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Are air fryers worth the hype? Depends who you ask.

Regardless, they’re not going away.

an air fryer
Air fryers seem to be everywhere these days.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Welcome to Popular Demand, The Goods’ column about those products you keep hearing about. Where did they come from? Are they any good? We explain the hype.

What’s this thing?

This thing is an air fryer, a rather clunky kitchen gadget that promises to produce delicious and less oily versions of your favorite fried foods. How does it do this? By circulating very hot air very fast. Like a convection oven, but smaller!

Air fryers are a surprisingly modern phenomenon. While convection ovens have existed since 1945 (as opposed to a regular oven in which hot air rises from the bottom, a convection oven circulates air using fans), Philips introduced the very first air fryer at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin in 2010, marketing it as a way to cook “perfect” crispy french fries with 80 percent less fat in just 12 minutes.

A particularly beautiful air fryer.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Since then, brands like Ninja and Cuisinart have introduced their own versions, with average prices typically landing between $60 and $200, though certain extra-large versions can cost up to $300. Some that look pretty much like giant toaster ovens also have settings that allow you to broil or dehydrate food. But as with all air fryers, you can prep your food just like you would if you were cooking it in the oven, using minimal oil (or even just cooking spray), and the hot air crisps it up.

Why am I hearing about it?

You’re hearing about air fryers because they’re one of those new-ish kitchen gadgets you’re always hearing about, the ones that claim to save time or calories or effort (or all three). The Instant Pot, the Vitamix, and the dutch oven have all had their moments in the sun, but for the past two years, the air fryer has undoubtedly stolen the spotlight.

According to the market research firm NPD Group, Americans bought 10 million air fryers between May 2017 and March 2019, and those numbers are growing. As NPD told Vox in an email, from October 11 through November 28 of 2020, air fryers were the second-most-purchased small appliance in the US, after single-serve coffee makers. Sales of air fryers during this season grew 54 percent from 2019, and as Rachel Sugar notes in Grub Street, the search term “air fryer” overtook “Instant Pot” on May 3, 2020. “The shine is off the Instant Pot. We are a society of air fryers now,” she writes.

Air fryers have been one of Oprah’s Favorite Things; they’ve been featured regularly on the Today show’s “Steals and Deals” segment and are a mainstay on Amazon’s “most gifted” list. The press has not always been positive, however. The New York Times’s product recommendation site Wirecutter included the air fryer as one of its “Worst Things for Most People” list, warning, “Your taste buds will always know that you skimped on the crispy-making, calorie-laden oil of real frying, and you can achieve the exact same results using a convection oven.”

This hasn’t stopped a cottage industry from springing up around air fryer culture: There are now at least a dozen air fryer cookbooks, air fryer-specific accessories, Facebook group fandoms, and even a TikTok account devoted to air fryer recipes with more than half a million followers.

The most likely reason you’re hearing about the air fryer, though, is because it’s joined the ranks of gadgets that are mostly bought as gifts for other people: In the months leading up to the holiday season, search interest for air fryers tends to spike. Like a Google Home or a Fitbit, an air fryer is a “nice” gift that isn’t wildly expensive and that most adults can use, at least in theory.

Also, it’s an incredibly convenient solution for shoppers. Unlike other potential holiday gifts, there’s no need to worry about differences in taste or aesthetic, clothing size, gender, or dietary restrictions. It’s a machine that makes food supposedly taste good quickly. It’s pretty hard to get mad about a present like that.

Is it actually worth the hype?

Perhaps the best case for buying an air fryer is that when I asked on Twitter if anyone who owned an air fryer actually hated theirs, the most common response I got was, “I own one but I love it!” (Which was not the question, but whatever.)

There were, however, a few anti-air fryers willing to share their stories. “I have gotten rid of two air fryers,” said Sam Miller Khaikin, a writer in Oakland, California. “I cannot stand them.” To answer the obvious question — if they suck, why buy two? — she said that her husband bought the first one, which made a “fine” serving of French fries, but gave it away because it took up too much space. “As soon as I gave that one away, someone gave me another one as a gift,” she says. “I used it once and everything smelled like burnt plastic.”

A person making egg tarts in their air fryer.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jeremy Witt, who works at a public relations agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was also coerced by a loved one into owning an air fryer. “My mom was looking at the Target ad and said ‘We should go get one of these. I’ve heard that they’re just the best.’”

Ironically, Witt says that the gadget, which promises to make food preparation easier, only makes things more of a hassle. “I have to lug it out from under my sink — the only space that is big enough to properly store it — set it up, prep the food, let it do its thing, and then clean up. [Then] I need to wait for the basket to cool before I can put it in the dishwasher. And then the air fryer itself just sits there for however long it takes for me to run the dishwasher.”

This might sound annoying, but the bajillions of glowing air fryer reviews online can’t be ignored. The bestselling model on Amazon, the $119 Cosori Air Fryer Max XL, has more than 25,000 reviews, 92 percent of them rated four or five stars. The top-rated review is a nearly novella-length essay entitled “My New Head Chef — Does All My Cooking For Me.”

Melinda Fakuade, Goods reporter and resident air fryer aficionado, explains that “the best part of it is how easy it is to throw something in there, and I avoid that weird microwave mush feel.” She says she uses it about every other day to make chicken, vegetables, bacon, or whatever leftovers are in the fridge.

Still, in a piece from 2019 that asks “Does the air fryer deliver on its golden promise?” the New York Times’s Melissa Clark ends up determining that it doesn’t. The air-fried chicken wings she made were good, but not as good as real fried wings. Her french fries were an A-minus. Chicken legs, shrimp, calamari, doughnuts, and pizza were all fails.

The best, she wrote, were vegetables, specifically Brussels sprouts and eggplants, which were “all a bit better than if I’d run them under my broiler, and far easier and less messy than frying.” Ultimately, she gave her air fryer to a friend.

People love their air fryers because they’re theoretically very easy. You order it on Amazon. You put in your food, you press some buttons, the food comes out nice and crispy. You can pretty much cook whatever you want in there — after all, it’s literally a tiny oven. You get to feel a little bit healthy. Whether that novelty is enough to justify a not-insignificant amount of counter space and a hundred bucks is a choice every chef must make for themselves — or for whomever they bought a Christmas present.

But as Miller Khaikin told me, “You don’t need a whole giant plastic contraption to do what an oven and stovetop can do. Just cook like a normal person.”