Golden, crunchy and utterly moreish, fried food is always a treat, but is an air fryer or a deep fat fryer better at creating perfect crispy results?
Air fryers have become the go-to appliance for making everything from chips to fried chicken but in the rush to cook more healthily, has the deep fat fryer been overlooked? Here, we compare the two – how each one works, the pros and cons, how they rate for different foods and how easy they are to keep spotless.
How do air fryers and deep fat fryers work?
While the golden-brown, crispy dishes that emerge look similar, the way each type of fryer works is different.
Air fryers crisp by using circulated hot air that’s heated by an element to cook food. This is similar to how a convection fan oven works, but on a smaller, more intense, scale. Most go up to 200C but some models have a hotter setting of 240C that can quickly fry food from frozen. Most recommend that the food be tossed or turned as it fries to achieve maximum crispiness and even cooking.
While most air fryer baskets are generously sized, it’s advisable to cook in small portions. This is because the heat comes from above the basket. Overfilling the basket often means pale, soft chips or unevenly cooked veggies and meat. Plus, while you don’t need to use oil in an air fryer, a thin coating gives the best results as it’s what promotes browning. A tablespoon or two (depending on what you’re cooking) tossed through food is sufficient.
Deep fat fryers work by heating oil to a set temperature that can then be used to immerse a piece of food to fry it. However, this does more than brown the outside. When it’s set to the right temperature in the fryer, the oil heats the water within the food, steaming it, while the oil only penetrates the surface layer. This results in fluffy chips and doughnuts that aren’t greasy or soggy. Non-starchy foods (such as vegetables and fish) need a coating of batter when cooked in a deep fat fryer to help prevent moisture loss.
Deep fat fryers are more effective than chip pans as the oil is heated to a consistent temperature, which can be easily altered for different foods. Most food can be deep-fried quickly – churros may only take a couple of minutes, while chips can be blanched on a lower temperature for 3-4 minutes, then browned on a higher one for 3-4 minutes.
Frying wet batter
When it comes to frying battered fish, meat or vegetables, a deep fat fryer can’t be beaten – it’s the perfect way to crisp up bubbly batter and seal in moisture. The same can’t be said for an air fryer – without the oil bath, the batter won’t set and bubble up. Instead, it has a tendency to drip off the food, stick to the bottom of the basket and end up chewy, not crispy. Which means the air fryer basket will need a thorough clean.
Where air fryers do better is crisping up previously cooked frozen battered food as the hot air cooks it evenly and quickly, as well as food that’s been covered in breadcrumbs or seasoned flour (eg chicken, onion rings, mozzarella sticks).
Frying chips or French fries
Whether you’re making fresh chips in an air fryer or deep fat fryer, the key to good results is reducing the amount of moisture on the potato by patting dry.
Both types of fryer do an excellent job. Generally, chips from an air fryer are prone to being soft and unevenly browned if not turned enough, but are much healthier since they use less oil.
Those cooked in a deep fat fryer will be browner and crispier, especially if they’re double or triple fried, and more closely resemble chip shop chips.
As long as the dough you’re using is firm enough to hold a shape, it’s possible to cook it in an air fryer. You’ll need to grease the basket to prevent any sticking and ideally use the tray accessory that some air fryers come with, plus a lower temperature or ‘bake’ mode. The results can be drier than those cooked in a deep fat fryer – doughnuts may need brushing with oil or butter after cooking so coatings stick.
For the most authentic taste, as well as larger batches, a deep fat fryer offers the best solution. It’ll also be less messy if you’re making churros as it’s easier to pipe the mixture straight into the oil rather than into an air fryer pan.
Air fryers can tackle pretty much any type of food. Want to heat up sausages, cook steak or burgers, or reheat pizza? An air fryer is your friend, able to cook these foods faster and more effectively than in an oven. You really don’t want to try any of this in a deep fat fryer. This makes air fryers more versatile overall.
Cleaning and maintenance
Air fryers need cleaning after every use to prevent smoke and unwanted flavour transfer – however, as most baskets are dishwasher safe, this can be an easy task. It’s a good idea to regularly wipe down the interior and element when cool for the same reason.
Maintaining a deep fat fryer is more complicated. While you can reuse the same batch of oil multiple times, afterwards, the oil will need to be drained and disposed of (in a sealed container in the general waste, not poured down the sink) and the bowl of the fryer cleaned out. If it’s a fixed bowl, it’s a chore, while removable bowls are easier to wash.
Air fryers vs deep fat fryers – which one should I buy?
Which one you choose depends largely on the food you like to cook. For a full-on fried fish supper, a deep fat fryer is the ideal appliance, which is also true if you like battered recipes, such as tempura vegetables or crispy prawns. Deep fat fryers offer greater capacity than most air fryers so larger families may find them useful.
Air fryers allow you to enjoy fried food more often, plus they’re less messy to use, easier to keep clean and faster to heat up. Try one of our best air fryers: they may not always deliver the crispiest chips but they’re the more convenient and versatile choice all round and they use less oil, so they’re a healthier choice, too.