The air fryer guide for busy cooks

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The world of air frying can seem like a delicious mystery, filled with endless possibilities but also a bit of confusion. What can you actually cook in this thing? How can you make it magically turn frozen fries into gourmet restaurant quality? 

Air fryer with fries inside.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.

This guide will help break through the confusion. It will cover what you need to know to get started, from the essential steps to the best tips and tricks. Understanding how to use an air fryer is simple and perfect for beginners and experienced cooks alike.

What is an air fryer?

An air fryer is a kitchen appliance that cooks food using hot air circulation. It mimics the results of deep frying but uses significantly less oil. Hot air circulates rapidly around the food, while a fan helps distribute the heat evenly. So, an air fryer provides a convenient and healthier way to enjoy fried foods.

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How to use an air fryer

To use an air fryer, you must set it up correctly, prepare your food appropriately, choose the correct settings, shake or flip the food during cooking and clean the unit afterward. These steps will give you quick and delicious results.

  1. Set it up: Place the air fryer on a stable, flat surface. Check that there is space around it for proper ventilation. Most air fryers vent hot air to the back, so don’t push it against a wall.
  2. Prepare food: Cut your food into similarly sized pieces to ensure even cooking. Season the food and place it in the air fryer.
  3. Choose a setting: Select the temperature according to the recipe or food type. Typical temperatures range from 300 F to 400 F. Set the timer based on the recipe’s recommended cooking time. 
  4. Shake or flip: Halfway through cooking, shake the basket or flip larger pieces with tongs. Check the food’s progress to adjust time or temperature if necessary. 
  5. Clean: After cooking, unplug the air fryer, let it cool and then clean it.
A woman is standing next to an air fryer.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Top 10 tips for air frying

Now, let’s explore the most helpful air-frying tips and tricks. These will ensure your air-fried creations are crispy, golden brown and perfectly cooked.

  • Using some oil is good: An air fryer uses less oil than other cooking methods, but a small amount of oil makes a big difference in most recipes. Choose oils with high smoke points, like canola, olive or avocado oil.
  • Don’t use commercial nonstick spray: The spray oils sold in stores contain additives that can damage the nonstick finish on air fryer parts. Use a spray bottle or brush to help distribute the oil evenly.
  • Avoid overcrowding the basket: Leave space around the food items in the basket. Crowding can lead to uneven cooking and extend the cooking time.
  • Check the food as it cooks: It is ok to pull the basket out and check the food during the cooking cycle. 
  • Flip the food over: Most food benefits from being flipped over halfway through the cooking time. If the food is small, like mushrooms or fries, shake the basket to allow the pieces to redistribute.
  • Use parchment paper: For easy cleanup, use parchment paper in the air fryer basket. Buy specially made air fryer parchment paper that allows the air to circulate.
  • Check for doneness: When cooking meats, use a food thermometer to ensure they have reached the correct internal temperature. Don’t cut corners on food safety.
  • Clean regularly: Clean the basket and tray after each use. This prevents the buildup of grease and food particles, which can affect performance.
  • Know your air fryer presets: Most have preset programs with cook times and temperatures preset. Use your air fryer manual to learn all the settings.
  • Experiment with recipes: The air fryer can handle a variety of foods. Once you get comfortable with a few basic recipes, try new ones to make the most of your air fryer. It is good for so much more than reheating pizza.

“When cooking new things in the air fryer, I always spray lightly with oil — minus fruits — and check after five to six minutes. Most fruits, veggies and some pastries are done at that time, but even if not, it’s a good time to turn over or stir.”

— Gena, Ginger Casa

What about preheating?

Preheating an air fryer is a hotly debated topic. Some models suggest preheating for even cooking, while others don’t require it. So, the most important thing to do is read your air fryer manual. 

Preheating helps achieve a crispy texture and reduces the overall cooking time. It makes the most difference in food that is supposed to get very crispy, like fried chicken. It is also necessary if you are using your air fryer for baking.

An air fryer with chicken wings on top of aluminum foil.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

What size air fryer do you need?

Selecting the perfect air fryer size comes down to two key factors: how much food you typically cook and available counter space. Small families of two to four people can comfortably use a 3-quart to 4-quart model, allowing them to cook large batches of vegetables, chicken nuggets or even small roasts. 

If you have a bigger family or love to entertain, consider a 5-quart air fryer or larger. These can handle full bags of frozen food, family-sized portions of chicken or even small whole chickens. It’s always better to have a slightly larger air fryer than you think you need, especially if you plan on experimenting with different recipes.

“I think the most important tip when it comes to using your air fryer is making sure it is big enough. The first air fryer we bought, we didn’t know what we were doing. So we bought a smaller one and were limited in what we could make. Once we recognized how convenient the air fryer could be in cooking meals, we upgraded to an air fryer that could actually fit all of the items we wanted to cook. So, when in doubt, get the bigger one first.”

— Leah Ingram, Bagels and Lasagna

The best things to make in an air fryer

Air fryers can handle a surprising variety of ingredients. But with so many options, where do you begin? These are some of the best and easiest things to make in an air fryer, keeping in mind that taste is subjective.

  • Chicken: The air fryer maintains moisture while achieving a crusty exterior.
  • Vegetables: Roasting veggies like asparagus, Brussels sprouts or carrots in the air fryer enhances their flavors, and they are ready quickly.
  • Fish filets: Perfect for making a healthier version of fried fish.
  • Chicken wings: These come out crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. 
  • Frozen foods: The air fryer cooks items like chicken nuggets and french fries quickly and evenly.
  • Bacon: It cooks evenly and drains excess fat as it cooks, resulting in crispy pieces.
  • Desserts: An air fryer is a mini convection oven that bakes beautifully. It is excellent for making small desserts like brownies or even Christmas cookies.
Air fryer fried chicken legs and thighs in a pile on a wooden cutting board.
Photo credit: Upstate Ramblings.

Summing up

The air fryer is a versatile and user-friendly appliance that can revolutionize your approach to cooking. By following these basic steps and helpful tips on how to use an air fryer, you’ll be well on your way to creating delicious and healthy air-fried meals in no time.

Anne Jolly is the creator of the food blog Upstate Ramblings. She loves to cook with gadgets like an air fryer, sous vide or pressure cooker.

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