Updated November 24, 2018
I’m a member of about 50 popular foodie groups on Facebook, and it’s amazing how much chatter there is about instant pots and air fryers. In fact, two of the most visited pages on Brains Report are our reviews of the “Top 10 Air Fryers” and the “Top 10 Electric Pressure Cookers.”
In addition to writing about instant pots and air fryers for my site, I’ve reviewed the top models of each for Business Insider (instant pots and air fryers.) So, as an expert on both appliances, one of the questions I get most often from consumers is “What’s the difference between instant pots and air fryers?” I will answer this question and more below. But, if you don’t feel like reading and finding out the rationale behind my answer, I’ll give a little spoiler: go with the instant pot.
What Are Air Fryers Good for?
For the most part, air fryers work like convection ovens. They cook your food using the Maillard reaction: they use a fan to blow hot air over your food to brown it. It’s similar to how you might toast a marshmallow over a campfire.
Since they are similar to convection ovens, air fryers are basically superfluous if you already have a convection oven. However, there are a few advantages air fryers have over most convection ovens:
- They’re Smaller – Depending on the model you purchase, your air fryer will fit under a cabinet and take up less room than a toaster oven.
- They Cook Faster – Air fryers require minimal (if any) preheating.
- They’re Energy Efficient – Rather than heating up your house by turning the oven on, the air fryer keeps the heat localized in its small compartment.
- They’re Less Expensive – Most convection ovens and convection toaster ovens will cost you more than the top air fryer brands.
What Foods Can You Make with an Air Fryer?
Air fryers are marketed as a healthier alternative to deep fryers. They’re healthier because you are baking your food instead of frying it in a trough of oil. Most people don’t notice a difference in texture because of the crispiness produced by the Maillard reaction’s browning.
Therefore, the foods most often celebrated for being good and healthy in the air fryer are items like French fries, chicken wings, fried chicken, fried fish, and just about any of the frozen foods at your local grocer that you might make in a deep fryer.
But, other common dishes people make in an air fryer include
- Meat from raw, including burgers, steak, pork chops, and more
- Vegetables, such a cauliflower, mushrooms, and anything else you might roast
- Baked goods, like small cakes, quiche, cupcakes, etc.
- Roasted nuts
And, you might have fun experimenting with other meals as well. Just be sure you read your air fryer’s user manual first.
What Are Instant Pots Good for?
Though “Instant Pot” is a specific brand of electric pressure cooker, Erin, my lovely wife, tells me that no one knows what the heck I’m talking about when I refer to “electric pressure cookers.” So, for ease of communication, I will use the blanket term “instant pot” to refer to all brands of electric pressure cookers. Of course, my mom will still think that I’m referring to a marijuana delivery service.
The instant pot’s main selling point is that it can make delicious and nutritious meals in a matter of minutes by using a combination of heat and pressure. You should keep in mind that cooking times are a bit misleading, though. A manufacturer may claim that they can cook raw chicken from frozen to safe in ten minutes, but that time does not include how long it takes for the appliance to get up to pressure and depressurize afterward. This can take fifteen minutes or more. It’s still pretty fast, but not as fast as you’re led to believe.
What Foods Can You Make with an Instant Pot?
There are fancier electric pressure cookers that can do even more, but for the purposes of this section, we will use the best-selling, and in my opinion best-performing, model of all time, the Instant Pot DUO, to explore what instant pots can do. They advertise that it has seven uses in one device. These uses are:
- Warming food
- Making yogurt
- Cooking rice
- Slow cooker (like a Crock-Pot)
- Pressure cooker (the key function)
You are also able to use a pressure cooker for canning. The National Center for Home Food Preservation says this is a no-no, but we’ve never had any problems doing it. Either way, can at your own risk.
With all of these functions, you can make a lot of stuff. Besides my personal favorites of falling-off-the-bone ribs (in less than an hour), chili lime chicken, and one-pot pasta dishes, instant pots are great for making the following quickly:
- Hot cereals
- Roasting whole chickens
- Baked potatoes
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Pot roasts and other large slabs of meat
A lot of people are intimidated when their instant pot first arrives. Don’t be. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for what to do before the first use and have some fun. Unless you got some back-alley model from a guy in a trench coat, your electric pressure cooker has at least ten different fail-safes to make sure your house doesn’t blow up. You may have heard about issues with Instant Pots. This was the brand branching out into non-pressure cooker appliances. However, their pressure cookers have not had any major problems.
Which Should You Buy: an Instant Pot or an Air Fryer?
Once a manufacturer combines an air fryer with an instant pot, it will be the stupidest appliance ever, but it will also sell like crazy. (UPDATE 11/24/18: Ninja has done it with the Foodi, and it isn’t stupid at all!) In the meantime, the kinds of foods each makes should serve as a guide for which is better for your situation. But, here’s a little category-by-category breakdown of how the most popular instant pots and air fryers compare to each other.
Versatility Winner: Instant Pots
Another difference between instant pots and air fryers is their ability to make “fried” foods. Air fryers can do it, but that’s about the only thing they can do that instant pots cannot. On the other hand, a good electric pressure cooker will make yogurt, rice, cheesecake, soups, and so on.
Ease of Use Winner: Air Fryers
Some popular brands of air fryers simply have one or two dials. You set the time and the temperature, and the rest is done for you. With instant pots, it gets easier as you get the hang of your appliance, but there is a little bit of a learning curve.
Size Winner: Air Fryers
Of course, this all depends on the size of the appliance you choose. The Instant Pot Duo Mini is going to take up less space than the Philips XL Airfryer, but for the most part, the average air fryer is smaller than the average instant pot.
Durability Winner: Instant Pots
There are a number of known issues with air fryers, including the tray handle busting off. Since it is such a new appliance, companies are still working out the kinks. The instant pot is essentially a high-tech version of the classic pressure cooker, and the Instant Pot company has done an outstanding job of getting it right. Electric pressure cookers seem to last.
Safety Winner: Instant Pots
In my research on air fryers, there just seem to be a number of issues with overheating, melting, smoking, plastic odors, and more. Instant pots must be on their game, or else a literal bomb will go off. They all tend to have at least ten different safety mechanisms in place.
Healthy Eating Winner: Instant Pots
Just about every air fryer manufacturer compares the foods they produce to those created by a deep fryer. However, the air fryer encourages eating unhealthy foods, such as over-processed frozen crap, fries, breaded meats, etc. When comparing the recipes for instant pots and air fryers, instant pots have healthier options.
Recipes Winner: Instant Pots
All you need to do is visit the Instant Pot Community on Facebook to see how many different recipes are available for this device. Plus, there are endless books on Amazon (my son got me the Instant Pot Miracle: From Gourmet to Everyday, 175 Must-Have Recipes for Christmas.) And, even if you have an off-brand electric pressure cooker (like I do), the recipes still work. The recipes for air fryers are out there, but they’re lacking.
Price Winner: Instant Pots
As I write this, the median price for the best-selling air fryers on Amazon is $100. The median price for the best-selling electric pressure cookers is $82. So, air fryers are a bit more expensive, and I’ve seen the prices going up lately, while the prices for instant pots remain stable.
Overall Winner: Instant Pots
If you have to choose between instant pots and air fryers, buy the instant pot. It’s more versatile, durable, safe, and you are more likely to eat healthy with it. After all, you don’t hear about people using air fryers to lose 125 pounds. They use instant pots.
If you want to learn more about electric pressure cookers, check out our buyer’s guide.
If you want to learn more about air fryers, check out our buyer’s guide.
And, if you own both an air fryer and an instant pot, please comment below about how you think the two compare!