How Does An Air Fryer Work? The Science Behind This Delicious Cooking Method 

 Last Update September 30, 2023

By Jenny Zhang

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Kitchen trends come and go, but every now and then, a new appliance emerges that captures the imagination of home cooks everywhere. Just a few years back, the Instant Pot was the talk of the town. Nowadays, air fryers have taken center stage! Perhaps you've heard the buzz, seen them recommended on cooking websites, or noticed them listed as a cooking option on your go-to frozen snacks.

But what is an air fryer? How does an air fryer work? And most importantly, are they worth the investment, the kitchen real estate, and the hype? If you're looking for an "Air Fryer 101" to explain the ins and outs of this latest countertop appliance, read on!

What Is An Air Fryer?

By utilizing a heating element and a robust fan, an air fryer cooks food by circulating hot air throughout the cooking chamber. If it sounds similar to a countertop convection oven, that's because it is!

The convection heat produces crispy food on the outside but maintains a moist and tender interior. This crispy-yet-moist combination is the claim to fame of deep frying, which is why the Phillips company called their 2010 appliance "Air fryer."

Air fryers have become such a hit that the original brand name is now just the generic term for this type of kitchen appliance. But air fryers actually have very little in common with traditional deep fryers! Oil isn't an important part of the cooking process at all.

Today, you'll find a wide variety of air fryers on the market, such as air fryer toaster ovens and air fryer microwave combos. The best air fryer for you will ultimately depend on your unique cooking needs and personal preferences. Some have cooking baskets, while others look almost exactly like a convection-style toaster oven. Some offer multiple functions, allowing you to air fry your food and roast chickens, toast bread, dehydrate fruits, and much more.

Air fryers come in both single-zone and dual-zone configurations. Dual-zone models enable you to cook two different types of food simultaneously, while single-zone models are ideal for preparing larger quantities of the same item. Additionally, air fryers are available in various basket capacities and price points, so the best air fryers should suit your cooking needs and budget.

What Are The Advantages Of Using An Air Fryer?

Healthier Options

Air fryers allow you to indulge in crispy fries and other deep-fried favorites with less oil than traditional deep-frying methods. This translates to several health benefits, including reduced fat intake, fewer calories, and lower levels of harmful acrylamide. With an air fryer, you can savor the crispy texture and delightful flavors of your preferred fried foods without compromising on a healthy and well-balanced diet.

Versatile Cooking Appliance

The best air fryers can cook various foods, including chicken wings, chicken nuggets, frozen french fries, vegetables, frozen foods, and even desserts. You can use an air fryer for fried foods, roasted vegetables, and heating up leftovers. Air fryers have greater versatility than a typical convection oven!

Faster and Quicker

Whether it is to cook a meal or reheat food, using an air fryer is quicker than heating up an entire oven or frying pan! Using an air fryer is a big perk for busy families on the go.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Using An Air Fryer?

Take Up Your Counter Space

The biggest disadvantage of air fryers is that it's yet another appliance. We all have limited counter space and storage space, so you'll need to ask yourself whether you'll use your air fryer enough to warrant it taking up a spot.

Limited capacity

The capacity of air fryers is restricted or limited. Unless you have a particularly large model (some can cook whole chickens!), you'll likely use your air fryer for cooking one or two food portions at a time.

No Battered Foods

There are some typical fried foods that you simply can't cook in an air fryer. Foods dipped in liquid batters, such as onion rings or fried fish, can not be used in air fryer baskets.

Crispy but not the Deep fried kind

Air fryer crisp can be just as satisfying as deep-fried kind, but it may not be quite as crunchy or evenly golden-brown.

How Does An Air Fryer Work?

Air fryers work by using a powerful fan to circulate hot air and cook the food. Not only does air frying cook your food to crispy perfection, but it also does so using the magical science of the Maillard reaction

The Maillard reaction is a chemical process that takes place when protein-rich foods are exposed to heat. It is responsible for creating the deliciously savory flavor and golden-brown color that we associate with perfectly cooked food. When you cook food in an air fryer, the hot air circulating inside the cooking chamber creates the perfect conditions for the Maillard reaction, resulting in perfectly crispy air-fried food that will have your taste buds singing with joy.

For air frying to be effective, the air must circulate freely around the food items placed inside. Different air fryers achieve this in different ways, but the options are placing food in a perforated basket, on top of a wire rack, or a ceramic plate with holes throughout it.

Overcrowding the basket, rack, or plate of the air fryer should be avoided, as it can negatively impact the cooking process. If the air isn't allowed to circulate freely around the food, you'll wind up with food that never crisped up on the outside, allowing interior moisture to escape. In other words - dry food with a mushy exterior!

Using an air fryer, you'll place your food evenly across the cooking basket and then set your temperature and cooking time. Most air fryers will come with a manual listing basic cooking instructions, and some air fryers will come with the most popular options pre-set on the appliance.

Adding oil to your air fryer is unnecessary for it to cook. Keep in mind that air fryers are more similar to convection ovens than deep fryers!

However, if you'd like to add any dry seasonings to your food, you'll need to brush your meat or vegetables with oil first and then add your seasonings. Otherwise, the seasonings will have nothing to adhere to and will blow all over your appliance's interior. Not only is that a mess to clean up, but some of those seasonings will likely land on the heating element, resulting in smoke!

Are Air Fryers Healthy?

Yes... and no.

Since air-fried foods aren't cooked in hot oil like deep frying, and the cooking method requires little to no oil, they have significantly fewer calories. Compared to deep-fried foods, air fryers offer a much healthier option.

Home cooks will also find that they'll use less oil when using air frying vegetables compared to using an oven to roast them. This reduces the fat and calorie content.

However, air-fried food is still not as healthy as some of the other cooking methods. Mozzarella sticks and chicken wings will never be "healthy," even if you air fry them and forego the extra oil.

air fryer cooking

What Can You Cook In An Air Fryer?

You can cook foods of all sorts in an air fryer! Air fryers are particularly great for roasting vegetables, and they can make a baked potato with perfectly crispy skin in much less time than a convection oven. You can use air fryers to dehydrate fruits into handy snacks.

For meat, it is recommended to choose leaner cuts. Air fryers are not designed to handle a large amount of oil, and the extra fat drip from ground beef, for example, would make a mess. Instead, use your air fryer for chicken breasts and salmon filets.

You can even use air frying for baking! Recipes for how to bake cookies in an air fryer are very popular. You can make doughnuts in an air fryer, using very little oil compared to the standard method!

With an air fryer, you can also reheat leftovers like fried foods like chicken tenders or sweet potato fries, as they can help restore the crispy texture that can be lost when reheating in a microwave or oven. They also work well for reheating pizza, as the hot air can help make the crust crispy again while keeping the cheese and toppings hot and gooey.

Jenny passionately advocates a holistic and natural approach to health and well-being. She has a Bachelor of Science degree and years of working in food sciences, specializing in organic & natural products. She is committed to helping others embrace a balanced, natural lifestyle that fosters well-being. Jenny believes that a harmonious balance between nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness is the key to unlocking the full potential of one’s well-being.