Should you drop money on an air fryer for your lower-fat cooking endeavors, or does oven "frying" yield just about the same level of crunch? We investigated.
The air fryer is right on the coattails of the Instant Pot in terms of popularity with home cooks as an appliance that can “do it all.” So, what exactly is an air fryer? It’s essentially a compact convection oven that cooks your food at very high temperatures while circulating the dry air around with a built-in fan. It’s claim to fame is that it drastically reduces the amount of oil used during frying to achieve similarly crispy results. Given that these appliances can be quite pricey, I decided to test one out and see what all the hype was about. I tested with two variations of “fried chicken”— breaded and unbreaded. Both chicken variations were cooked in the air fryer and in a conventional convection oven. I wanted to find out if that hefty price tag was worthwhile, or if you should just stick to the oven.
There are a handful of different air fryers on the market ranging from $70 to $200. I used the Gourmia GTA2500 model for the testing. When I opened the box, the amount of parts and accessories involved was a little overwhelming. It took a while to sort through everything and figure out what parts I actually needed and what was superfluous. Once assembled, the air fryer literally looked like a mini spaceship. Rather bulky and dome-like, I’m not entirely sure how I’d feel about having this live on my kitchen countertop—but I digress. I ended up using only the cooking rack and fry basket for the air fryer.
While I was prepping the unbreaded chicken, I set the oven to preheat at 400°F, which brings me to one big perk for the air fryer: It requires not preheating. Typically, for oven “frying,” you want the oven at a very high temperature, thus heating up your kitchen. The air fryer saves you from an unbearably hot kitchen; however, it gives off a much louder noise than any oven when operating.
As I started to load the chicken in the air fryer basket, I realized I was only going to be able to fit about four pieces into it, maybe five if I squeezed. So, I needed to cook two batches for the same amount of chicken in the air fryer that I could cook in a single batch in the oven. Being that the air fryer only has capacity to prepare food in small quantities, it’s probably better suited for those cooking for 1-2 people. If you happen to be cooking for the masses, you might want to skip the air fryer and head straight to the oven.
Once the chicken was in the fry basket, I simply hit the “fry” button which set the air fryer at a temperature of 390°F for 30 minutes. The setting seemed accurate to me, so I didn’t adjust it. I started with the unbreaded and let it run the full 30 minutes. For the oven, I lined a sheet pan with foil and placed a rack over the foil. I baked the chicken on the rack, putting it in the oven at the same time as I set the air fryer. The air fryer works on a timer and shuts off when the food is done, decreasing the potential to burn the food or overcook your food. When the air stops circulating in the air fryer, the cooking process stops, unlike a hot oven that has recently been turned off—food left in the warm oven will continue to cook.
Ultimately, I was really pleased with the results from the air fryer. The chicken was beautifully browned, with crispy edges, but still very moist inside. And it was ready for the table before the oven batch (which took around 35 to 40 minutes). When I pulled the chicken from the oven, it was a little less crispy, but was still quite moist on the inside. I tossed both of the batches in a sweet peach barbecue sauce to finish. For me, the takeaway pro of the air fryer in this round of “frying” was that it technically cooked the chicken faster; the big con is that I could only fit half the amount of chicken as compared to using the oven.
The breaded oven “fried” chicken was a little more interesting.
I followed the Leah Chase's Oven-Fried Chicken recipe to test the second batch of chicken. After dredging, I brushed each piece of chicken with a light coat of olive oil in order to soak up the flour and prevent it from caking up and not “frying” correctly. I set the airfryer to 410°F for 30 minutes and preheat the oven at 425°F. However, 10 minutes into baking, the oven started to smoke really bad, so I turned the temperature down to 400°F. (I suspect the excess flour on the pan was burning.) Halfway through cooking, I flipped the chicken in both the oven and air fryer and noticed the bottom breading stuck to the basket in the air fryer, so I would definitely recommend spraying the basket with cooking spray. Naturally, the oven batch took 15 minutes longer (45 minutes total) to cook since I turned the temperature down. The air fryer chicken again cooked quicker, was crisper, and did not smoke up the kitchen. In fact, the air fryer batch was delightfully crispy and the breading was fully cooked through—no soggy bits to be seen. The drawback, again, was that it could only hold a few pieces of chicken. That said, though the oven batch may not have been quite a crisp in the breading, I will say, the flesh was much juicer.
Just for fun, I also tried a bag of frozen French fries. I should have paid a little more attention because they ended up a little extra golden-brown, but they were definitely crunchy. Well, maybe a little too crunchy...
Overall, I think the airfryer does a great job for small batch cooking, and I thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with it. I’say this appliance would best serve a single or 2-person household. It would also be ideal to use a portable oven when traveling. The main benefits of the air fryer being:
- It allows you significantly reduce the amount of oil you would typically use during frying.
- You can open and close it throughout the cooking process without the risk of burning yourself.
- It cooks faster than a traditional oven.
- Cleanup was super easy and pain free.
If you are interested in trying an air fryer for yourself, the Philips AirFryer seems to be a popular model on Amazon. You can also check out the Gourmia GTA2500 model priced at $179.99 that I used during testing.