Air fryer 101: Everything you need to know about cooking with (and maintaining) an air fryer

Learning to use an air fryer can feel intimidating. Here's everything you need to know to achieve air fryer success. (Photo: Getty)
Learning to use an air fryer can feel intimidating. Here's everything you need to know to achieve air fryer success. (Photo: Getty)

Around five years ago, I was sent an air fryer as a gift. That box sat unopened for several months, as I wondered how use it. Like many, I found the concept of a new appliance to be more than a little intimidating.

Now, in a tiny studio apartment, any box containing an unused appliance is a waste of valuable real estate — so eventually I had to get over my apprehension and open that box. What I discovered was not a waste of space, but what was soon to become my favorite appliance — a godsend for small spaces that has the power to replace the toaster, the microwave and even the oven.

My counter space is limited, so I can only have one appliance on it at once. For years, that appliance has been my air fryer, and I have used it to make everything from roast chicken to stuffed peppers ... and so much more.

If you've gotten an air fryer for the holidays and have similar trepidation, it's time to get a handle on just what the machine can do and why you need it in your own life.

What is an air fryer?

Despite the name, an air fryer is nothing more than a powerful countertop convection oven, and those have been around for decades. Your grandmother probably even had one. Air fryers simply have a snazzy design that feels a lot more trendy than the convection oven Grandma warmed her soup in.

But the air fryer is often misunderstood. People hear the term and assume it's for fried food, but it's not just for frying — an air fryer can do so much more than that. "While it can, in some ways, mimic the texture of deep-fried food with much less oil, do not think that all an air fryer can do is fry," Emily Paster, author of Epic Air Fryer Cookbook: 100 Inspired Recipes That Take Air Frying in Deliciously Exciting New Directions, tells Yahoo Life. "Air fryers can be used to bake, roast, sear and caramelize your favorite meats and vegetables. They can even be used to bake desserts and sweet treats."

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

And they do it all in a fraction of the time, with less oil than your stovetop and oven. My air fryer has become my most treasured appliance. I've used it to make everything from roast chicken to stuffed peppers to eggplant parmesan, and so much more.

Why are they called air fryers?

Air fryers got their name because they're capable of making food, be it wings or potato wedges, as golden and crispy as if they'd just come out of the deep fryer. But, they do this sans a big pot of oil. Just use a quick spray of cooking oil and you're good to go. And a lot of the time, you can skip even that.

"Air fryers are outfitted with a powerful convection fan that will rapidly circulate the micro droplets of oil around the exterior of the food creating a golden brown, crunchy, crispy exterior and a juicy interior," explains Paster.

And somehow, they get these healthier, less greasy, less fatty results, in less time, too. "Unlike conventional ovens, air fryers heat up quickly and circulate air around food with the help of that powerful fan, causing foods to cook more quickly without the need for preheating," says Paster.

What can you cook in an air fryer?

Sure, you can cook prepackaged frozen foods, like french fries or taquitos in your air fryer. A lot of people use them for just these kinds of snacks and party foods. But it's good for so much more, like lobster tails. Seriously.

"You can also cook healthy, whole foods, like salmon filets and Brussels sprouts, in your air fryer to create satisfying nutritious meals in a fraction of the time that it takes in the oven," says Paster. "This is especially useful for singles, couples and small families."

One dish Paster will only make in the air fryer is her chicken schnitzel recipe. "It is a staple in my house and I have found that the air fryer makes perfect schnitzel that is crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside with less oil and a lot less mess than cooking it on the stove," says Paster.

The air fryer is great for reheating

Air fryers are amazing at reheating foods like leftovers and pizza, which is great news for those of us who, as I mentioned earlier, do not own a microwave, or, perhaps, just don't love the taste of microwaved pizza. It's incredibly fast and easy too. "Set it on a low temperature, around 300 F, and air fry your leftovers for a few minutes until warmed through." says Paster.

Unlike the microwave, the air fryer turns out crispy crunchy leftovers that are never soggy. This is especially important these days, with food prices so high; you don't want to waste any food, including anything you bring home from a restaurant in a doggy bag. "You can even bring home french fries from your favorite restaurant and reheat them the next day in the air fryer," Paster says.

Move the food around while cooking

Recently, I made spicy harissa wings in my air fryer. Wings are a classic and one of the foods air fryers are most known for, but it's important to remember to move those wings around or flip them over midway through cooking, or you may discover they are only golden and crispy on one side.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

"For even cooking, it's always best to toss the food halfway through the cooking time," says Lizzy Briskin, food editor at Real Simple. "You can simply grab the basket handle and give it a shake, or use a soft-sided spatula or tongs to move the contents around. Avoid using metal utensils on a nonstick basket, as they can damage the coating."

Be careful with that cooking spray

Cooking spray and an air fryer are the perfect pairing, but it's important to remember that, unlike when cooking in a skillet, it's the food that should be sprayed, not the air fryer basket.

"It's best not to spray aerosol cooking oil directly on a non-stick air fryer basket, as this can wear down the non-stick coating," says Briskin. "Instead, if a recipe calls for oiling the basket, brush it with a thin coating of olive oil or neutral oil."

But you can, and should, spray your food with nonstick cooking spray before air frying. This helps the outside of the food crisp up evenly and not dry out.

What makes an air fryer different from other appliances?

Once you get a hang of your new air fryer, you may discover you're pretty obsessed with it. "The reason I love using my air fryer so much is because it provides a quick, easy and healthy way to 'fry' food versus traditional frying methods," says chef Kai Chase, who has served as a personal chef for clients like President Barack Obama, Jamie Foxx and Mary J. Blige.

It's the no mess, no-fuss aspect that has a lot of people coming back to use an air fryer time and again. "When frying your food on a stove top, you end up with a ton of left-over oil that needs to be thrown out on top of oil splatter all over your kitchen that feels impossible to clean up," says Chase. "You also have to deal with the chore of absorbing all the oil off your fried foods on a paper towel before serving."

With an air fryer, that mess is virtually non-existent, since you don't even need to use oil in the first place. "Any oil or water that comes off your food comes off in the air fryer and drips into the slotted basket or tray," says Chase.

How to clean an air fryer

The most important thing to keep in mind when taking care of your air fryer is that the basket has a nonstick coating you'll want to maintain to get the longest life out of your appliance. "Do not use metal tools or abrasive cleaners that might scratch it," warns Paster. "Wash the basket in hot soapy water with a gentle sponge and use nonstick-safe tongs and spatulas when removing food from the basket."

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life’s newsletter. Sign up here.