including pros and cons and how they differ from devices you may already own.

And if you’re ready to skip straight to shopping, you might want to check out our favourite air fryers and other time-saving kitchen appliances.

Questions to ask when buying an air fryer

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1What is an air fryer?

An air fryer is essentially a souped-up countertop convection oven that circulates hot air to make food crispy and crunchy on the outside and tender and moist on the inside. Most air fryers look like toaster ovens or egg-shaped pods (known as “basket-style” air fryers) and may come with crisper trays and other accessories.

Unlike a deep fryer, an air fryer can brown and crisp food without a ton of added fat—and that’s why they’re so popular. “You can cook french fries, “fried” chicken, chicken wings and more to crispy perfection with very little oil,” says Denise Bustard, scientist-turned-founder of Calgary’s Sweet Peas and Saffron blog.

2What are the different types of air fryers?

There are many types of air fryers on the market but they generally fall into three categories:

  • Basket-style air fryers: This pod-shaped type of air fryer has a footprint similar to a coffee maker and is the most popular because it’s small and generally the most affordable. “If you’re single, [eating solo] or cooking for only a few people, a basket-style air fryer could be great for you,” says Bustard.

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  • Toaster-oven air fryers: They’re larger and more expensive, but also fit more food and do more than air fry, such as roasting, convection baking and toasting. “If you have a larger family to cook for, the convection oven–style air fryer will probably be a better fit for you, as you won’t have to cook in batches,” Bustard notes.

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3How does an air fryer work?

Although the name suggests otherwise, there’s no actual frying going on inside an air fryer. Air fryers are basically small appliances with heating elements and fans that rapidly circulate hot air. The high heat and forceful air work together to dehydrate ingredients and mimic the golden-browning effect of traditional frying. While the exact mechanisms vary with different air fryer models, the hot air is key. “It helps wick away moisture from the surface of foods, getting them nice and crispy,” says Bustard.

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Cooking Tip
Preheating your air fryer, shaking the basket (by pulling the basket out by the handle, shaking side to side and then sliding it back in) or flipping larger pieces a few times during the cooking process will all help ensure your food browns to crispy perfection.[1] Be sure to cut pieces of vegetables, meat or fish into similar-size pieces so they air fry at the same rate.

4Is the food cooked in an air fryer healthy?

By most measures, air frying is healthier than traditional frying in oil. It’s estimated to cut calories by up to 80 percent on average compared with typical deep-fried snacks[2] because you’ll only need to brush your food with a small amount of oil (if any) instead of submerging it.

Ultimately, though, the health of your food still comes down to the food itself. If you air fry breaded chicken fingers and serve them with ketchup, your meal will have a lower nutritional value than air-fried chicken tenders with no breading that you serve with air-fried veggies.

5What types of food can you cook in an air fryer?

“The best foods to cook in an air fryer are ones that are intended to be served crispy such as breaded chicken, french fries and chicken wings,” says Bustard. “I also personally love roasting vegetables. They cook in a fraction of the time, get brown and caramelized, and are so tasty!”

Some of Sweet Peas and Saffron’s popular air fryer recipes include air fryer bacon, air fryer chicken tenders, air fryer sweet potato tots and air fryer salmon.

For more air fryer recipe inspiration, here are three of our favourites:

Air fryer tofu

Why we love it: This gluten-free, protein-packed air fryer tofu recipe is not only super healthy, but also has the perfect amount of crisp and crunch. The tofu is made for dipping, which kids are sure to get a kick out of.

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air fryer chicken wings

Why we love it: Delightful family dinners start with great recipes, like these easy air fryer chicken wings. You can skip the takeout and make this restaurant favourite from home in just minutes! They’re big on flavour and crispiness, without all the oiliness.

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air fryer zucchini fries

Why we love it: For a crowd-pleasing snack or side dish, these air fryer zucchini fries are a sure bet. They’re oh-so-crispy and seasoned with yummy Parmesan—kids won’t even realize they’re munching on veggies.

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On the flipside, foods that don’t work well in an air fryer include:

  • Anything with a wet batter: “Homemade battered fish won’t be good as the batter could drip through the basket and burn,” Bustard says.
  • Lightweight foods: “I’ve had issues with kale chips as they flew into the motor and burned,” she notes.
  • Cheese: You’ll need to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t drip all over the basket.
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The greasy drippings that are left in the oil pan of your air fryer can be reused to add flavour to recipes like gravies or pan reductions, so don’t let them go to waste.
Costway 7-in-1 Air Fryer Toaster Oven sits on counter with door open, oven full of crispy chicken wings

6What are the pros and cons of using an air fryer over a deep fryer or convection oven?

  • Air fryer vs. deep fryer: Air fryers and deep fryers have a similar footprint and ease of use and they both produce food that’s crispy on the outside and moist on the inside—but they’re not going to taste the same. Air-fried foods are going to taste lighter, closer to crispy oven-baked dishes.[3] However, when it comes to health benefits, safety, speed and cleanup, the air fryer is the clear winner.
  • Air fryer vs. countertop convection oven: Air fryers take up less counter space than convection ovens, but they also tend to cook less food at one time and are often best suited to households with one or two people (unless you specifically choose one with a large capacity!). They also tend to be more expensive, noisier (even as loud as a vacuum cleaner at 65 decibels) and require a bit more cleanup than convection ovens.[4] Some air fryers cook food faster because of their smaller and rounded shape,[4] while convection ovens often have more functions.[5]
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Shopping Tip
Before buying an air fryer, check the measurements and make sure you have enough counter space to accommodate it. If you’re feeding a larger family, you’ll probably want the biggest air fryer you can manage.

7How do you clean an air fryer?

“We wash the removable parts of our basket air fryer with soapy water in the sink,” notes Bustard. “For our toaster oven–style air fryer, we simply put the trays into the dishwasher.”

Many air fryers have dishwasher-safe components—just be sure to check the manual. It will also advise you on which parts to clean occasionally, such as the exterior and coil, and how to go about deep cleaning if you notice any funky odours, which can happen if food becomes trapped in the appliance’s crevices.

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Safety Tip
Only use an air fryer in a well-ventilated area. Most air fryers release some smoke or steam, so you don’t want to leave them tucked under a cabinet or shelf while they are in use. Place it under your stove’s exhaust hood (when all the burners are off) and turn on your fan to help keep kitchen air clean.[6]

8Is an air fryer worth the money?

Need a small and speedy portable oven and don’t already own a countertop convection toaster? You’ll probably be happy with an air fryer. “If you have the space to store an air fryer, I think it’s worth it. For me, it’s the convenience factor. It cooks many foods quicker than a full-size oven and doesn’t heat up the kitchen the same way an oven does,” says Bustard.

But if you already have a good countertop convection oven, keep using it! They’re ideal for larger families and you’ll find that they can do everything air fryers can do and more.

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Like most appliances, you get what you pay for. If you want to save money up-front and buy the cheapest air fryer, it may cost you more in the end. Instead, do your research and choose quality, then try to snag the model when it’s on sale!

Air Fryers and Convection Ovens