Dig into a serving of french fries or a plate of fried chicken and the pleasure hits you right away -- that familiar, crispy crunch and moist, chewy center.
But the appealing taste of fried foods comes at a cost. Research links the oils used to cook them to health problems like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Enter air fryers -- appliances that promise the taste, texture, and golden-brown color of oil-fried foods without all the fat and calories. But do these deep fryer replacements deliver on their promise?
How Do They Work?
Air fryers are square or egg-shaped devices, about the size of a coffeemaker, that sit on your countertop. You put the food you want to fry -- chopped potatoes, chicken nuggets, zucchini slices -- into a slide-out basket. If you want, you can toss it in a light coating of oil.
A fan pushes heated air -- up to 400 F -- around the food. It's a bit like a convection oven.
The circulating air cooks the outside of foods first, which creates a crispy brown coating and keeps the inside soft, just like deep-fried foods. As the food cooks, a container below the basket catches any grease that drops.
Bottom line: Air fryers create the crispy, chewy foods people love without all the oil.
What Can You Cook in an Air Fryer?
An air fryer can cook pretty much anything that you would normally fry in oil, such as:
- Chicken, including chicken fingers and nuggets
- Onion rings and french fries
- Cheese sticks
Some models also have toast and bake settings, making them more like conventional ovens. You can use these to bake brownies or roast a chicken. One downside of many of these devices is their small basket size, which leaves little room to cook an entire family meal.
Are Air-Fried Foods Better for You?
By most measures, air frying is healthier than frying in oil. It cuts calories by 70% to 80% and has a lot less fat.
This cooking method might also cut down on some of the other harmful effects of oil frying. The reaction that happens when you fry potatoes or other starchy foods makes the chemical acrylamide, which research links to greater chances of getting cancer. One study shows that air frying lowers the amount of acrylamide in fried potatoes by 90%.
Some things about air frying may not be better for you, though. In one study, air frying of fish raised the amount of a substance called "cholesterol oxidation products" (COPs). COPs form when the cholesterol in meat or fish breaks down during cooking. Studies connect these substances to coronary heart disease, hardening of the arteries, cancer, and other diseases.
One way to lower the amount of COPs when you air fry fish, the study shows, is to add fresh parsley, chives, or a mixture of the two. Research shows these herbs act as antioxidants to reduce the COPs in air-fried foods.
Air frying also appears to curb the omega-3 fatty acids in fish. These "good fats" help lower blood pressure and raise "good" HDL cholesterol levels, and they may help protect the heart.
How Does Air-Fried Food Taste?
Is air-fried food as tasty as the classic style? At the end of the day, it's subjective.
When you fry food, the batter absorbs the oil you used to cook it. That gives fried foods their satisfying crunch on the outside while keeping the inside moist. Frying also gives foods a rich, dark color that is pleasing to the eye.
You still get a crunch with air frying, but it doesn't create the exact look or mouth feel as oil frying. One study that compared oil frying with air frying found the two methods led to foods with a similar color and moisture content, but different textures and sensory qualities.
Your cooking technique matters, too. If you crowd the small basket too much, your food may cook unevenly, giving you some crunchy and some soggy spots.