Whether its fish and chips, a bucket of chicken or a battered Mars Bar (!), there’s no doubt that as a nation we love fast, often fried, foods. But creating the taste of triple-cooked chips at home, while still being able to fit into our trousers, has become a challenge. Creating that fried-food texture and mouth feel, known as the Maillard effect, is the holy grail of low-fat cooking.
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Most of the air fryers on the market essentially work the same way as a fan oven, circulating hot air around the food. In a nutshell, this means that rather than immersing your food in hot fat to get that fried food experience all you need is as little as a spray or up to a teaspoon of oil for around 1kg of crisp food. That’s great for our waistlines but are air fryers all they’re cracked up to be? We’ve tested the big names on the market to find out.
Why do I need an air fryer?
Who remembers their mother’s (or grandmother’s) chip pan? Sitting menacingly on top of the stove, sometimes half-filled with congealed fat, it was often used but much feared because of the potential for a full-scale fire if things went a little awry. but it was that or rather limp, unsatisfying oven chips for a VERY long time. Then along came air fryers and things changed.
Banishing the old chip pan to the back of the cupboard isn’t the only reason to get an air fryer though. While most of us think of almost-fat-free fries when we think of an air fryer, many of them are much more than a gloried chip pan, cooking anything from chicken and steak to cakes and quiches. That’s just as well because even the smallest versions are quite substantial machines, and the Genius Tefal XL and the Ninja Foodi are absolute beasts, so we think they need to be multi-functioning in order to earn their place on the worktop.
How much should I spend on an air fryer?
Prices vary depending on how much tech and how many functions you require. A simple air fryer with manual temp and time functions only could set you back as little as £40, while a top-of-the-range machine with lots of extra features and intelligent cooking modes as much as £180.
How do we test our air fryers?
Each fryer was selected for test by our kitchen expert Ysanne. With decades of experience, Ysanne picked models from well-known air fryer brands at a range of price points and capacities, and has included the best here. These choices were made and products sourced completely independently, and we weren’t swayed to pick any particular manufacturer for commercial reasons.
To test, Ysanne cooked – at the very least – hand-made chips and chicken goujons (or, if that wasn’t advised, skinless chicken breast) in each fryer and compared the results, taking into account crispness versus sogginess, taste, cooking time, any noise the appliance made and general ease of use and cleaning.
What is the best air fryer in 2020?
At the end of our tests, we decided that the Tefal ActiFry Genius XL was the best air fryer. For those with less to spend, the VonShef 3.5 litre air fryer, £34.99, was voted best budget air fryer on test.
Best air fryers 2020
1. Tefal ActiFry Genius XL – best air fryer overall
This machine has a huge footprint – measuring 47.6 x 32.8 x 26.3cm. So if you’re after a compact air fryer you can pop in a cupboard when you’re not using it then you might want to think again. That said, it’s so technologically advanced, we probably wouldn’t hide its considerable light under a bushel.
It has several things that separate it out from the rest of the air fryer crowd, including nine intelligent cooking modes and a My ActiFry app that features around 300 recipes. However, it’s the integral paddle with dual-motion technology, which stirs the food giving it an even, crisp coating that we think is the game changer. Not only does it mean you can just leave the ActiFry alone to do its magic, it also allows you to cook dishes such as stir-fries and curries in it, too, using one of the two 1-meal-in-1-go programmes.
It hands-down produced the best chips we tried, with just half a teaspoon of oil and the chicken was well-cooked and juicy inside, although still dryer on the outside than normal frying would produce. It’s a generous size, too, producing main meals for up to five and starter portions for eight. It comes in a choice of black or white, although at the time of testing the white version (a little less stylish we felt) was actually more expensive than the black model on Amazon.
Ideal Home rating: 5 out of 5 stars
2. VonShef Air Fryer – best budget air fryer
Granted, it may not look as sophisticated and snazzy as some of the other machines we tried. Nor does it have some of the bells and whistles of the multi-functional air fryers. However, this great-value machine makes surprisingly good chips, bearing in mind its comparatively small price tag.
The temperature dial, which varies from 80 degrees C to 200 degrees C sits on the top and just requires a simple turn action, while the smaller cooking timer is at the front. And that’s about it – it really couldn’t be simpler to use.
At 3.5 litres, it doesn’t have as big a capacity as some, but it coped well with all we had to throw at it. That included almost 800g of home-made chips. It can also cook cakes and quiche as well as the usual fried food or oven-cook staples such as chicken nuggets, drumsticks, potato wedges and steak. For those that want a larger or smaller alternative, 1.5 and 5 litre versions are also available, although we think that this 30x23x32cm model would be perfectly big enough for a family of four.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
3. Morphy Richards Health Fryer – best air fryer for preset functions
The sleek look of this machine appealed to one of our testers who declared it ‘pleasingly sci-fi’. While we’re not sure air fryers are a mainstay on board the USS Enterprise, this machine with its easy-to-navigate touchscreen display certainly had some star quality.
It produced some of the best chips (outside one stand-out machine, the Tefal) that we tried and the chicken was pretty tasty, too. As before, we preferred drizzling the half-teaspoon of oil on the chips then stirring before popping in the machine but spraying the chicken with oil to get a more even coating for the chicken.
As well as seven preset functions for common food choices such as chips in varying amounts, chicken and pizza slices (yup, you read right, it cooks home-made pizza, too) it also has a delay start and preheat and defrost functions, and we really liked the detachable, cool-touch handle. The instructions have some useful hits and tips – for example, it only takes a little more time to cook a full basket as opposed to a half-filled one – and a few recipes, too. It measures 33.7 x 27.9 x 31.3cm.
Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
4. Lakeland Touchscreen Air Fryer – best quiet air fryer
It was no surprise that this was one of the quietest machines we tested, as it’s the proud owner of a Quiet Mark. With a traditional pull-out pan at the base and touchscreen controls on the top of the machine, it’s simple to use as well as clean-lined. Cooking temperatures range from 80 degrees to 200 degrees C and you can cook everything that you would in a deep-fat fryer, including, of course, chips.
A teaspoon of oil gets you 500g medium-cut fries that were pretty crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy in the middle, although at 200˚C we’d probably dial down the time a little or preheat without the chips inside the machine. Most air fryers recommend shaking half-way through, which we did, although we found stirring gently with a wooden spoon moved them around more efficiently.
Sweet potato wedges took a little longer and consequently, were a little browner on the outside but tweaking with the temperature a bit helped that. We also tried breaded chicken goujons, which were as good as any we’d had from the oven and took around the same time. At 27x34x32, it’s not huge, and the tank and the 2.6 litre basket are both dishwasher safe plus it also has a three-year guarantee.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Buy now: Touchscreen Air Fryer, £79.99, Lakeland
5. Salter Digital Hot Air Fryer, Salter – best easy-to-use air fryer
Sleek black and slightly egg-shaped, this 4.5-litre machine has a simple digital dial, making cooking simple choices of how hot and how long. The recipe book that accompanied the instructions was very useful and gave us a few ideas for dishes we’d never think to try in an air fryer, such as salmon croquettes and grilled prawns.
We know what you might be thinking – a recipe for chips might seem a bit unnecessary. But as we’d not cooked home-made chips for a while, it was useful to know that placing the chipped potatoes in cold water for half an hour before drying, thoroughly and coating with oil and immediately putting in the fryer made for crisper chips.
We also tried skinless chicken breast, which, as with many other fryers was a little dry on the outside but perfectly succulent inside. It measures 37 x 32 x 32cm and can cook up to 800g of chips in one go and apparently you can also cook cakes in this machine. Sadly there was no recipe, so we presume, as with other machines, the cake mix should be in an oven-proof dish.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
6. Swan Manual Air Fryer – best-looking air fryer
Unlike pretty much all the other air fryers we tested, which, to paraphrase Henry Ford ‘you can have in any colour as long as it’s black’, this 5 litre machine was a pleasingly cheerful bright cherry red. It also comes in cream and black so would work well in pretty much any scheme if you wanted to leave it out on the worktop.
The manual dials mean it’s as easy as pie to operate – just set the required temperature with one dial and the cooking time with the other and off you go. Our first set of chips were surprisingly disappointing, until we realized we’d made the cardinal mistake of using one-calorie cooking fat to spray the potatoes.
The next load, sprayed with groundnut oil, which is great for chips, was much better, although we’d recommend regular stirring if you’re cooking bigger portions. At 34.8 x 24 x 33.7cm it’s a relatively compact machine compared to a few others we tried, although it still manages to accommodate enough fries for a family of four in one go.
The tray and non-stick basket can both be popped in the dishwasher, too.
Ideal Home rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
7. Ninja Foodi – best multi-cooker air fryer
Another big machine, this one isn’t for the faint-hearted as its dual crisper and pressure cooking lids make it feel a little complicated at first. More worryingly it reminded us of a Cyberman helmet, so once it was out of the box we had to reassure ourselves it was safe to come out from behind the sofa! However, once we’d got the hang of it with the help of the very clear instructions, we felt this machine was a great multi-cooker option for those that wanted more than just an air fryer for their money.
Of course, all those clever bells and whistles cost and this was the most expensive machine on our test. However, if all you’re after is an air fryer, Ninja do produce one of those, too, for a more reasonable £99.99.
So, to the food. This machine cooks in so many ways – pressure, slow, air frying and a combination Ninja call TenderCrisp – we weren’t sure where to start, so we took a look at the accompanying recipe book. Should we try a whole chicken, ready in just 40 minutes with a succulent inside and crisp outer or a one-pot dish of salmon, bok choi and rice? In the end we went for, yep you guessed it, chicken and chips! Because if a machine this big and expensive can’t get that right, there’s no hope.
Well, the chips were very good. Not quite fried but not far off. We stirred them a lot, but it was easier to do in this top opening machine and we could use a whole teaspoon of oil (and up to three) if we liked. While we wouldn’t suggest buying this if all you want is an air fryer, the part pressure-cook, part TenderCrisp-ed chicken was amazing, if small (it only fits an up-to 2.5kg bird). Juicy with crisp skin, it took less than an hour to cook.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Buy now: Ninja Food air fryer, £179.99, Argos
Looking for an alternative? READ Best slow cookers – the top models for making effortless stews, curries and more
How to buy the right air fryer for you
Check the air fryer features and programmes
Look for easy-to-use controls for both temperature and time, as these are the most important features on any air fryer. Auto-stop and keep warm functions can be useful but chips, if left for any amount of time will soon loose their crispness. More expensive machines will feature touch-screens rather than dial controls, which will help with accuracy.
All, aside from the Tefal machine, which has an integral paddle that keeps the food moving, require smaller foods such as fries to be shaken and some meats such as steak and pork chops to be turned, so they’re not go-away-and-leave-it solutions. Many get quite hot on the outside, as you’d expect, so make sure you keep well away from inquisitive little hands.
What else should I look for?
The bigger the basket capacity, the more people you’ll be able to cook for. So if you’ve got a family, then a 5ltr machine (which usually provides a chip capacity of around 800g to 1kg) is probably a must.
A loud beep to signal the end of cooking time is a good idea if you’re using the time to wander off and do something else. Most air-fryers will only cook one food group at a time (ie meat or veg) but some will cook a whole meal in one go if you’re after a one-pot solution.
How much oil do I need to use in my air fryer?
While most recipes call for a teaspoon or half a teaspoon of oil, we found we got a more even coating on some foods by decanting our choice of oil into a small spray bottle and using that. Never use one-calorie oil spray, which is a step too far in the diet stakes we found, producing nasty, chewy fries.
Most of the machines we tested couldn’t be used with fattier meats such as sausages or chicken or duck with the skin on, which sometimes resulting in meats being drier on the outside. This was where a spray oil came in handy and definitely improved results if not making them as good as if they’d been fried.
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How to make perfect chips in an air fryer
If you’re making fresh chipped potatoes, leave the cut chips immersed in cold water for about half an hour then rinse well to get rid of starch as this will improve the texture once cooked. Place chips in your air fryer and start to cook as soon as you’ve coated them in the half-teaspoon or so of oil for best results and don’t leave to sit in the fryer once cooked.