Air fryers seemingly burst onto the scene in the past couple of years, though their predecessors have been around for decades. I think when they first hit, the big marketing push was that you could fry things! without oil! This positions the appliance as an alternative to a deep fryer – which is a bit of a niche appliance. Even without oil, you might think, exactly how much shit do I want to fry?
I felt the same, and the first big models to hit the market a few years ago had a moving paddle inside that kept your “fried” items moving, which I recognized as a liability. If you’ve ever breaded something yourself, you know that the coating is fragile, which means those paddle-drive models were going to only be useful for packaged frozen fried products. While I love a jalapeno popper or a mozarella stick, I don’t love them dedicated-appliance enough, you know what I mean? Also, they looked very large and very complicated to clean and were very expensive.
For me, they stayed firmly in a niche until the first time I came across someone making broccoli in their air fryer, and bells went off. Because we eat a lot of vegetables, and I love extremely roasted vegetables, and my oven struggles to get a good browned finish on vegetables because it’s not a convection oven and it just holds humidity in it unless you chock the door to vent it.
My first foray into air fryers was an Oster toaster-oven-style oven that was bloody enormous and perfectly fine as a toaster oven and not really, I think, a toaster oven. It wasn’t any better than my oven-oven, and I wanted the counter space back, so it went to the garage. Many months later, I had a Macy’s gift card and not much I wanted from Macy’s, so after a good bit of research about capacity, I chose a 5.6 quart bullet/basket style store brand air fryer.
I think this is absolutely your best option for an entry-level fryer. A number of manufacturers offer basket-style 5-6qt options for less than $100, some of them well under. They’re big, they definitely consume slightly more space than a 6qt Instant Pot on the counter, but my complaint about the smaller ones is that you’re going to be hard-pressed to cook even two servings of food – or a single soft-taco-sized tortilla or small cake pan – in anything smaller than that. If you’re feeding more than two people, or meal-prepping for more than two meals at a time (which I hope you do, it’s part of my mission here!), somewhere around 6 quarts is going to give you enough room to do a bit more.
The way most bullet/basket models work is that the fan/engine is in the top and the catch area is in the bottom, with a basket that fits into it. You put your food into the basket, it drips into the base/catch area, and both of those pieces come out for washing. Sometimes the basket is dishwasher-safe but generally both pieces are nonstick-coated.
The downside of this is that it’s a lot to wash, and so far my experience is that nonstick surfaces have a pretty short life under the amount of heat involved in air frying. Mine wasn’t hard to wash, exactly, but I needed to clear out an entire side of the sink (and I use a silicone sink protector so I didn’t have to worry about chipping any part of the base or basket) to get the whole rig in there. I also got concerned using a dish brush that I was banging the plastic part of the brush against the nonstick surface. The nonstick started to just barely chip on the basket after about 3 months of hard use, and then one day I had some weird behavior when trying to push buttons and I stumbled across a huge deal on a bigger better rig and I pulled the trigger on what is, for me, the Holy Grail.
My current primary air fryer is a Power AirFryer Pro 8qt. It’s a big baby, which does not fit under my kitchen counters (by 1/4″, so it might very well fit yours), and is an “oven-style” but not “toaster oven style” model. It comes with five steel (NOT nonstick) racks and one (nonstick) drip pan for the bottom. There are five rack positions inside the oven, which you could use all at once for dehydrating thin-sliced fruit or meat, heating tortillas/flatbread/roti, or doing something else really thin, but I can generally only fit three racks at a time for anything with real dimensions like broccoli or chicken breasts. Still! That’s a ton of space! And that’s why I love it so much.
I’m sure the 6qt version is pretty good. Probably you can get two racks at a time in it, and maybe cook a smidge longer, and get the same good results I get. There are other brands out there at 10 (Instant Pot’s offering, the Vortex), 12, and 14 quarts, cheaper than I paid on the good deal on mine.
I really prefer the oven-style for the sake of my hands. I bumped the edge of the hot basket on my bullet-style a lot, trying to turn stuff or get it out. You’ll want tongs and silicone grabber-mitts for either type. I generally set out a med-large baking sheet on the stovetop for setting the hot racks on and catching whatever drips. I like being able to easily detach the door to clean it. I’ve never even used the rotisserie function in mine, maybe I’ll do that for a blog post later this month. I’ve never dehydrated anything in my life, so I should try that too!
As far as features, I find that most people seem to use air fryers similarly to how most people use electric pressure cookers: in manual mode, with little use for the programmed buttons. I don’t know what the french fry or leg of lamb (?) settings on my air fryers do, I just set the time and temp. I would not choose an air fryer based on programs, only actual functions (like mine goes low enough to act as a dehydrator; some fryers out there have heat elements at top and bottom and that seems to matter to a lot of people upgrading, some have rotisserie if you want to cook a tiny little bird, etc) and format/size. A few brands seem to be offering colors other than black, if that matters to you.
I almost feel like there’s enough options out there that I wouldn’t buy someone else one unless I felt fairly certain I understood how they’d use it. I think it’s worth shopping in stores with a variety of models out where you can poke at them, if you can, and measure your counter space and take the tape measure with you.
YouTube is another good way to virtually test-drive the various models. Just search for the ones you’re interested in. As channels go, Cooking With Doug is one of my favorites, and he’s tested a lot of popular models (and he does all kinds of gadgets, his channel is a goldmine).
Good luck out there! Got questions, quibbles, additional useful info? Let me know in the comments.