How Does an Air Fryer Work, Exactly?

Updated: Feb. 01, 2024

Your guide to the trendy kitchen appliance.

Imagine a world in which crispy fries, chicken, and onion rings are healthier but just as tasty. No, that’s not the promise of a too-good-to-be-true kitchen hack. It’s reality when using an air fryer. There’s a lot to learn when it comes to air-frying foods, like the difference between air frying and baking and how to clean an air fryer. But probably the most pressing question of all: How does an air fryer work? We’re breaking down the basics so that next time you use the gadget, you won’t be making any air-fryer mistakes.

What is an air fryer?

An air fryer is similar to a convection oven but doesn’t bake (or truly fry) your food. This kitchen gadget has become increasingly popular over recent years because it promises just-like-fried food with little to no oil.

How does an air fryer work?

The machine relies on a small amount of oil (about a tablespoon) and circulating hot air to help cook and crisp up your favorite foods. Traditional deep-frying, on the other hand, requires cooks to submerge the food in at least three or so cups of oil. More oil means more fat, which is why frying is less healthy than roasting, grilling, or air frying.

The lack of oil doesn’t mean air-fried foods lack texture or taste. One study comparing deep-fried french fries to those that are air-fried shows that the final fries were similar in color, texture, and moisture—but had different amounts of fat. Since there’s less fat with air frying, there are also fewer calories. Most people reduce their caloric intake by 70 to 80 percent, on average, when using air fryers, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Some studies also show that cooking with an air fryer reduces the formation of harmful compounds, such as the carcinogen acrylamide. It’s found in high-carb foods that are cooked using high-heat methods like frying. Research shows that, compared with traditional deep-frying, air frying can reduce acrylamide by 90 percent. Still, be careful not to burn your food with an air fryer, as charred foods might be carcinogenic too.

Does an air fryer actually fry food?

Air frying is still technically frying food, even in the less-traditional sense, so it shouldn’t replace other cooking methods, like baking, steaming, or grilling. Be careful not to overeat air-fried foods. Doing so could have a negative impact on your calorie intake and the quality of your diet.

What can you cook in an air fryer?

The possibilities are endless! This home chef who used their air fryer every day for two weeks explored air fryer options for every meal of the day. While an air fryer can cook foods that are typically fried, like frozen french fries, chicken strips, and other breaded foods, the oven can cook foods that you would never think of submerging in oil. For example, an air fryer can be used instead of the regular oven to cook fish and vegetables and even bake cookies. While there are a lot of foods you can cook in an air fryer, there are definitely some foods you shouldn’t, like fresh greens and cheese, which burn easily.

Do you need oil to cook in an air fryer?

Sometimes you may want to use a little oil to increase the crispiness of whatever you’re air frying, but many foods don’t require any oil at all. Even if you use a small amount of oil, it won’t compare to the health risks associated with deep-frying.

If you’re looking to line the basket, as you would do before placing a baking sheet into a regular oven, find out if you can put parchment paper or foil in an air fryer.

How do you use an air fryer?

When using an air fryer, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t overcrowd the basket. If you’re cooking something like french fries, make sure you don’t layer the fries. This will allow for more even cooking. If you’re questioning how full the basket is, remember that it’s best to include less food per batch and cook in as many batches as you need.

Your air-fryer manual will likely provide a general idea about cooking times and temperatures for various foods. Regardless of the time, always pull out the basket to check the progress of your food; shake it around a little bit to make sure everything is cooked evenly.

The bottom line is that air frying is a great way to indulge in fried food without the extra oil and fat of deep-frying. But remember, it shouldn’t replace other healthy cooking methods.

Now that you know how to use an air fryer, learn more about your favorite treats by brushing up on your food facts trivia. You can also check out our picks for favorite air fryers of 2022.

Additional reporting by Emily DiNuzzo.