How Does an Air Fryer Work?

Updated: May 08, 2024

Air fryer recipes are sweeping the nation, but what is an air fryer and how does it work? Here's the lowdown.

There’s no question that air fryers are hugely popular. But if you’ve ever wondered, “what is an air fryer?” or “how does an air fryer work?” this guide breaks it down.

What is an air fryer?

tater tots in an air fryerTMB studio

The air fryer is essentially an amped-up countertop convection oven—it doesn’t actually fry your food. Patented by Philips Electronics Company, the small appliance claims to mimic the results of deep-frying with nothing more than hot air and little or no oil.

This gadget has surged in popularity over the last few years—nearly 40% of U.S. homes had one as of July 2020, according to the market research firm NPD Group. There are all kinds of things you can air-fry—from different air fryer chicken recipes like frozen chicken wings or easy-to-make air fryer chicken nuggets and homemade french fries to air fryer corn dogs or healthy air fryer recipes like roasted vegetables and even fresh-baked cookies.

Also, check how to clean air fryer following steps easier than you might think!

Air fryer vs. oven

Conventional ovens work by producing heat from an element (either gas or electric). The heat is slowly dispersed through the oven over time. In the case of convection ovens, that time is sped up by the use of a fan—similar to the one in an air fryer.

On the other hand, air fryers use rapid air technology to create heat instead of an element. That helps them heat up much more quickly than an oven (not to mention they’re much smaller, too). That small size helps them circulate the heat more evenly, crisping up your food without hot spots.

How does an air fryer work?

The top section of an air fryer holds a heating mechanism and fan. You place the food in a fryer-style basket and when you turn it on, hot air rushes down and around the food. This rapid circulation makes the food crisp—much like deep-frying, but without the oil.

How to use an air fryer

1. Place your food in the basket

Depending on your air fryer’s size, the basket may hold anywhere from 2 to 10 quarts. In most cases, you’ll want to add 1 or 2 teaspoons of oil to help the food get nice and crispy. If you’re in a hurry, you can put foil in an air fryer to make cleanup a bit easier.

2. Set the time and temperature

Woman Adjusting Temperature On Air FryerGrace Cary/Getty Images

Air fryer cooking times and temperatures typically range from 5 to 25 minutes at 350° to 400°F, depending on the food you’re cooking.

3. Let the food cook

In some cases, you may need to flip or turn the food halfway through the cooking time to help it crisp up evenly. Once you’re done cooking, it’s important to clean your air fryer.

What are the best air fryers?

Our Test Kitchen put several models to the test to find the best air fryer, and a few brands rose to the top. Our experts were impressed by the Chefman TurboFry Air Fryer XL, NuWave Brio Air Fryer and the Magic Bullet Air Fryer.

These gadgets range in price depending on their size and features. In addition to the appliance itself, you may want to pick up some air fryer accessories.

What can you cook in an air fryer?

Air Frying Waffle Potato FriesGrandbrothers/Getty Images

Thanks to this small but mighty kitchen appliance, you can lighten up some of your favorite comfort foods. This cooking method practically eliminates the need for oil, leaving you with crispy air fryer chicken, restaurant-quality french fries and, yes, even crunchy potato chips. Ready for a healthy crunch? You can make air-fryer tortilla chips with way less oil than deep-fried tortilla chips. Don’t miss our other addicting air-fryer appetizers!

But it isn’t just a healthier alternative to cooking traditionally deep-fried foods. You can also make other everyday favorites with this cool tool. Sizzle up a juicy air fryer steak. Start your Saturday morning with air-fried bacon. Or satisfy your sweet tooth by air-frying chocolate chip cookies. Your recipe options are practically endless!

Common Mistakes When Using an Air Fryer

While using an air fryer is easy, improper use can result in foods that are less than dazzling. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid:

  • Overcrowding the basket: The machine needs air around it, and the food does, too. If you overcrowd the basket in your air fryer, your food won’t have a lot of exposed surface area. Stick to cooking small batches at a time instead.
  • Using too much or too little oil: Most air fryers call for only a teaspoon or two of oil. If too much or too little oil is added, you won’t get those crispy, browned results. Most recipes will recommend the amount that’s right for that dish, but when in doubt, give everything a quick spritz with oil—just don’t overdo it.
  • Skipping the preheat step: An air fryer is like an oven: It needs to be hot so it can properly cook whatever you put in it from the moment the door shuts. If it’s too cold, the final food may suffer. Check your recipe’s suggested temperature when you begin pulling out ingredients for cooking. Go ahead and turn the air fryer on so it can be plenty hot when you’re ready to use it.

Air Fryer FAQ

Are air fryers healthy?

The air fryer requires very little oil (sometimes just a spritz!), unlike what you need in the oven or when using a deep-fryer. That’s because the unit heats up so it’s hot enough to crisp your food without any added oil. Frozen french fries prepared in the air fryer contain between 4 and 6 grams of fat versus their deep-fried counterparts, which have a whopping 17 grams per serving.

That being said, if little to no oil is being added to the dishes you’re making in the air fryer, those dishes are just as, if not more, healthy as if you would have baked or fried them. The nutritionals aren’t changing, just the methodology, so air fry to your heart’s content!

Are air fryers convenient?

Deciding on purchasing an air fryer for its convenience depends on what your cooking needs are. Springing for an air fryer is worth it if you whip up fried foods—either frozen or homemade—on the regular, reheat leftovers often or like to experiment with new cooking appliances.

However, you may not find air fryers convenient if you’re one to cook large batches of food frequently. Even the largest air fryers have a limited capacity, so you’ll likely have to cook in batches—especially if you’re preparing food for a crowd. Bigger than a toaster, air fryers also take up valuable counter space. They can also be pricey, depending on the model.

What are some tips for using an air fryer?

  • Use cooking spray for a golden look: When you cook your favorite frozen foods, you may notice that they come out looking a little pale. Without oil, air-fryer recipes won’t necessarily gain that golden hue we’re all searching for. But all’s not lost! Use a quick mist of cooking spray to achieve golden air-fried food every time without excessive oil.
  • Give the basket a shake: The air fryer does not always evenly cook food. Most air fryer models are quite finicky, but there is a quick hack to fix this problem. Simply shake the basket once or twice during the cooking process to ensure that food is heated evenly.
  • Clear some space: It should come without question that crowding your air fryer’s basket can spell trouble! Yet, many of us try to cram a lot into the basket. Instead, cook your items in batches and leave at least 1/2-inch of space between items like air-fryer corn dogs.
Copycat Air Fryer Recipes You'll Love!
1 / 1