I don't do much deep frying. It's not that I'm particularly worried about fat—it's that I hate the idea of using a vat of fat and then disposing it. Yes, you can use it a few times before you get rid of it, but still, it seems like a bit of a waste.
The Philips AirFryer ($249) has a basket that food goes into, like a deep fryer, but that's where the similarities end. Rather than dunking the food into hot fat, you coat it with a little bit of oil (or not, depending on what you're cooking) and let the AirFryer blow hot air over it.
It's like a convection oven on steroids.
The first thing I cooked were french fries. Of course. I have a feeling that's the first thing most people make when they get one of these.
While the results weren't exactly like fries cooked in oil, they were pretty close, with a crisp exterior and soft interior. The best results came from soaking the fries in water first, then drying them, then cooking them at a lower temperature until cooked through, then cooking them at a higher temperature to brown and crisp them. It sounds a little complicated, but it's a common way to make french fries. I also tried cooking them without soaking, cooking them without drying, cooking at one temperature, and a whole bunch of other non-recommended methods. The major difference with alternate methods was that the fries didn't brown as evenly as when I soaked, blanched and browned them.
While I was testing potatoes, I also cooked some skin-on potato wedges. I think I liked those even better than the fries. Next, I tried frozen battered onion rings—simple enough, and they crisped up nicely, even without any added oil.
Side dishes weren't the only thing I fried. I started with four pounds of chicken wings, drizzled them with oil, and sprinkled them with seasoning. I cooked half of them in the oven using a standard recipe and the other half in the AirFryer.
The wings in the AirFryer were cooked through in about half the time it took the oven-baked wings, and the air-fried wings were noticeably plumper and juicier. The skin on the oven-baked wings was slightly darker, but not by much. They were both good, but I preferred the air-fried version.
The AirFryer comes with a recipe booklet that includes recipes for commonly deep fried foods, like croquettes and fish, but it also includes a few unexpected things, like grilled cheese, flan, meatballs, and frittatas.
For kicks, I tried making a grilled cheese sandwich in the AirFryer, and it worked just fine: browned on the outside, melty cheese inside. I wouldn't haul this out of storage just to make a grilled cheese sandwich, but if my stove was dysfunctional, it would be good option.
The only "fried" food that wasn't completely successful were potato chips—they tended to brown a little more than I wanted them to. I'm still trying to work out the perfect chip thickness, cooking temperature, potato variety, and cooking time to get a perfectly golden potato chip.
If you're watching your fat intake or you don't want to heat the oven for a small batch of potatoes or wings, this works nicely. Frying without oil is never going to be the same as frying with oil, but I can live with that if I don't have to buy, store, and dispose of large quantities of oil. The fact that it cooks faster than using the oven is a plus, besides that it needs very little attention, except occasionally shaking the basket for more even cooking.
The cooking parts of the unit are dishwasher safe, but the tray doesn't fit well in my dishwasher. Luckily, the interior is nonstick, so it's simple enough to hand wash.
Disclaimer: Testing samples were provided to Serious Eats.