How to use an air fryer — everything you need to know

Cooking French fries in air fryer
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Knowing how to use an air fryer properly can mean the difference between delicious results and a burnt mess. Even if you own one of the best air fryers, there are several air fryer mistakes that anyone can make, including things you should never put in an air fryer. Plus, on top of cooking etiquette, there are other factors that can impact the results — not knowing how to clean an air fryer for instance. 

But, don’t worry, here will take you through everything you need to know to produce the best air fryer recipes. We will first look at how an air fryer works, followed by guidance on which type to buy, and finally, how to get the best results from it. Whether you’re new to air frying, or well-versed with this cooking method, this is still worth reading. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to use an air fryer.

If you're planning on buying, be sure to check out these five pros and five cons of cooking with an air fryer. 

What is an air fryer and how does it work? 

An air fryer is one of the most popular kitchen appliances out there. It’s essentially a compact portable convection oven, which sits on your countertop and uses heat to bake. To clarify, despite the name, it does not fry and is not comparable to a deep fryer — it uses much less oil. This definitely makes it the healthier option of the two.  

Each air fryer contains a heating element as well as a small fan which distributes the hot air across the space. These appliances are renowned for producing crispy and tender results quickly, with convenience at the core of the design. Depending on the type of air fryer you choose, they can also be used to bake, roast and broil as well, which opens up a wide range of recipe ideas.

What type of air fryer should you buy? 

Breville Smart Oven Air Fryer Pro review

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There are two types of air fryers — those with baskets and those that look like a toaster oven. The basket-style is arguably the more popular with a huge selection of models to choose from. These essentially focus on air frying and nothing else. Each features a tray with a handle which you pull out, and a basket within to place the food. Depending on the capacity, basket air fryers take up a relatively small space on your counter. 

The best toaster ovens, on the other hand, are much more versatile. These appliances can do everything an air fryer can, as well as toast, roast and bake. This makes toaster ovens the more appealing of the two in terms of functionality. They can also hold a larger capacity because of the oven design. However, they do take up significantly more space on your counter and you need to be prepared to pay a higher price for the extra features.

It should be flagged that some basket-style air fryers also feature a hybrid design between the two, giving them some of the added functionality of toaster ovens.

If you're unsure whether you want to invest in a traditional air fryer or a larger toaster oven design, our Homes Editor would buy an air fryer over a toaster oven — here's why.

What size air fryer should I buy? 

Pouring out foods from air fryer

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Whilst air fryers are often advertised with food cooked to the brim of the basket, this isn’t the reality. To effectively cook in an air fryer, most foods will need to be spread in a single layer across the basket, with space between each item for the air to flow. So don’t be guided by the pictures alone when it comes to judging what size you need; instead focus on the capacity specification. 

The capacity of basket-style air fryers is measured in quarts, whereas oven types can be measured by pounds, slices of bread, or cubic inches. The number you need will depend on how many you plan to feed from your air fryer. A three quart air fryer will serve two people, while those that can fit six quarts or more would suit a family of four or more. But remember, you can always cook in batches, so it’s not the end of the world if you can’t fit everything in.

Toaster oven capacities refer to what size of bird you can cook in there — some can even fit turkeys! So this is mainly important to refer to if you plan to serve roast dinners from your appliance. Otherwise, most toaster ovens should easily accommodate for a small family because they’re sizable to start with.

What features should I look for when buying an air fryer? 

Ninja Foodi 2 Basket Air Fryer review

(Image credit: Ninja)

If you’re on the market for a new air fryer and want to know what features to look out for, here’s some tips: 

  • Preset cooking programs can save you from the guesswork when it comes to figuring out the best settings. Many air fryers come with multiple presets to suit the most popular recipes, such as chicken wings, French fries and steaks. The NuWave Brio 6 Quart Digital Air Fryer comes with 100 preset programs, for instance.   
  • Smart connectivity can be another useful feature. While you can’t start the air fryer remotely for safety reasons, you can pre-program it and access recipe ideas, and get alerts on your smartphone when they're done cooking. 
  • Some air fryers come with temperature probes as well. These can help achieve the perfect internal temperature when cooking meat or whole birds.   
  • If you want to cook more than one thing at a time, then an air fryer with two baskets might be of use. These can even be programmed so the ingredients will finish cooking at the same time. The Ninja Foodi 2 Basket Air Fryer is a good example of this.   
  • Dishwasher-safe accessories are essential for easy clean-up. Most come with these now, but it’s always worth checking.  

Where should you place your air fryer? 

An air fryer sitting on the counter in a kitchen

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Your air fryer should sit on a heat-resistant, stable, flat surface, with ventilation on each side. Refer to your user manual if you want guidance on how much ventilation space you need. You want to have enough room in front to pull out the basket or drop the door, and you may need clearance on top to access the control panel. If you don’t like the smell of cooking, you might want to place it near a window or door for added ventilation. 

If it’s your first time using your air fryer, you should wash the accessories first. Some manufacturers also recommend running it empty for a short time — say 10 minutes — to get rid of any residual smells. Check your manual for guidance on this. 

What can you cook in an air fryer? 

There’s an abundance of things you can cook in an air fryer, with the list extending if you opt for a toaster oven. Some of the most popular recipes include breaded chicken, French fries and essentially any finger food you can find. But, more unorthodox things can be prepared in an air fryer too, from cookies to donuts to roasted vegetables. True, there are certain things you should never put in an air fryer, but this barely holds you back. 

This freedom of what you can cook is one of the reasons for why air fryers are so popular. This means pretty much anyone can take advantage of one of these appliances, whether you’re a novice chef, or an avid baker.

What settings should you use on an air fryer? 

Cosori Smart Wifi Air Fryer 5.8qt review

(Image credit: Cosori)

The basic air fryer will come with temperature controls and a timer on top, which you can adjust depending on the recipe. If you’re lucky enough to own an air fryer with preset programs, you can rely on those if you’re not sure how long to cook something for. Otherwise, your manual may also contain some handy cooking tables you can follow. 

Just remember, air fryers cook quickly, so don’t forget to keep an eye on the progress. It’s such a small cavity, that opening the tray to check on things won’t ruin the results — an air fryer will soon heat up again. For general guidance, the more food you’ve got in there, the longer it will take to cook, and vice versa. If you’re cooking meat, you can always rely on one of the best meat thermometers to check it’s ready. 

Should you preheat an air fryer? 

The temperature on an air fryer being adjusted

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Some manufacturers recommend preheating the air fryer, while others don’t. Preheating usually only takes a few minutes, but without it, your food technically isn’t being cooked at the recommended temperature for the required time. This means it might need a little longer in the air fryer to achieve the desired result. 

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t preheat, but it does mean you might have to give the food longer than you first thought. However, if you use the preheat time to help cook your food, you will technically save on energy, which is a bonus.

Important cooking tips when using an air fryer

There are a number of tips everyone should know when cooking in an air fryer. First, the air fryer doesn’t do everything for you. You need to occasionally rotate or shake the contents to allow for even cooking. Even if the recipe doesn’t suggest this, it’s worth doing two minutes before the end so the underside is cooked. 

Next, don’t overcrowd the basket. As mentioned before, the air needs to be able to circulate, so overcrowding will just result in uneven cooking. Cook in batches instead. Make sure you don’t use too much oil as you cook either. One-two teaspoons is usually enough, although lightly coating your ingredients with oil can help it crisp and can help seasoning stick too. 

You should also check that you’re not putting any wet foods in there. If surfaces are wet, they will produce steam in the air fryer and the results won't come out as crispy. Simply pat them dry with a paper towel before cooking.

How do you clean an air fryer? 

An air fryer basket being rinsed with water

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Most air fryers will come with basic cleaning instructions in the manual. This usually lists which parts are safe to go in the dishwasher and which are hand-wash only. However, air fryers will need deep-cleaning occasionally to keep them in tip-top condition. 

This involves cleaning the outside and interior using a damp microfiber cloth and a soft bristled brush. This chore doesn’t take long and it will get rid of any lingering smells and extend the life of your air fryer. For full instructions, see how to clean an air fryer

For more cooking content, check out I’ve owned an air fryer for one month — here’s what I’ve learned, how to clean cast iron stove grates and the best outdoor pizza ovens.

Next: Are air fryers actually healthy? Here's what the experts say.

Katie Mortram
Homes Editor

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be air purifiers, as the information provided and the difference between performances is extensive.