The Best Air Fryers for Tater Tot Parties and Lonely Batches of Fish Sticks

Sam Worley
We put top-ranked air fryers to the test to find out the best one (and also whether or not this newfangled thingy is really worth owning at all).

I like air a whole lot, so you can imagine my delight when I learned that you can fry food with it—because if there’s one thing I like even more than air? It’s tater tots.

In reality, though, an air fryer is no such thing: it’s a marketing label. The burgeoning field of products on the market now under that moniker are actually similar to convection ovens, which use fans to circulate hot air within the chamber, cooking food faster and more evenly. Air fryers, too, blow air rapidly across the surface of food as it cooks, wicking away moisture to render the surface crisp—in the manner of a deep fryer, but without the fat. That’s the idea, anyway.

Most air fryers have a similar design, and resemble little countertop robot-penguins: The top half of the penguin contains the heating element, fan, and control panel, and the bottom half has a removable drawer where the food goes. The machines run at the time and temperature the user specifies and then automatically shut off. This is generally not a set-it-and-forget-it situation, though; for many dishes, user’s manuals request that you shake the basket halfway through the cooking, so food within gets exposed more evenly to the hot air.

That air fryers can’t quite achieve the immaculate perfection of traditional fat-fried foods doesn’t mean they can’t approximate it, and cooks who’ve experimented with the devices have also found novel uses beyond french fries and chicken tenders—for instance, high-moisture vegetables like zucchini, okra, and eggplant. I tried out five machines marketed as air fryers and one wild card: a Cuisinart convection toaster oven. As traditional boxy convection ovens, the Cuisinart and other products like it don’t pretend to be something they’re not, though they now boast of their air-frying capabilities as well. It seemed to me that, were it possible, it’d be better to have a toaster oven and air fryer in one device, thus saving yourself the counter space for whatever souped-up slow cooker/Instant Pot/“This year we’re cooking literally every meal in x” contraption comes along next.

The loser, in all this product testing? My electricity bill! Read on for the winners. For more about the testing process, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Best All-Around Air Fryer: Philips Kitchen Avance Digital Turbostar Airfryer

I didn’t want it to be true, because the Philips—suggest retail price 299.95—is four or five times more expensive than some competitors. And when I tested smaller amounts of food, it performed more or less the same as one or two much cheaper options. But it distinguished itself with panache when I filled it up with sweet potato fries: Whereas the next best alternative turned out a batch of fries that were burned in spots and undercooked in others, the Philips cooked a pound and a half of fries with uncanny consistency. They were crunchy. They were evenly browned, crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. I thought they were fantastic, and I don’t even like sweet potato fries.

The Philips, as well, had both the easiest and the most attractive interface of all the machines I tested, centered around a super-intuitive dial controlling the time and temperature. It’s not just even-cooking and easy to use—it’s also efficient. In all instances it cooked food a few minutes quicker than the other air fryers I tried.

Best Alternative for the 99 Percent: GoWISE USA Programmable 7-in-1 Air Fryer

In tests of smaller amounts of food, this GoWISE air fryer performed really well, and is definitely an affordable alternative if you’re dying for an air fryer but also need to pay your utility bills. (And if you don’t have a lot of food to cook. It's great for single people making small lonely batches of fish fingers!) With a basket that’s exceptionally easy to clean, the GoWISE was the quietest product I tested, and also very intuitive to use. And the 3.7-quart 7-in-1 model is in the 60–70 dollar range most places. (GoWISE has also added an 8-in-1 machine for just a few more bucks. All of the above, plus it’ll mow your lawn!)

The Actual Best Air Fryer, with Caveats: Cuisinart TOA-60 Air Fryer Toaster Oven

It is not a truth universally acknowledged that one needs an air fryer at all—in fact, the New York Times’ product reviewing site, Wirecutter, recommended skipping it altogether. If you fall in line with this thinking and don't want another single-use appliance, a compromise is the Cuisinart, a convection toaster oven with an “air fryer” setting.

The lesser benefit is that, if you’re familiar with how a toaster oven works, you don’t have to learn anything new—a tiresome activity I generally try to avoid. The greater benefit is that this thing is fantastic at air-frying, or, as old-timers might call it, convection cooking. In fact it calls the whole “air fryer” enterprise into question. If the purpose is to circulate air over the surface of the food, why jam the food in these small-ass baskets rather than spread it out on a sheet to maximize exposure? That’s what the Cuisinart does, and it performed terrifically with most everything I put in it: tater tots, sliced zucchini, and sweet potato fries. Everything came out crunchy and golden; the food got a little darker around the edges than with some other air fryers, but this did not particularly trouble me. I’d almost recommend it unreservedly. However...

Because it’s a whole different machine, it’s enormous relative to the other options. Though I like it personally, there’s no place in my kitchen it would fit, and—if we’re imagining that this machine will do double duty as a toaster—it seems less than practical to haul it out of the cupboard for every piece of toast. And then there’s the matter of that toast: according to a previous Epicurious product review—which tested the Cuisinart as a toaster oven, not as an air fryer—it sucks at doing things that are not air frying, possibly for the same reasons it’s so good as an air fryer, which is that hot hot heat. It’s like the good book said: What will it profit a man if he gains a killer air fryer but forfeits the ability to make toast?

How We Tested

I started with smaller amounts of food in each of six air fryers: about two servings of frozen tater tots—driven by my conviction that the best reason to buy an air fryer would be to have great tater tots at home—and then a mixture of zucchini and summer squash, sliced into coins, splashed with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. (Manufacturers don’t advertise a completely fat-free experience, advising cooks to toss most food in a small amount of oil prior to cooking.) I assessed the results of the tater tots and the zucchini. Having thus separated the wheat from the chaff, I gave my three favorite air fryers a heftier assignment: I hand-cut sweet potatoes into half-inch spears, soaked them in water for a half hour, and then dried them off. I divided 24-ounce batches for each air fryer, tossing each portion in a half tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkling it with salt. Because each machine is designed a little differently, I relied on the manufacturer’s instructions in terms of time, temperature, etc, for each preparation—though the specs ended up being pretty similar across all machines.

I also tried homemade chicken tenders in each of the three best machines, but results were strange—mostly because the breading turned into a great big mess. Points for a traditional deep fryer, I guess. Still, this dish, too, favored the Philips, which cooked the chicken both more quickly and more evenly than the other two. And it was a point against the otherwise great Cuisinart, which scorched some corners of the chicken while leaving raw breading in other parts.

Factors We Evaluated

Is the food crispy? Is it like fried food?

This is the paramount concern. No further explanation needed, except to say that I focused on foods that tested the machine’s ability to perform as an alternative kind of fryer—not as something that could, for instance, also bake cream puffs, which are featured in a recipe book accompanying one of these devices. You can just use your oven for that!

Does it cook evenly?

With the stipulation that the user is expected to shake the basket once or twice during cooking, does the design of the machine maximize the movement of air over all the food in the basket? Does it end up evenly brown and crunchy, or does it cook unevenly—too brown in parts and raw in others? This criterium, of course, necessarily favors the machine designed for max air exposure: the Cuisinart.

Is it easy to program?

With a couple notable exceptions—the Philips’s dial, for instance—most of these air fryers are programmed via buttons. Simply speaking, was it easy to do? I ignored the machines’ preset functions for popular air fryer options like fries and chicken.

Is it easy to clean?

This is almost a nonissue, because the design of so many air fryers is so similar that they’re all about the same to clean—except for one. See below.

Is it a good deal?

This category, too, is skewed by the inclusion of a single product, the Philips air fryer, which was so much more expensive than the others, and the only machine I tried that cost more than $200. This seems worth considering, but frankly only you can look into your heart and decide the monetary value of regular access to crispy, low-fat, home-cooked sweet potato fries.

Other Air Fryers We Tested

To make the most apples-to-apples comparison possible, I tested air fryers with the same general capacity, around the 3-quart range, though larger models are available. The Cosori Premium performed a lot like the GoWISE, though I found the latter a little easier to use. The NuWave Brio Digital had a confusing interface and a wire basket that was annoying to clean. (The others have nonstick-coated molded metal baskets with holes or slats cut into them.) The had a timer that ticked loudly and—more importantly—the food it turned out was the worst of the lot. The air-fried zucchini, for instance, was practically jelly, cooked to death with scarcely a hint of browning on the outside.

The Takeaway

If you’re short on counter space but long on money, why not try the Philips air fryer? It costs a fortune but bested the competitors—especially with larger volumes of food. And if you’re already set to spend the money and want a larger machine, the Philips’ bigger counterparts, the XL and the XXL, don’t cost that much more, and would feed a family. If you’re long on both money and counter space, but lack the desire for evenly browned toast, you might check out the Cuisinart Air Fryer Toaster Oven, suggested retail price $200. (Of course, if it’s an actual convection oven you want, it’s worth noting that you could get one for only a few hundred dollars more.) If you don’t have a lot of money to spend—and not a lot of people to feed—your best bet is the GoWISE 3.7-quart air fryer.

Originally Appeared on Epicurious