Why an air fryer is an essential back-to-school buy

Ninja Foodi Dual Zone Air Fryer AF300UK
(Image credit: Emily Peck / Future)

Most back-to-school tech guides cover laptops and tablets, and of course those devices are important. But no laptop or tablet app will be capable of commanding your focus if you’re hungry or hangry – and that’s why, in our opinion, the best air fryers, alongside the best Instant Pots (some of which can air fry, too), are the must-have gadgets for going back to school, college or uni. 

There are some really great Black Friday air fryer deals to be had right now, meaning you could pick up one of these handy gadgets for a super-low price. Air fryers are perfect for small kitchens, crammed calendars and exciting social lives. 

So, to answer your questions on what is an air fryer, why you should have one and how to go about choosing one, read on.

Best cheap air fryer deals

Air fryers are quick to operate, cook healthy food, and are easy to use. They're also relatively affordable, making them an appealing choice if budgets are tight. Here's where you can pick up a cheap one:

What is an air fryer?

An air fryer is a small countertop oven that comes housing a big fan inside. That fan circulates air very quickly to create a super-hot cooking environment to bring you all the flavors of pan-fried or deep-fried food more quickly than a regular oven, and hassle-free too. It’s different from a normal convection oven because the fan tends to be proportionately much bigger, with the interior designed specifically to maximize airflow through the fryer, so it cooks more efficiently too.

What are the benefits of an air fryer?

A dedicated air fryer is much smaller than a countertop toaster or convection oven, let alone a built-in oven. It heats up and cooks far more quickly than those appliances, too. That means faster food and lower energy bills – and you don’t lose lots of countertop space in the process. Many air fryers are small enough to fit in a cupboard, and they don’t take up lots of counter-top space if storage is at a premium.

However, the main benefit is health. Traditional frying uses lots of oil, but with an air fryer you need only spritz or coat food lightly with oil, yet the end result is just as crispy and full of flavor. It’s as close to guilt-free fried food as you can get. 

Air frying is far less messy and smelly than deep frying, too, and it’s safer: you’re not heating up a pan of oil to very high temperatures on a stove, with all the fire risks that poses. And this also means there’s no oil to cool down and dispose of afterwards. Many air fryer accessories can go straight into the dishwasher for cleaning, but even items that are hand-wash only aren’t difficult or time-consuming to clean. 

There are lots of really great air fryer recipes you can try. Our favorites include air fryer ice cream, air fryer brownies and air fryer French toast. And as for air fried pork belly

Last but not least, air fryers are also brilliant for reheating leftovers and takeaways.

What are the downsides of an air fryer?

Some things you’d normally fry in oil don’t air fry very well. Wet batters, such as for fish or tempura veg, will just fall off; very light foods such as spinach leaves will blow about and can burn; and while some people swear by air frying burgers and steaks, we think doing those in a skillet delivers more flavorful results. Cheese simply melts and runs down to the base of the air fryer, so we’d stick to a skillet for those all-important grilled-cheese sandwiches.

How do you choose the best air fryer?

Air fryers come in two key designs. The most common is a dedicated air fryer that features a pull-out drawer in which you'll find a mesh basket; it’s designed to air fry only. However, you can also pick up multi-function devices that not only air fry, but
can perform other functions. For example, there are Instant Pot pressure cookers whose lids you can swap out to turn into air fryers, and there are multi-function toaster ovens that come with air frying capabilities, too.

The first and most important thing to think about is what you want to cook. If you only want to cook food items such as fries, veggies, spicy chicken and to heat last night’s leftovers, a dedicated air fryer will be perfect. There’s no point spending more on a multi-cooker air fryer if you’re not going to use any of the additional features. 

It’s worth noting that multi-function devices tend to be slightly less efficient and effective than dedicated models. For example, we upgraded from a dedicated air fryer to a multi-function air fryer oven, and have found that the latter takes longer to heat up, takes slightly longer to cook, and requires that you move food around more frequently while cooking: if we don’t jiggle French fries around multiple times, we’ll end up with some that are overcooked while others remain a little soft. It’s still a big improvement over a convection or toaster oven, but since it isn't focused on a single kind of cooking, it doesn't perform quite as well.

The second thing you need to consider is the quantity of food you want to cook. Some of the cheapest air fryers come with very small baskets, typically big enough for two chicken breasts or fries for only two people. If you think you’ll regularly want to cook for a greater number of people then you might want to consider a dual-drawer model or a more oven-shaped appliance that offers a wider cooking area. 

We reckon there are six things you ought to think about when you’re choosing an air fryer. These are price, capacity, size, special features, removable inserts, and design. That last one won't be a priority for those who plan to stash the unit in a cupboard, but if it’s going to sit on your countertop, it will be a consideration. And, of course, design isn’t just about how it looks; it covers how it functions, too. Some cute-looking air fryers are a nightmare to clean, while others that aren’t so pretty are far easier to maintain.

Philips air frying a variety of foods

(Image credit: Philips)

Are air fryers worth the money?

Yes. If you want to eat more healthily without losing any flavor, air fryers are brilliant – and with the cost of energy on the rise, they’re a very good way to help reduce your bills too. But for students, we think the single biggest benefit here is time. They take less time to heat up and cook, so you don’t have to wait so long to get your foodie fix – and when you’re done, they're quick to clean, too. Nobody ever left school or college wishing they’d spent more time cleaning their kitchen appliances. 

If you'd like to see which models of air fryer suit your specific requirements and budget, check out our guide to the best air fryer deals around. We constantly update our deals page to ensure that you always get the best possible price, no matter which fryer you want to buy.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.