What Is an Air Fryer?

Thinking of picking up one of these countertop workhorses? Here are the basics to acquainting yourself with the air fryer, including the pros and cons of cooking with one.

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October 04, 2021
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Air fryer machine cooking potato fried in kitchen. Lifestyle of new normal cooking.

Photo by: CASEZY/Getty Images

CASEZY/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Thinking of joining the air fryer club, but not sure how you'll use it? Let us explain this countertop appliance and dive into the pros and cons of cooking with one. Many of the cooks in Food Network Kitchen have become enamored with the air fryer — and they've developed tons of useful recipes as a result. Here's what you need to know if you want to try them out.

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1317526167

Closeup of golden cauliflower in an air-fryer in Frederick, MD, United States

Photo by: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Cavan Images/Getty Images

What Is an Air Fryer?

An air fryer is miniature convection oven that can fit on your kitchen countertop. It will cook most anything you would cook in an oven, but the real draw is that with very little oil (we’re talkin’ a teaspoon), an air fryer will give you crispy fries, wings and vegetables that you never imagined you’d get at home, much less without a deep fryer.

How Does an Air Fryer Work?

Like any convection oven, an air fryer has a source of heat and a fan — the two elements most important for this type of cooking, which can make foods super crispy. In an air fryer, the heating element and the fan are both on top, and the super-heated air blows all around the food, which sits in a basket. The basket is key: it allows the rapidly moving hot air to always be in contact with the food and not blocked by the a pan or cookie sheet, like you would use in a traditional oven.

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Spicy Air Fryer Potato Wedges in Frederick, Maryland, United States

Photo by: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Cavan Images/Getty Images

How to Use an Air Fryer

Using an air fryer is easy once you understand how it works and what it can (and can’t) do. First, figure out if your air fryer has a preheat function. Generally speaking, many air fryer recipes will not ask you to preheat, but you might that your machine's instructions suggest you preheat or that you simply prefer this extra step. The good news is that preheating an air fryer only takes a few minutes, so you don't need to think that far ahead.

The two parameters you can set on an air fryer are time and temperature. We especially like the timer, because unlike the timer on your oven, the air fryer turns off when the timer goes off, saving your dinner from burning. From there, simply follow the directions in the recipe you're using. But generally speaking, you’ll put a teaspoon or two of oil on the food you'e cooking, put it the basket and turn it on. Halfway through the cooking time, you’ll probably flip the food or give the basket a good shake. In some cases, juices and marinades drop down through the basket and can be poured over the cooked food, adding the concentrated flavor back to the dish.

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Four spicy air fried chicken thighs in an air fryer in Frederick, MD, United States

Photo by: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Cavan Images/Getty Images

How to Clean an Air Fryer

After using your air fryer, you’ll be cleaning it. We're got a more detailed guide to this task, but here the basics. The first step is crucial: unplug the air fryer and allow it to cool. The parts that pop out like the basket and handle can be washed in soapy water. A soft, damp cloth works well for the inside parts. Be sure to look at the heating element and see if there’s spattered food there. A toothbrush devoted to cleaning tight spaces in kitchen appliances can be helpful. If you don't clean your air fryer regularly, oil can build up, turn sticky and hard to clean up (or worse, turn rancid). Remember that every brand is different, so refer to your owner's manual for the proper instructions — some air fryers might have removable parts that are dishwasher-safe, but others do not.

What Can You Cook In an Air Fryer?

An air fryer is great for cooking food that is often deep-fried: it can give you the crunch without much oil. Things like frozen mozzarella sticks, tater tots, frozen fries and chicken nuggets work well. Air fryers are also good at making fried chicken — especially fantastic wings. Roasted vegetables are going to be crispy, browned and perfectly cooked in the center, but you’ll use as much oil as you would to oven-roast them. Anything that can benefit from high heat is perfect for an air fryer: little potatoes cut in half and tossed in olive oil, chickpeas that become a super-crunchy snack, steaks, chops and more. You can also bake bread and cookies, and air fryer s'mores are a fun party trick.

The Pros and Cons of Air Fryers

Pros:

  • You can make crispy foods with a small amount of oil.
  • They're easy to use.
  • It's a more healthful cooking technique than deep frying.
  • They won't heat up your kitchen like an oven.

Cons:

  • They generally have small capacity, so they're not the best for a large family.
  • They cook food quickly at a high temperature, so items can burn more easily if you're not careful.
  • They're not suited for cooking high-fat foods, which can burn and smoke as drippings occur. For instance, we don't recommend cooking bacon in the air fryer.

Air Fryer Recipes to Try

Food Network Kitchen’s Air Fryer Fried Chicken.

Photo by: Matt

Matt

It’s no surprise that the a top-requested air fryer recipe is fried chicken. We think going overnight with the buttermilk marinade is best, but if you just can’t wait to use your new toy, an hour will do.

Food Network Kitchen’s Air Fryer Chicken Wings, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: KATE MATHIS

KATE MATHIS

Second spot on our list is Air Fryer Chicken Wings. This recipe uses a Buffalo-style sauce but after you “fry” the wings you can use any sauce you want.

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FNK_AirFryerFrenchFries_H

Food Network Kitchen’s Air Fryer French Fries, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

This is maybe the easiest air fryer recipe, and the one we’re pretty sure everyone tries as the inaugural dish when they get their air fryer.

Food Network Kitchen’s Air Fryer Brussels Sprouts, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: KATE MATHIS

KATE MATHIS

There’s nothing better than a batch of crispy Brussels sprouts. And the fact that they cook in less than 20 minutes makes them even better-er.

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FNK_AirFryerBulgogiWithZucchini_H

Food Network Kitchen’s Air Fryer Bulgogi with Zucchini, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

Any time we have bulgogi is a treat, but being able make it without a smoky grill is cause for celebration.

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