How to Use an Air Fryer: A First-Timer's Guide

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Congratulations! You must be the owner of a new air fryer, or the soon-to-be owner of an air fryer. Everybody’s talking about these things, and now you get to see what the big deal is for yourself.

How do they work? Is it really frying? What kinds of foods can you make in your new air fryer? Here's everything you need to know about a basic basket-type air fryer.

The Deal with Air Fryers

First off, a disappointment: Air fryers are not deep fryers.

Air fryers are full of hot air, and that’s what is great about them. They are basically small, powerful ovens, and ovens use air as a vehicle for heat, whereas deep frying uses fat as the vehicle for heat.

Because air fryers are ovens and not fryers, foods that come out of your air fryer will not be 100% identical to the onion rings at Cone-n-Shake or the calamari rings at your favorite bar and grill.

The upshot is that air fryers are much less messy and oil-intensive than deep-frying. Even better, these lil’ ovens can do much more than crank out faux fried food. Air fryers bring beautifully browned vegetables, crackly-skinned chicken wings, and even light and airy cakes, all within your reach.

Different Types of Air Fryers

The most common type of air fryer on the market—the basket-type air fryer—looks like a funky coffee maker with a removable basket in its belly. This air fryer has one function only: air frying. This guide covers basket-type air fryers.

You can also find boxy multi-function air fryers on the market, like the Beville Smart-Oven, the Cuisinart Air Fryer Toaster Oven, and the June Oven. These look like toaster ovens on steroids, and air frying is only one of the things they do (among slow cooking, dehydrating, and toasting). They also hold more food than basket-type air fryers.

If you have a multi-function countertop oven with an air fryer setting, this guide still has some tips that will be useful for you, so don't give up yet!

The Best Air Fryers for the Crispiest FriesREAD MORE:

How Air Fryers Work

Your air fryer is like an amazing convection oven. It's small, yet mighty, and you can roast, broil, or bake in it. You cannot deep fry in it.

Need a refresher on convection cooking? No problem.

Heat rises, so in a regular oven the top rack is always the hottest spot, which leads to uneven doneness. (It's also why a lot of cookie recipes tell you to rotate baking sheets from top to bottom and back to front midway through baking.)

In a convection oven, however, fans blow hot air around so the temperature is equalized throughout the oven.

Air fryers aren’t exactly like convection ovens; their airflow is designed to more closely replicate the heat distribution of deep-frying in hot fat. But for our purposes, the convection oven analogy is good enough.

What to Expect the First Time

After you open the box, take apart all removable components. This will probably include a removable basket and a grate or perforated tray in the bottom of that basket. Wash and dry them.

Put the air fryer on a heat-resistant surface, at least eight inches away from the wall. Replace the grate and basket.

NOTE: Some manufacturers recommend running the air fryer empty for 10 minutes before you actually cook with it, to let it off-gas. There might be a slightly chemical smell (one manual referred to it as a “new appliance smell”), so have the vents on or windows open. It should be just a one-time thing.

Now you are ready to cook food! How about fries? Really, isn’t that the big sell on these things? Potatoes are cheap, and we have a great recipe for you.

Important Tips to Keep in Mind

What Size Do You Need?

Here’s the rub: Y ou cannot fit a lot of food in basket-type air fryers. You and your air fryer will have a much better relationship if you accept this.

An air fryer with a 1.75- to 3-quart capacity is best suited for preparing meals for one or two people. Don’t expect leftovers, either.

How to Use an Air Fryer: A First-Timer's Guide

Even a large air fryer (about four to five quarts) often needs to run food in batches. If a recipe serves more than two people, you’ll likely need to cook it in more than one batch.

Consumer Reports found that the actual capacity of some air fryers was a tad smaller than what manufacturers claimed. This can seem like a drag, but remember, air fryers cook food fast.

To Preheat or Not to Preheat?

That is the question.

Unlike the big oven on your range, an air fryer does not need a whole half hour to get to temp. A few minutes of preheating should do it. Some air fryer models have a light that indicates when the unit is preheated.

Manufacturers recommend preheating, but if you like, you can skip preheating altogether. If you’re starting food in a cold air fryer, your cook time might be three or four minutes longer—no big whoop! Try it both ways, and see what gives you the best result. It might depend on the recipe.

Don't Make These 10 Mistakes

Doing any of the following things won’t melt your face off, but try to avoid them.

Do not be too generous with oil.

Use a light hand with that oil! Excess oil ends up in the drawer under the grate, but if there’s too much buildup, it might smoke. Generally speaking, if there’s already fat on the food (skin-on chicken, for example, or frozen fried food), you might not need to oil the food at all. Vegetables, however, benefit from a light coating of oil, because it helps make them nice and brown.

Do not grease the drawer with cooking spray.

Seems like that would be a good idea, right? But the baskets have nonstick coating, and cooking spray can damage the finish over time. (Really, it says so in the manual! What, didn’t you read it?)

In lieu of cooking spray, toss your food in oil instead—you’re probably doing that already, in many cases—or rub it down with an oil-saturated paper towel. I found pre-fried frozen foods didn’t need the help of extra grease.

Do not use oil with a low smoke point.

Olive oil isn’t great for air frying, because it has a low smoke point. Not only will it smoke at high temperatures, but it can also develop a weird aftertaste. Vegetable oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and other high smoke point oils are the way to go.

Do not crowd the drawer.

For all the space they hog on a countertop, air fryers don’t have a big capacity. For the best results, don’t load the drawer up with food (the image used in marketing air fryers is quite misleading). It’s so tempting to add another handful of potato sticks or shaved beets, but you’ll learn from experience that food comes out crisper and cooks up faster if you work in small batches.

Do not neglect to shake the basket.

Shaking the basket periodically through cooking ensures food is evenly exposed to heat, which gives you better browning. A lot of recipes call for you to shake the basket every five minutes. For larger items, like breaded fish fillets, flip them instead. If a recipe calls for shaking or flipping and you skip it, it’s not detrimental, but it’ll keep you from achieving that lucrative, oh-so-similar-to-fried-food result.

Do not just dump the hot contents of the drawer into a bowl.

Use tongs or a spoon to get cooked food out. Excess oil collects under the removable grate in your basket, so if you yank out the basket and tip it onto a platter, the oil will come spilling out along with the grate. This can burn you, make a mess, and lead to greasy food.

Do not trust the timer 100%.

A lot of basket-style air fryers have a dial you set like an old-fashioned kitchen timer, or like that kid’s game Perfection. When the time’s up it goes PING! and the machine stops.

On one of the models I used, five minutes flew by suspiciously fast. So I set my phone’s timer when I set the air fryer’s timer, and guess what—the appliance was off by a few minutes. This is not a big deal; with air fryers, you just keep re-setting the timer until the food is done to your liking. But do realize that not all timers run accurately.

Some models work best when, for shorter cooking times, you wind the timer up to 10 or 20 minutes and then wind it back to the desired cooking time.

Do not put the hot drawer on the countertop.

Think of the drawer as a hot pan. When you pull it from the unit, the bottom especially will be hot. Grab the drawer by the handle, not the other parts, and have a trivet or potholder ready to set it on if heat will damage your countertop.

Do not get all touchy-feely with the air fryer.

Don’t assume the exterior of the air fryer is uniformly cool. Nope—parts of it (the back, likely) get hot. One model I used got a little wonky when I tried to get the drawer in and out, and I had the best luck stabilizing the machine with one hand and pushing/pulling the drawer with the other. The air fryer didn’t get red-hot to the touch, but still—don't get all grabby with it.

Do not listen to podcasts while running an air fryer.

Air fryers are loud. Pause that podcast, because you will not be able to follow along at all. And forget about jamming to your favorite tunes. Do that when you prep, I suppose.

How to Clean Your Air Fryer

It's important to clean your air fryer after every use, since a build-up of oil can make the unit smoke. In some instances, you can simply wipe off the drawer and grate with a paper towel. If they’re gunky, hand wash. Most models have parts that are dishwasher safe, so check with your manual.

The Best Foods to Cook

Air fryers use dry heat, so think of foods that cook with dry heat (roasting, baking, and frying) as opposed to ones that cook with wet heat (boiling, braising, and steaming). Crispy shallots, frozen puff pastry “donuts,” dehydrated tomato slices, puzzlingly low-carb bagels, reheated leftover pizza...don’t be afraid to experiment.

That said, we’ve noticed some foods really excel in an air fryer. Drum roll, please:

Pre-fried frozen foods: Classics like chicken tenders, fish sticks, tater tots, and pizza rolls are made for the air fryer. In general, portion-sized frozen foods or ones in bite-size pieces heat up and get appealingly crisp in an air fryer in no time. They could re-name this thing the College Kid/Single Dude Dinner Machine.

From-scratch recipes that mimic pre-fried frozen foods: Think air-fried chicken, air fryer mozzarella sticks, air-fried crab cakes, et cetera.

Now it's time to think outside the deep fryer! I also really love using the air fryer for:

Get Air Frying With Our Favorite Recipes!