How to Use an Air Fryer: A First-Timer's Guide

Got a new air fryer? We’ll walk you through everything you need to know—how it works, the best foods to air fry, how to clean it, and other helpful tips for getting the most out of your air fryer!

Philips air fryer
Alison Conklin

Congratulations! You must be the owner of a new air fryer, or the soon-to-be owner of an air fryer. Everybody’s talking about these things, and now you get to see what the big deal is for yourself.

How do they work? Is it really frying? What kinds of foods can you make in your new air fryer? Here's everything you need to know about a basic basket-type air fryer.

The Deal with Air Fryers

First off, a disappointment: Air fryers are not deep fryers.

Air fryers are full of hot air, and that’s what is great about them. They are basically small, powerful ovens, and ovens use air as a vehicle for heat, whereas deep frying uses fat as the vehicle for heat.

Because air fryers are ovens and not fryers, foods that come out of your air fryer will not be 100% identical to the onion rings at Cone-n-Shake or the calamari rings at your favorite bar and grill.

The upshot is that air fryers are much less messy and oil-intensive than deep-frying. Even better, these lil’ ovens can do much more than crank out faux fried food. Air fryers bring beautifully browned vegetables, crackly-skinned chicken wings, and even light and airy cakes, all within your reach.

The pieces of an air fryer
Alison Conklin

Different Types of Air Fryers

The most common type of air fryer on the market—the basket-type air fryer—looks like a funky coffee maker with a removable basket in its belly. This air fryer has one function only: air frying. This guide covers basket-type air fryers.

You can also find boxy multi-function air fryers on the market, like the Beville Smart-Oven, the Cuisinart Air Fryer Toaster Oven, and the June Oven. These look like toaster ovens on steroids, and air frying is only one of the things they do (among slow cooking, dehydrating, and toasting). They also hold more food than basket-type air fryers.

If you have a multi-function countertop oven with an air fryer setting, this guide still has some tips that will be useful for you, so don't give up yet!

How Air Fryers Work

Your air fryer is like an amazing convection oven. It's small, yet mighty, and you can roast, broil, or bake in it. You cannot deep fry in it.

Need a refresher on convection cooking? No problem.

Heat rises, so in a regular oven the top rack is always the hottest spot, which leads to uneven doneness. (It's also why a lot of cookie recipes tell you to rotate baking sheets from top to bottom and back to front midway through baking.)

In a convection oven, however, fans blow hot air around so the temperature is equalized throughout the oven.

Air fryers aren’t exactly like convection ovens; their airflow is designed to more closely replicate the heat distribution of deep-frying in hot fat. But for our purposes, the convection oven analogy is good enough.

Pouring food into an air fryer
Alison Conklin

What to Expect the First Time

After you open the box, take apart all removable components. This will probably include a removable basket and a grate or perforated tray in the bottom of that basket. Wash and dry them.

Put the air fryer on a heat-resistant surface, at least eight inches away from the wall. Replace the grate and basket.

Simple Tip!

Some manufacturers recommend running the air fryer empty for 10 minutes before you actually cook with it, to let it off-gas. There might be a slightly chemical smell (one manual referred to it as a “new appliance smell”), so have the vents on or windows open. It should be just a one-time thing.

Now you are ready to cook food! How about fries? Really, isn’t that the big sell on these things? Potatoes are cheap, and we have a great recipe for you.

Important Tips to Keep in Mind

  • Always have the grate in the basket. This allows hot air to circulate around the food, and also keeps the food from sitting in excess oil.
  • Air fryers are loud. When it’s running, you’ll hear whirring fans.
  • It’s hands-on. Even browning requires you to remove the basket and shuffle the food around every few minutes.
  • It's fine to pull out the basket for a peek. You can do this at any point into the cooking process. No need to shut off the machine, as it shuts itself off when the basket is out.
  • Accordingly, make sure the drawer is pushed all the way in, or it won’t turn back on. You’ll know, because the air fryer will be suddenly quiet.
  • Food cooks fast, faster than you’re used to! It’s one of the best attributes of the air fryer. Your air fryer’s manual likely has a handy table of cooking times and temperatures for common foods. The less food in the basket, the shorter the cook time will be; the more food, the longer it will be.
  • You may need a slightly lower temperature. A lot of air fryer recipes call for lower temperature settings than their conventional counterparts. This might seem fishy, but just go with it. Once again, air fryers get hot very fast and move that hot air around, so a slightly lower temperature will help keep food from getting too dark or crispy on the outside, while still being properly cooked on the inside.
Frozen food cooks quickly in an air fryer
Alison Conklin

What Size Do You Need?

Here’s the rub: You cannot fit a lot of food in basket-type air fryers. You and your air fryer will have a much better relationship if you accept this.

An air fryer with a 1.75- to 3-quart capacity is best suited for preparing meals for one or two people. Don’t expect leftovers, either.

Even a large air fryer (about four to five quarts) often needs to run food in batches. If a recipe serves more than two people, you’ll likely need to cook it in more than one batch.

Consumer Reports found that the actual capacity of some air fryers was a tad smaller than what manufacturers claimed. This can seem like a drag, but remember, air fryers cook food fast.

To Preheat or Not to Preheat?

That is the question.

Unlike the big oven on your range, an air fryer does not need a whole half hour to get to temp. A few minutes of preheating should do it. Some air fryer models have a light that indicates when the unit is preheated.

Manufacturers recommend preheating, but if you like, you can skip preheating altogether. I never preheat my air fryer. Try it both ways, and see what gives you the best result. It might depend on the recipe.

Air fryer basket for tips for using an air fryer
Alison Conklin

Mistakes to Avoid

Don't be too generous with oil. Use a light hand with that oil! Excess oil ends up in the drawer under the grate, but if there’s too much buildup, it might smoke. Generally speaking, if there’s already fat on the food (skin-on chicken, for example, or frozen fried food), you might not need to oil the food at all. Vegetables, however, benefit from a light coating of oil, because it helps make them nice and brown.

Simple Tip!

Cooking greasy foods like bacon? Add about 1 cup of water to the bottom of your air fryer basket. This water will catch the grease and will prevent smoke. 

Don't grease the drawer with cooking spray. Seems like that would be a good idea, right? But the baskets have nonstick coating, and cooking spray can damage the finish over time. (Really, it says so in the manual! What, didn’t you read it?) In lieu of cooking spray, toss your food in oil instead—you’re probably doing that already, in many cases—or rub it down with an oil-saturated paper towel. I found pre-fried frozen foods didn’t need the help of extra grease.

Don't crowd the drawer. It’s so tempting to add another handful of potato sticks or shaved beets, but you’ll learn from experience that food comes out crisper and cooks up faster if you work in small batches.

Don't neglect to shake the basket. Doing this periodically ensures food is evenly exposed to heat, which gives you better browning. A lot of recipes call for you to shake the basket every five minutes. For larger items, like breaded fish fillets, flip them instead. If a recipe calls for shaking or flipping and you skip it, it’s not detrimental, but it’ll keep you from achieving that lucrative, oh-so-similar-to-fried-food result.

Don't just dump the hot contents of the drawer into a bowl. Use tongs or a spoon to get cooked food out. Excess oil collects under the removable grate in your basket, so if you yank out the basket and tip it onto a platter, the oil will come spilling out along with the grate. This can burn you, make a mess, and lead to greasy food.

Don't trust the timer 100%. A lot of basket-style air fryers have a dial you set like an old-fashioned kitchen timer, or like that kid’s game Perfection. When the time’s up it goes PING! and the machine stops. On one of the models I used, five minutes flew by suspiciously fast. So I set my phone’s timer when I set the air fryer’s timer, and guess what—the appliance was off by a few minutes. This is not a big deal; with air fryers, you just keep re-setting the timer until the food is done to your liking. But do realize that not all timers run accurately.

Don't put the hot drawer on the countertop. Think of the drawer as a hot pan. When you pull it from the unit, the bottom especially will be hot. Grab the drawer by the handle, not the other parts, and have a trivet or potholder ready to set it on if heat will damage your countertop.

Don't get all touchy-feely with the air fryer. The exterior of the air fryer can get hot (the back, likely). Not hot enough to burn you, but don't get all grabby with it.

Air fryer on a counter top ready to be used
Alison Conklin

How to Clean Your Air Fryer

It's important to clean your air fryer after every use, since a build-up of oil can make the unit smoke. In some instances, you can simply wipe off the drawer and grate with a paper towel. If they’re gunky, hand wash. Most models have parts that are dishwasher safe, so check with your manual.

The Best Foods to Cook

  • Pre-fried frozen foods: In general, portion-sized frozen foods or ones in bite-size pieces heat up and get appealingly crisp in an air fryer in no time. They could re-name this thing the College Kid/Single Dude Dinner Machine.
  • From-scratch recipes that mimic pre-fried frozen foods: Think air-fried chicken, air fryer mozzarella sticks, air-fried crab cakes, et cetera.
  • Vegetables you’d roast or grill: cubed winter or summer squash, root vegetables, broccoli or cauliflower florets, Brussels sprouts. These are fantastic in the air fryer!
  • Potatoes: Any time you’d put a potato (or cut-up potatoes) in a regular oven, your air fryer will easily outperform the oven.
  • Chicken wings: Crispy skin, and faster than roasting them in the oven. Note that this isn't very good for parties, though, because air fryers are too small to hold party-scale amounts of wings (unless it’s a party of people who eat only one hot wing each!).
  • Reheated food: Remember, this thing is like a sexy turbo toaster oven. It’s terrific for reheating food, and won’t make once-crispy things mushy like a microwave will.

Get Air Frying With Our Favorite Recipes!