Air-fryer chicken legs make great use of the handy air fryer: The gadget cooks the chicken drumsticks quickly while keeping them juicy and tender. And basting the chicken with a rich, homemade barbecue sauce creates a caramelized, slightly sticky exterior—giving you a juicy barbecue chicken dish that’s hard to resist.
How does an air fryer work, you wonder? Air fryers are like culinary sorcery brought to life in our kitchens. These countertop convection ovens circulate hot air around foods as they cook inside. This process results in the crispiness of deep-frying, without the need for lots of oil.
How long do you cook air-fryer chicken legs?
Chicken legs cook in approximately 15 to 20 minutes in an air fryer, depending on your air-fryer brand. That’s significantly faster than most of our favorite chicken leg recipes. In the oven, chicken drumsticks typically take 45 minutes, and they need several hours in a slow cooker.
You don’t really have to worry about overcooking chicken legs as you do with chicken breasts. Chicken leg's skin can burn if it's exposed to high temperatures for too long, but the meat is more forgiving and won’t become dry or rubbery. In fact, the optimal temperature of cooked chicken legs is somewhere between 175°F and 195°, depending on whether you want them to retain a slightly chewy bite or become fall-apart shreddable.
Ingredients for Air-Fryer Chicken Legs
- Chicken legs: Chicken legs (also known as chicken drumsticks) are the star of the show in this air-fryer recipe. Chicken legs contain more fat than chicken breasts. That fat helps to lock in moisture so the legs stay juicy and tender as they cook.
- Ketchup: Ketchup gives these chicken legs their appealing color and tangy-sweet flavor profile. Our sauce contains lots of bold ingredients, but ketchup is the base that brings everything together.
- Brown sugar: Most refined brown sugar is just regular white sugar with molasses added back in. The difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses in the mix. Light and dark both work for this recipe, but dark brown sugar will give you a bolder flavor with maximum caramelization.
- Spicy brown mustard: Spicy brown mustard introduces a zesty kick to this otherwise sweet sauce, creating a balance among the flavors. Don’t feel the need to run to the store if you don’t have it, though. Any mustard will work, especially a Dijon or whole-grain mustard.
- Worcestershire: This tangy, slightly funky sauce contains umami-rich flavors, adding complex, savory notes to the chicken legs. A little goes a long way, so be careful when measuring this potent ingredient.
- Cider vinegar: We generally use apple cider vinegar in barbecue sauce for its tart and tangy taste. Citrus juice (such as lemon or lime juice) or other types of vinegar also work in this recipe, but they will change the overall flavor.
- Onion and garlic: This classic duo brings a savory element to the sauce and contributes a surprising depth of flavor. In a pinch, you can utilize spice substitutes: Swap in 1 tablespoon onion powder per onion or 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder per garlic clove.
Step 1: Make the sauce
Grab a large saucepan, and add the ketchup, honey, brown sugar, chopped sweet onion, spicy brown mustard, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce and cider vinegar. Stir the mixture together, then bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer the sauce until the flavors blend, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir the mixture occasionally as it cooks to keep the sauce from burning at the bottom of the pan.
Set aside 2 cups of the sauce, and reserve it for serving. We’ll brush the remaining sauce onto the chicken as it cooks.
Step 2: Air-fry the chicken
Preheat the air fryer to 375°. Place the chicken in a single layer on a lightly greased air-fryer tray or basket. (If the legs don’t lie flat in a single layer, you'll want to cook the chicken in several batches. You can keep the cooked chicken warm on a sheet pan in a 200° oven while you cook the remaining chicken.)
Air-fry the chicken legs for 15 to 20 minutes, until a thermometer reads 170° to 175° in the thickest part of the chicken leg, turning the chicken once to promote even cooking. During the last five minutes of cook time, brush the legs generously with the sauce.
Serve the cooked chicken with the reserved 2 cups sauce.
Air-Fryer Chicken Legs Variations
- Swap in a store-bought sauce: Short on time? You can make the sauce ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for several weeks. Or, skip this step and try one of our best barbecue sauce store-bought brands.
- Use a rub: If saucy drumsticks aren’t your thing, skip the sauce altogether, and try one of our dry rub recipes instead.
- Try a different cut of chicken: You can substitute bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, but we don’t recommend using boneless chicken here. (There are plenty of other great air-fryer chicken recipes for boneless chicken!) The bone acts as an insulator, slowing the heat transfer to the center of the chicken. That locks the moisture inside while giving the skin plenty of time to crisp up.
- Skip the air fryer: Don’t have an air fryer? Feel free to use a conventional oven—although cooking times will vary. You could also take your cooking session outside and grill the chicken legs over medium heat, turning them occasionally to prevent excess charring.
How to Store Air-Fryer Chicken Legs
These air-fryer chicken legs taste best fresh, but you can store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for three to four days. Simply pop them back into the air fryer to reheat.
When freezing cooked chicken drumsticks, we recommend removing the chicken from the bone first. They will freeze just fine as is, but chicken bones take up valuable space in the freezer. Plan to enjoy frozen chicken within four months: Thaw the shredded meat overnight in the refrigerator, then use in your favorite leftover chicken recipes.
Air-Fryer Chicken Legs Tips
What temperature do you air-fry chicken?
We’ve found that 375° is an ideal temperature for air-frying chicken. Air fryers use a fan to circulate heat around the cooking food (just like a convection oven). This eliminates the need for the high temperatures required in a regular oven.
How can make sure your air-fryer chicken legs are crispy?
To keep these chicken legs crispy, place them in a single row in your air fryer basket—overcrowding will cause uneven cooking. Also, preheat your air fryer, and pat the chicken skin dry with a paper towel before adding your first batch for crispier results.
What can you serve with air-fryer chicken legs?
Take advantage of the free oven or stovetop space with easy vegetable side dishes. Cookout favorites like coleslaw, cornbread, or any of our fave macaroni and cheese recipes go great with air-fryer chicken legs.