The major difference between a deep fryer and air fryer is how each cooks food. With a deep fryer, you submerge what you’re cooking into oil; an air fryer doesn’t actually fry, however, it’s a mini convection oven. You may wonder whether air fryers are worth the hype and actually fry food the same way as a deep fryer. It’s not a simple yes or no; each has pros and cons. We’ve tested and reviewed both, and here are the results of the air fryer vs. deep fryer competition.
The air fryer beats the deep fryer on convenience. Like a convection oven, an air fryer has an electrical coil that radiates heat in the fryer’s cooking chamber, and a fan circulates the hot air around the food. This efficient cooking system eliminates the need to use much cooking oil, usually requiring only about 1 tablespoon or even just a spritz of cooking-oil spray. An air fryer is also easy to clean. Most of its non-stick components are dishwasher-safe, and there’s no oil to dispose of or recycle.
Best Air Fryer: Black+Decker - Purify
Sturdy and well-made, this easy-to-use, easy-to-clean air fryer is a consistent winner in cooking a wide range of food.
A home deep fryer is also relatively easy to use. The best ones — like our top pick, the Cuisinart – CDF-200 — are compact units with a thermostat that automatically monitors and maintains oil temperature. However, deep fryers use several quarts of cooking oil that need to be replaced frequently, and the machines periodically must be cleaned of oil residue.
Best Deep Fryer: Cuisinart - CDF-200
With a superb design, the Cuisinart deep fryer can cook up to 2.5 pounds of chicken in a single fry. Its high wattage heats up and reheats oil quickly.
In our testing of deep fryers and air fryers, we cooked a wide range of foods, from chicken to jalapeno poppers, catfish to French fries. Taste and texture were often better of the food cooked in a deep fryer.
There’s nothing like batter-dipped chicken that’s been deep fried; crispy and crunchy, the rapid cooking seals in the chicken’s natural flavor and juices. An air fryer is less successful in cooking fried chicken; the chicken is fully cooked, but the batter doesn’t quite have a crunch and can be soggy. An air fryer’s cooking time is longer than a deep fryer, and in our tests, breaded chicken tenders cooked in an air fryer were dry and tasteless.
We preferred the flavor of French fries cooked in a deep fryer, but air-fryer fries held their own. You can use fresh-cut potatoes or frozen fries, and the air fryer, like our top pick, the Black+Decker – Purify, will render crispy, golden-brown fries that are almost as good as deep-fried fries.
According to dietician Ariana Cucuzza of the Cleveland Clinic, it’s possible to reduce caloric intake by 70-80% by eliminating fried foods from your diet and replacing them with air-fried foods. An air fryer uses 1 tablespoon of oil, at most, while a deep fryer uses quarts of oil, which add fat and calories to anything you cook in it. For example, a plain eight-ounce chicken breast cooked in an air fryer has 163 calories, whereas a deep-fried chicken breast has 247 calories.
During our testing of deep fryers, we noticed that fryers with precise thermostats, like the Bayou Classic, rapidly adjusted the oil’s temperature when food was added and maintained the high temperature needed to fry. The result was that the food absorbed almost no oil, and coatings were crispy and not greasy. Less-efficient deep fryers couldn’t regulate temperatures quickly enough, and food ended up drenched in oil.
The deep fryer wins this round. The oil heats up quickly, and once you’ve lowered the filled fry basket into the hot oil, cooking is done in a few minutes. A whole broiler chicken, cut up into pieces, can be cooked in two batches in less than 20 minutes. (Dark-meat parts take longer than breasts, so use an instant-read thermometer to know for sure they’re fully cooked before removing them from the oil.)
It’s possible to cook a whole chicken in an air fryer, but only a very young, small bird (3 pounds) can fit in the air fryer’s basket. Most people use an air fryer to cook a cut-up chicken or just parts, like boneless chicken breasts or wings. Depending on its size, the chicken needs to be cooked in batches, usually 25 minutes per batch. This means that you’ll need to keep the first batch hot in the oven, while you’re waiting for the second (or even third) batch to cook.
The bottom line
Our testers enjoyed food cooked in both a deep fryer and air fryer, and it really comes down to your own preferences, tastes and health considerations. Deep-fried foods are certainly delicious but shouldn’t be consumed on a daily basis. For the occasional splurge, we recommend either the Cuisinart – CDF20 or the T-Fal – FR8000 deep fryers.
Gene Gerrard was recently voted as one of the top five personal chefs in Los Angeles. He created About.com's Meat and Wild Game Cooking website and published hundreds of recipes, interviews, cookbook reviews and blog posts about food trends. Gene is also a professional magician, and when he's not writing for Your Best Digs, he's performing at the World Famous Magic Castle in Hollywood.