What Is An Air Fryer? Here’s How This Kitchen Workhorse Really Works

We explain how they operate, what you can cook in them, and answer a few FAQs.

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Instant Pot Vortex Plus 10q

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

It seems every cookbook and social media account is flooded with air fryer recipes nowadays — and for good reason. Air fryers are incredibly convenient and easy-to-use countertop appliances that make throwing together a quick meal a breeze. 

Similar to toaster ovens, they heat up much faster than a standard oven and cook food much more quickly. Many people love to use their air fryers for frozen fried foods, like fries or chicken nuggets, since this type of cooking yields a crisp exterior — but with less oil. 

How Do Air Fryers Work?

If you’re familiar with convection ovens, air fryers use the same technology. “Convection has a fan system to help circulate hot air," says Brian Jupiter, Executive Chef of Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern in Chicago, IL. "This even distribution of hot air not only cooks things more quickly but also more consistent than the conventional home oven.”

The top of the air fryer has a heating element — usually a coil — and a fan. The bottom usually houses a food basket with holes. Once turned on, the powerful fan pushes the coil's heat toward the food, allowing the air to circulate fully and heat all sides of the food, drying out the food's surfaces and producing a crispy, crunchy exterior. Convection ovens work similarly, but the basket element makes an air fryer unique.

Chefman 3.7qt Turbofry

Food & Wine / Russell Kilgore

What Can You Make in an Air Fryer?

The better question might be: What can’t you make in an air fryer?

Roasting ultra-crispy veggies takes no time in an air fryer. They’re an excellent appliance for cooking up your favorite proteins, including chicken wings, fish, chickpeas, and meatballs. Tofu, a notoriously finicky protein to get crispy, can achieve perfect results in an air fryer. Some are even large enough to accommodate whole chickens. 

And don’t forget dessert; air fryers can produce decadent, fudgy brownies and even a show-stopping Basque cheesecake. The sky’s the limit, though you should avoid anything with small pieces or liquid that might fly around from the fast-blowing air.

Types of Air fryers

There are a few variations of air fryers, but we’re most familiar with the countertop or standalone variety that utilizes a basket to house the food while cooking. This is a small, self-contained appliance completely dedicated to air frying. 

Another common variety is an air fryer toaster oven. This countertop appliance combines air frying as well as the features of toaster ovens. They often have more settings for varied types of cooking — like a pizza oven setting or even rotisserie capabilities. 

These days, you’ll also find air frying options built into larger appliances like microwaves and traditional ovens. 

Air Fryers We Love

Instant Pot 6-Quart Vortex Plus Air Fryer

Instant Pot 6 Quart Vortex Plus 6-in-1 Air Fryer Stainless Steel


While testing the best air fryers available, we landed on this model as our absolute favorite. This Instant Pot air fryer impressed us with its lightning-fast preheating, versatility, and user-friendly settings. The basket is a whopping 6 quarts, enough space to cook for a big family or entertain a crowd easily. Plus, this model boasts six functions, including dehydrating and broiling.

Instant Omni Plus Air Fryer Toaster Oven

Instant Omni Plus Air Fryer Toaster Oven


This model quickly emerged as our favorite during our air fryer toaster oven test. We loved the versatility of all the added features and settings, like the air fryer basket for perfectly crispy fries, the rotisserie feature, and even the option for dehydrating. We found the Instant Omni Plus to be super easy to use, and its consistent performance and even cooking left us wanting more. During the test, it produced a uniform golden brown toast and perfectly gooey chocolate chip cookies.


Is air-fried food healthy?

Depending on the type of food, air fryers can be a healthier alternative. They allow you to get crispy skin on chicken or browned vegetables without the oil needed to get similar results from pan-searing or oven-roasting. That said, the biggest contributor to nutrition is the quality of the food — air fryer or not.

"Air fryers can be used to cook healthy food, although the definition of 'healthy' differs from person to person," says Abby Lander, RD. "Sure, air fryers use less oil than deep frying. They also cook food faster, which may help preserve nutrients. But what really matters is the quality of your diet overall. While an air fryer can be a tool to cook food in a healthier manner, if you're using it for cooking mainly ultra-processed foods, that sort of defeats the purpose of using it for health reasons."

So while compared to deep-fried foods, air fryer foods are healthier. However, a chicken nugget in the air fryer is still a chicken nugget regarding nutrition.

She continues, "Choose whole and minimally processed foods more often, and understand that just because something is cooked in an air fryer doesn't automatically make it 'healthier.'"

What are the pros and cons of an air fryer?

Beyond being an excellent alternative for anyone trying to minimize oil intake from their diet, air fryers are also great for speeding up cooking. They make snacking quicker and more accessible, and unlike toaster ovens, there’s not much to burn yourself on, so it’s a safer choice for children. 

Of course, adding an air fryer to your kitchen also means added cost. While some are more affordable, the top-of-the-line models can cost up to $400. Purchasing a new appliance is always an investment — not to mention its required countertop real estate. Some air fryers have relatively small footprints, but even those occupy considerable space. Air fryers can also be noisy: The fan's sound is often much louder than appliances like a microwave or toaster oven. However, we still think the pros outweigh the cons and consider an air fryer to be a smart investment.

Our Expertise

Nick DeSimone wrote and compiled this piece. They have years of experience with air fryers in both personal and professional contexts. Our Food & Wine product testers carried out the tests on these products. Each tester is dedicated to thorough and detailed results and puts each product through rigorous tests. Nick also spoke to chef Brain Jupiter about the technical aspect of convection heating and Abby Lander, a Registered Dietitian since 1999.

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