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Expert Shopper Kitchen

How to use an air fryer

Alvina Wang/BestReviews

What you need to know before buying your next air fryer

Air-frying is not a trend. It's a cooking method that offers many benefits. To become proficient, you need to learn how the appliance works and what you must do to get the most out of it. The BestReviews Testing Lab has evaluated dozens of air fryers. We know how they work on a practical level. If you want to truly understand this countertop marvel, here’s everything you need to know.

What is an air fryer?

The marketing for an air fryer was a double-edged sword. It immediately convinced people the appliance was something to try because you could fry foods in a healthier way. But the same buzzwords that got people interested in the product also limited their expectations to simply making foods crispy when, in fact, it can do so much more. 

An air fryer can have a few different designs, ranging from basket to oven and beyond. However, the cooking method is always the same. An air fryer has a small cooking chamber (when compared to a full-size oven) and at least one heating element along with a fan. The fan circulates the hot air around the food to cook it quickly and evenly like a convection oven, making it an efficient way to cook. 

And most air fryers can perform all the same functions as your oven, allowing you to do far more than cook a healthier version of comfort food. You can bake, toast, warm, dehydrate and more in this versatile appliance. 

Why choose an air fryer?

There are many reasons why someone would choose an air fryer over another appliance. Here are several:

  • Health benefits: The big benefit is you can cook many foods with little-to-no oil. That means homemade french fries can potentially be as good for you as a baked potato.  
  • Versatility: An air fryer is only limited by its size. For the most part, if you can fit the food in the basket, you can cook it in an air fryer. Remember, however, an air fryer is more or less a wind tunnel, so cooking lighter foods, such as leafy vegetables, and wet foods, like sauces, aren't advisable, as they will be blown around.
  • Satisfying results: An air fryer does a remarkable job of creating a crispy dish that has a satisfying crunch and a juicy interior with little effort.
  • Compact size: An air fryer is essentially an oven that fits on your countertop. Many are cylindrical, so they have a smaller footprint than a toaster oven or a microwave.
  • Speed: Because of its compact size, there is less air to heat up inside the cooking chamber. This means an air fryer can cook your food much faster than a full-size oven.
  • Easy to clean: The cooking portion of many air fryers is removable and often nonstick. This means cleaning usually only entails a warm soapy wash with a nonabrasive sponge.
  • Affordability: While you can definitely spend a lot of money on an air fryer. Most are affordable, especially when compared to a full-size oven. And they are more energy-efficient, which can save you money in the long run as well.

How does an air fryer work?

An air fryer is a countertop appliance that cooks food using dry heat. The heating element, located in the top of the air fryer, heats up the air. A fan blows that hot air directly onto your food. Since the food is cooked in a basket, the air circulates around the food. This efficient method of transferring heat enables caramelization of surface sugars in foods, giving them a crispy texture with a robust flavor. As the outside crisps, it also seals in the juices to keep the insides decadently moist.

While it is definitely possible to cook without adding any oil at all to your food, some people find that rather bland when compared to deep-fried foods. If you need a little more pizzazz, you can start with one tablespoon of oil. Remember to coat your food; do not pour the oil directly into the basket. If that's not enough, you can increase as needed, but the whole point is to minimize your oil usage in an air fryer.

How to use an air fryer: setup phase

An air fryer is a countertop appliance. You need to place it on a sturdy, level surface that is close enough to an outlet that you do not need an extension cord. Because an air fryer cooks at the same high temperature as an oven, you will need space around it for the hot air to vent. Typically, this is 5 inches on all sides, but you'll need to consult your owner's manual for the specifics of your model.

Before using your air fryer for the first time, you'll want to remove all tape, cardboard, plastic and foam that secured the model during shipping. You also need to wash off any areas that are involved in holding the food, such as the fryer basket and the crisper tray. Many air fryers, but not all, also need to run through a heating cycle to burn off any coatings applied at the factory to protect your unit until its first use.

In general, an air fryer works like an oven. You will have controls that you use to select the temperature and cooking time. Depending on your model, you might have other specialty features. You will need to consult your owner's manual to learn what they do and how to access them. 

Preheating: Is it necessary?

An air fryer needs to warm up before being used. If you do not preheat, you won't be cooking at the correct temperature. This can lead to your recipe not turning out as expected. Many models have a built-in preheat, like an oven, that will alert you when the air fryer reaches the designated temperature. Once the air fryer is hot enough, you insert your food and cook according to the directions.

If you are impatient and skip the preheat step, your food may not be fully cooked when the recipe says it should be done. Extending the cooking time will help, but you will lose the benefit of the food cooking at a consistent temperature. If you are using a smaller air fryer, the preheat function won't be as impactful because the oven may reach full temperature in as little as two minutes. 

Air fryer food preparation tips

To get the best results with an air fryer, it’s important to prepare the food properly. The most important aspect is cutting the pieces to a uniform size. This is because larger pieces take longer to cook. If you have a mix of large and small pieces, some may be overcooked, while others will be undercooked. You also want to refrain from overcrowding the basket — if the air can't circulate, your food won't cook evenly.

Another important prep step to remember is to dry your food before placing it in the air fryer. Any moisture that is on your food will inhibit creating a crispy exterior. It's okay to coat your food lightly with oil, as this will help with crisping, but condensation or water will yield less than satisfactory results. This tip holds true for marinating as well. After the food has absorbed the flavors, pat the surface dry before placing it in the air fryer. If you're adding seasoning, it’s best to do this before cooking as well.

Cooking guidelines

Cooking with an air fryer is very simple. One reason is because you will most likely only be cooking one type of food, such as french fries or hot dogs, at a time. 

  1. Prepare your food as needed.
  2. Set the temperature and time according to the recipe (don't forget to add time for preheating).
  3. Allow the unit to preheat.
  4. When the air fryer reaches the required temperature, add your food, being careful not to overcrowd the basket.
  5. If you are cooking food that needs to be agitated, such as french fries, open the drawer roughly halfway through and give the basket a shake. If you are cooking something greasy, like bacon, you will need to flip each piece with silicone-tipped tongs so you do not splash grease or damage the basket or the crisper plate.
  6. The air fryer will alert you when the cooking is done. Remove the basket and serve the food.

What can you cook in an air fryer?

Anything you can cook in an oven, you can cook in an air fryer. Though you’ll need to downsize larger portions of food, an air fryer is a much more versatile appliance than many people give it credit for. 

  • Comfort foods: Anything pre-fried and frozen is an excellent choice for an air fryer. Whether it's french fries, macaroni bites, fritters or pizza bites. 
  • Proteins: You can make hamburgers, bacon, sausage, meatloaf and more. Chicken is a no-brainer, but fish is also an option.
  • Vegetables: As long as the vegetables aren't small enough or leafy enough to get blown around, you can crisp up some great dishes. Broccoli, corn on the cob and asparagus are all viable options.
  • Reheating leftovers: If you are repulsed by the thought of rubbery reheated pizza from the microwave, tuck a slice in your air fryer for three or four minutes at 375 degrees and that will be the only way you ever reheat pizza again.
  • Break-apart cookies: It’s important to cover the tops of your cookies with weighted aluminum foil (so it doesn't blow around). This will also keep the outside of your cookies from getting too crisp.

What you shouldn't cook

When considering which foods you shouldn't cook in an air fryer, all you have to remember is that an air fryer has a fan. Any food that can be displaced by the air current of a fan should not be cooked in an air fryer. This includes foods with wet ingredients, such as sauces and batter. The fan can splatter these ingredients around, coating the heating element and, in general, making a mess.

Additionally, anything that is light enough to be lifted by an air stream is not suitable either. This includes leafy vegetables, cheese slices and even pieces of bread. For example, placing a cheese sandwich in an air fryer to make a grilled cheese can be risky because it has the potential to lift apart while cooking.

Cooking time and temperature

With all the testing we've done, we've found most air fryer recipes call for cooking food at 350 to 400 degrees for eight to 12 minutes. Obviously, there are dishes that won't fit inside those confining parameters, but it gives you a good idea of how simple an air fryer is to use. For some recipes — ones you don't want as crisp, or meat that you want to cook low-and-slow — it is better to lower the temperature and cook the food for longer.

Some air fryers have presets that allow you to cook certain foods at the press of a button. These are comparable to the popcorn button on your microwave. They are purely a matter of convenience. You can achieve the same results, sometimes even better results, from dialing in the time and temperature manually.

Advanced techniques

Basic air fryers have a single basket that you fill with food and cook one batch at a time. More advanced models, however, may come with features like two baskets, a baking rack or other accessories that let you get even more out of the appliance. For example, if your model has two baskets, it's like having two separate air fryers. You can cook two different foods at the same time. And if your model has a sync finish function, it means those foods will be done cooking at exactly the same time.

If your air fryer is an oven model, you could put something on the baking rack, such as pizza or hot dogs, and cook french fries beneath in the basket. While this is convenient, since you are heating your food in the same cooking chamber, you will have to watch to see when each item is done — they won't automatically finish at the same time.

Cleaning and maintenance

There is very little you have to do to keep an air fryer running safely and efficiently. 

  1. Unplug the air fryer and wait for it to cool.
  2. Wash the removable parts with warm water, mild dish soap and a nonabrasive sponge.
  3. Dry the removable parts thoroughly with a soft cloth.
  4. Wipe down the outside of the appliance with a damp cloth.
  5. Dry the exterior with a soft cloth to prevent streaking.
  6. If the owner's manual says to clean the cooking chamber, perform that task as instructed.

For a long appliance life, it’s essential to clean an air fryer after every use. You also need to keep grease from building up on any windows or the heating element. Consult the owner's manual to learn how to perform these and other deeper cleaning tasks.

While some parts may be dishwasher-safe, never submerge the base. Also, never clean with abrasive materials as these will damage the nonstick coating.

Safety tips

An air fryer is a relatively safe kitchen appliance. As long as you place it on a stable surface with ample room for the heat to vent and you remove all nearby items, you will have no problems while cooking. The primary safety concern is removing the food after it has been cooked. The basket and crisper tray will be very hot. You want to avoid touching them or placing them down on a surface that could be damaged by heat.

If you need to reach into the basket to remove your cooked food, use a pair of silicone-tipped tongs. These will reduce the risk of touching the hot basket with your hand, and the silicone tips will protect the nonstick coating on your air fryer.

If the food that you cooked created an abundance of grease, be extra careful when handling the basket so you do not spill the hot grease. Also, remember that pouring hot grease down your sink will create a clog. Let the grease cool and solidify before dumping it into a trash can.

Final thoughts on using an air fryer

Now that you know everything you need to know about how to use an air fryer, here's a quick at-a-glance list to remind you of the key points:

  • An air fryer is a versatile appliance that can do much more than crisp comfort foods.
  • An air fryer is quicker and more energy efficient than a full-size oven.
  • While an air fryer is easy to set up and safe to use, to get the best results, you must prepare the food properly and not overfill the basket.
  • Although you can cook a staggering variety of foods in an air fryer, wet and lightweight foods do not fare well because of the fan.
  • Some models let you cook more than one type of food at the same time.
  • To get the longest life out of your air fryer, it’s important to clean it after every use.
  • To get the most enjoyment out of your air fryer, take the time to experiment with it — you'll be surprised at all it can do.

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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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