Trendy air fryers may be one of the most popularof late, but they are far more than just a flash in the pan. Fried food aficionados are learning that an air fryer gives you a lot of the tasty benefits of frying but with much less oil and fewer calories — and less mess to clean up after, too.
With continued air fryer popularity comes options. New and updated air fryer models are coming into the market faster than perfectly cooked french fries disappear at a Sunday afternoon football get-together — which is to say, fast. When we first struck out in search of the best air fryer, the Cosori 5.8-quart took the top spot. It has since lost its place thanks to a potentially dangerous software vulnerability, so we’ve hauled in a few of the latest air fryer models and retested some of our previous favorites with a renewed vigor to find the best air fryer in 2021.
What exactly is an air fryer?
If you’re sorta, kinda not sure what an air fryer even is or why they’ve become so popular, let’s start there. The trendy air fryer is a fairly simple cooking machine that employs extremely hot, fast circulating air to flash-roast food inside of a contained frying basket. While there’s generally no or very little oil used, the results can be similar to that of traditional frying in that food comes out crispy on the outside and (ideally) moist on the inside.
Air fryers heat up fast, cook quickly and make healthier versions of traditionally fatty fried foods, so what’s not to love? But it’s not just healthy versions of bar snacks. I use my air fryer for cooking skin-on chicken thighs to crispy perfection, veggies including mushrooms, pork chops, peppers, onions, and even seafood — namely shrimp, scallops and filets of fish. And because most air fryer baskets are nonstick, cleanup is often as simple as a quick spritz and wipe with a soapy sponge. Many are dishwasher safe too.
Starting to see the appeal?
Demand for air fryers is at an all-time high as the results are much more delicious than to pressure-cook foods. That’s no surprise — after many months of pandemic-related restrictions that had more people eating at home, an appliance that can quickly and easily cook up culinary favorites was sure to be popular. These trendy ovens are also perfect for summer dinners when the desire to turn on that big hot main oven is nowhere to be found. This means there are more air fryers on the market than ever before, but not all are created equal and some brands have jumped into the space quickly with poorly performing machines just to grab a slice of the frenzy.
All the choice also means there is certainly an air fryer that will fit your space, cooking habits and budget. You can choose from personal fryers, air fryer toaster ovens, basket air fryers, large family-size models and every size in between. There are air fryers with basic mechanical dials and controls, while others have fancy cooking options and presets — some even have smarts and app connections. You can also pay as much as $300 for one or nab a budget-friendly air fryer for as little as $30 or $40.
What makes a good air fryer?
Here we explore what to look for in a quality air fryer if you’re itching to try that air-fried chicken or sweet potato fry recipe you found on Pinterest. Power, speed and precision are a few of the most important factors in a good air fryer and were the qualities we weighed heaviest. But we’ve also taken into consideration things like counter real estate, cooking capacity, how intuitive the interfaces, dials and controls are as well as the build and durability of each air fryer. There is a premium version air fryer – Cuisinart air fryer that bakes, broils, and toasts and also lets you air fry right inside the oven.
This list should help you find the best air fryer for you and in no time, you’ll be chowing on the crispiest — and healthiest — chicken wings of your life. We’ve built upon our initial round of testing by retesting some of the air fryers we loved and weaving in some new models to see if any recently released air fryers or ones we missed last time are worthy of consideration.
Unlike previous air fryers we liked from, and , today’s modern air fryers are more powerful, meaning quicker access to crispy fries, onion rings, chicken nuggets or any other frozen food that you might typically make in a deep fryer or a rotisserie. They also have more capacity for air frying so you can cook more food, and are lighter, quieter and easier to clean.
No matter how simple or complex, though, what truly counts is how well they deliver goodies straight from the fry basket. When it comes to air fryers, that can vary a lot, whether you’re frying up a frozen bag of tater tots or cooking from a recipe book. Here’s what we learned after putting several top-rated models through their paces to find the best air fryer in 2021.
When we tested air fryers the first time, the Ninja proved itself the best model for chicken wings. That’s still the case, but we found this machine also cooked many other things well in this latest round of air fryer testing, landing in the top spot on our updated list. The Ninja was the most powerful air fryer we tested, blasting chicken wings to crispy goodness the fastest. Speed is a big draw since it means you’ll get that desired crispy outer layer faster with less risk of drying out the inside of a chicken wing, French fry or whatever else you’re making.
The Ninja also made frozen mozzarella sticks that were nicely browned with bubbly cheese inside. They started out frozen and were transformed into crispy, crunchy and gooey cheese bombs in 6 minutes flat. If you’re into fries, the Ninja won’t disappoint either. Frozen French fries turned out golden brown and delicious in just 10 minutes in both rounds of testing.
One thing to note is the Ninja lacks a special cooking method or mode for vegetables so, much like in our previous testing, the fresh Brussell sprouts emerged a tad overdone, even burnt in spots. This is not a terribly complicated fix and simply requires a little bit more checking when you are air frying certain foods for the first time.
The Ninja also has very simple controls, whereas some air fryer interfaces were overly complicated or had buttons and dials that just didn’t make much sense. With the Ninja, there are only four buttons to control the cook mode — air fry, roast, reheat and dehydrate — as well as simple buttons to control the temperature and time. That’s about it and, honestly, that’s really all you need. The Ninja also has a simple, solid build with what feels like high-grade plastic. The basket slides into the base securely with no wobble.
This oversized air fryer is easy on the eyes. The Dash Deluxe has the largest cooking capacity of any of the ovens we tested with a 6-quart cooking basket. It also has some undeniable retro appeal and is available in a few fun colors. The appliance we tested was aqua, though it also comes in red, black and white. This model also has all manual controls with no presets and was exceedingly simple to operate.
Aesthetics aside, the Dash fried up batches of wings, Brussels sprouts, tater tots and French fries that were all cooked evenly and well. In our first round of testing, we found it easy to overshoot when air frying a mozzarella stick if you’re not careful. For us, that’s a good thing and only means the air fryer has considerable power that you simply need to learn to manage.
I rarely rely solely on food manufacturer recommendations or oven presets but rather use them as a loose guide and do lots of peeking and checking along the way. The Dash has exactly zero presets and no cooking modes such as roast or dehydrate but still got the most important jobs done.
The Dash is also solidly built, although not quite as sound as the Ninja. It’s also on the heavy side, so this is one you might need to find a permanent home for. If you like this model but prefer a smaller size, the 3-quart version can be had for just $70.
If you’re not looking to drop a full Ben Franklin on your air fryer, know that you don’t have to but can still nab a quality air fryer oven for relatively cheap. Of the many we tested, the Gourmia was among the least expensive at under $50 but it performed quite well in most of the tests.
This five-quart oven cooked chicken wings especially well with crispy skin and juicy center, and we found the power nearly on par with the Ninja and Dash ovens. It also made very crispy French fries and toasty mozzarella sticks with a gooey center.
One small drawback for this machine is its slightly clumsy build. The basket didn’t slide into the oven as flush as you might want and that could ultimately lead to problems but it didn’t affect my use of it in any way. This air fryer also has a lot of presets which I don’t generally care for since they don’t account for how much food you’re cooking or the size of, let’s say, a chicken wing or thickness of your French fries. I find it’s always better to use a rough preset recommendation and a lot of progress checking the first few times you cook something. That way you’ll learn about the oven and its power for yourself.
All that said, this 4-quart digital air fryer has a lot of oomph for just $60 and it’s a great size for most kitchens.
I’m going to level with you, air fryers can be a little bulky. In fact, they’re one of the larger countertop appliances you can purchase, and if you have a small kitchen with limited countertop square footage, you’re going to have to account for that. One workaround is nabbing a hybrid countertop oven that serves as a toaster, convection oven and air fryer. The Ninja Foodi is my favorite and it even flips up to sit no more than seven inches from the wall when not in use
Another option is buying a smaller solo air fryer, and Nutribullet’s new Magic Bullet Air Fryer is our pick for the best compact air fryer in 2021. This model obviously won’t hold as much as the others on the list but in our testing, it showed good power so you could cook fairly quickly in batches if need be. The Magic Bullet has a 2-5-quart cooking basket which is enough to hold about eight wings or two servings of French fries in a single cook.
The Magic Bullet Air Fryer crisped chicken wings and Brussel sprouts nicely and got the fries to gold brown as fast as any other air fryer on our list. (I imagine the small basket accounts for this machine’s fast cooking.) It also has very very simple analog dials and wasn’t very noisy while in action.
Others we tested
One popular option is the Instant Vortex. It’s priced in line with the other air fryers in this group. The Vortex is made by the same company that created the groundbreaking Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. Despite that, though, we weren’t blown away by the food we fried in it.
Using the recommended settings, mozzarella sticks came out a tad soggy with exteriors not quite crispy enough. Chicken wings and fried chicken were acceptable, not incredible, and less juicy than what other fryers produced. My Brussels sprouts ended up overdone too. And frozen fries were done but cooked unevenly.
Dash Compact Air Fryer
The Dash Compact Air Fryer is different from its bigger sibling in important ways. Specifically, the small air fryer is underpowered and comes with a rock-bottom price tag. While the Dash Deluxe is a powerhouse, the Dash Compact struggled to air-fry almost everything we put inside it. Both french fries and Brussels sprouts were underdone and unevenly cooked.
Mozzarella sticks emerged from the air fryer basket hot, but weren’t all that crispy. The only bright spot was chicken wings. They took 30 minutes but I was treated to skin with some crunch.
GoWise USA 8-in-1 Digital Air Fryer
You may not have heard of this brand, but this offering from GoWise is a solid choice. It didn’t cook the skin of my chicken wings evenly. That said, french fries came out crispy, crunchy, with creamy interiors. The fryer also roasted Brussels sprouts well, no mean feat for this group of appliances.
Chefman 2.1 qt. Analog Air Fryer
Another relatively affordable choice is the Chefman Analog Air Fryer. It’s tiny too, offering just 2.1 quarts of food-frying capacity. The appliance did deliver tasty mozzarella sticks and decent chicken wings. However, it undercooked my Brussels sprouts and frozen french fries. We also found the Chefman’s timer control confusing. This dial is labeled in numerical increases of 10. The numbers, though, are separated by groups of four dots, not nine as you would expect.
PowerXL Vortex Air Fryer
You might consider purchasing the PowerXL Vortex, but we recommend against it due to its steep price and mediocre frying performance. We had satisfactory results cooking chicken wings in it. However, the machine exploded my mozzarella sticks when we fried them as directed by the product manual. It also overcooked Brussels sprouts and the french fries it prepared were merely OK, not outstanding.
Philips Avance Airfryer with TurboStar
Even with a significant drop in price, the Philips Avance Airfryer isn’t worth your money. Sure, this kitchen appliance does a decent job of heating frozen convenience food like mozzarella sticks and pizza rolls. But when it comes to fresh food like chicken wings, the results from the Philips air fryer were on par with what you’d expect from a conventional oven.
DeLonghi Rapid Crisp
The DeLonghi Rapid Crisp was one of the most expensive models we tested and it just didn’t live up to the price tag. While I really liked the design, sturdy build and appreciated the small viewing window to watch cooking progress, I found the buttons and interface very clunky. There was no way to set an actual cooking temp — only presets — and even those were not very intuitive.
It also showed a little less power than some of the others, taking a bit longer to crisp chicken wings and Brussels sprouts, although it did cook the fries and mozzarella sticks beautifully. Despite a bit less punch, this model still did a suitable job and has a nice compact shape so I wouldn’t call this a complete failure of an appliance, just not worth the $210 you’d need to shell out.
Beautiful Air Fryer by Drew Barrymore
This air fryer offering from actress Drew Barrymore’s new kitchen line performed well in the four rounds of testing. It showed good power and cooked chicken wings to a nice crispy outside and kept a juicy inside after about 25 minutes. It also handled the fries and mozzarella sticks with ease. The air fryer’s interface is also pretty slick, although I liked the Ninja’s slightly simpler control panel a bit more, which is one of a few reasons it edged out this unit for best air fryer overall.
That said, this is a great option and clocks in at about $11 cheaper than the Ninja. It also has a pleasing design with smooth matte plastic (which does smudge a bit). It comes in a few colors including a dashing sage green.
How we tested each air fryer
Ease of use
When frying items with each appliance, we recorded how each went, noting occurrences like overcooking, undercooking, burning and the like. We paid attention to the labels, controls and displays or buttons if any of the machines had them. We also took note of how loud each air fryer was while it operated.
How they cook
To get a sense for how each air fryer in this test group handles, we ran a battery of four tests on each product. Each test focused on one food. These were mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, Brussels sprouts and frozen french fries.
Before we began testing any of these units, we consulted each model’s manual for relevant cooking directions. If the manual didn’t provide specific instructions, we applied uniform procedures to each air fryer depending on the type of food we were preparing. For fries, we set the fryer for 380 F. After preheating for five minutes, we cooked the fries for 12 minutes and gave them a shake somewhere in the middle.
For chicken wings, we preheated to 400 F, then fried them for 30 minutes. We also made sure to flip them with tongs every 10 minutes. For mozzarella sticks, we preheated to 350 F and cooked for six minutes. For Brussels sprouts, we preheated to 375 F and cooked for 15 minutes. Before cooking, we rinsed and cut the sprouts in half and tossed them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
At the end of each test we looked for several criteria. These included how evenly each item was cooked, how well done they were and, of course, whether they had a sufficient level of crispy, crunchy, fried deliciousness comparable to deep frying.
Want to know more about air fryers?
Editor’s note: First published April 29, 2018 at 8:13 a.m. and updated regularly.
Go to Publisher: CNET News
Author: Brian Bennett