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This is How an Air Fryer Really Works

Right hand of man holding the tray of the black deep air fryer which is on the wooden table in the white kitchen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The air fryer, a magical kitchen appliance that promises to make fried food without the grease or labor seems like a pipe dream. When used properly with the right ingredients and technique, the air fryer actually accomplishes those lofty goals. Looking for perfectly cooked french fries or leftover pizza without breaking out the deep fryer or oven? The air fryer can help. But how and why does the air fryer work?

How Does an Air Fryer Work

Right hand putting the fried chicken into the tray of the black air fryer which is on the wooden table in the white kitchen.
Enjoy The Life/Shutterstock

Essentially, the air fryer is like a small convection oven complete with a heating element, a fan placed on top of the air fryer, and a basket for the food. When the air fryer is turned on, it generates and circulates hot air to the food in the basket. The design of the basket allows this hot air to waft over the food, giving items that crispy, fried texture. This is called a convection effect, the result of which will brown the exterior of the items in the air fryer basket. Generally, if the temperature in the air fryer reaches 320 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s enough to crisp and brown common items like french fries and tater tots. Because of this unique design, an air fryer will cook food quicker than a standard oven.

Although there’s no cooking oil used in an air fryer, that doesn’t make it healthier than deep frying. Instead, the biggest benefit of an air fryer when used for cooking is the speed and the preparation — no need to pour a bunch of oil into a pot when you want to fry up a batch of frozen french fries.

What to Prepare in an Air Fryer

Blue bowl of roasted brussels sprouts on a white kitchen counter.
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Now that you understand how an air fryer works, you can better understand what recipes work well in an air fryer. An air fryer might be excellent for a wide range of foods, it’s not a magical silver bullet. Remember to treat the air fryer like an oven and preheat, an important step to making sure that your food gets as crispy as possible. Also, be sure not to overcrowd your basket. We recommend using a single layer and flipping the items to ensure max crispiness (and to avoid overcooking).

A few common foods to avoid are steak or anything with too much sauce. Cook a steak in an air fryer and you’ll end up with a sad, dry-looking piece of meat that’s not remotely appetizing. The air fryer will not impart any sort of crust on steaks and you’ll be much better off simply cooking a steak the old-fashioned way — in a hot pan or a grill. Also, avoid cooking items with too much sauce (sauced wings for example) in an air fryer. Not only will the sauce likely burn, but it also won’t get crispy. It’s much better to air fry plain wings first and toss them in sauce afterward.

So what foods work best in an air fryer? For starters, convenience items like frozen French fries, chicken nuggets, tenders, and essentially any kind of breaded foods are great in an air fryer. Not only will it cook fast, but it’ll also get crispy unlike in a microwave. Leftover takeout pizza is also excellent in the air fryer as it’ll get properly melty and crisp. One taste and you’ll never go back to microwaving cold pizza ever again. For something on the healthier side, fresh vegetables, potatoes, and fish are fantastic in the air fryer. Vegetables like brussels sprouts and cauliflower get crispy in the air fryer, a welcome change from steaming or boiling. To cook fresh fish or seafood, simply place them in a foil packet (or line the basket with foil) with some seasoning and lemon juice.

Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
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