For some food blogging enthusiasts, an air fryer is an intuitive device that can cook just about anything. For some members of my family, this is an incomprehensible black box that exists only to take up counter space.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle: the air fryer is very good at many tasks, but not without limitations. Understanding what can and cannot be used in an air fryer requires understanding how an air fryer works. I can’t speak for all models, but most fryers, whether basket-shaped or toaster-shaped, come with a heating element and a powerful fan that sits above the food.
The fan disperses the heat while removing moisture, creating a crispy, crunchy and well browned surface. It’s not a deep fryer, but a tiny reinforced convection oven, and some speeds are better than others. Despite the name, the air fryer is not a real deep fryer.
It can make a previously whipped and fried dish crunchy, whether it’s yesterday’s Popeye or a frozen dinosaur chicken nugget, but adding a piece of raw chicken (or whatever) dripping and whipped into it won’t produce the desired results. The fast-moving air will blow the dough away, creating a pleasant mess and leaving you with a naked chicken, a splattered basket and, at worst, a smelly, dirty heating element. Small and light foods will be tossed about by strong fryer winds.
I also saw some of the toast move an inch or two. Sometimes it doesn’t matter much (my toast didn’t suffer from a light pat), but it can be annoying if, for example, a delicate coating of crumbs or herbs is blown off a tender chicken.
Choose foods of a certain weight, or at least ones that won’t be spoiled by a little movement in the middle of cooking, and avoid protecting foods with aluminum foil, which is absolutely useless in a deep fryer because it won’t stay in place. A deep fryer is only effective if hot air can circulate around the food, and elements covering all (or most) of the tray prevent this.
Consider the story of two pizzas: a mini pizza and a “party”. When I first purchased my 6-liter air fryer, I was excited to fry Totino’s Party Pizza (one of my favorite frozen pizzas).
Unfortunately, this didn’t do much good: the pizza was difficult to get into the basket, and it prevented the circulation of hot air because the top of the pizza was blown away by the direct heat from the heating element. The result was an overcooked, almost burnt filling and a mushy soft crust. This is disappointing considering that nearly half of Party Pizza’s appeal lies in its crunchy cookie crust.
About a week later I tried air frying two mini pizzas (about four inches in diameter) at Trader Joe’s. The hot air could move and plow the pizzas and they came out perfect.
Thick, layered foods like casseroles or cakes are a problem. Even if you find that the cake or pan is small enough to properly circulate hot air around the pan, the lack of a heating element at the bottom of the fryer means your top layer will cook much faster than the bottom layer, resulting in cold and damp. bottom and loose crusts. Adding glass or ceramic dishes to the dough will definitely not help.
Anyone who has taken an introductory physics class can see where things are headed. The circulating air effectively heats some things, but not much of the damp material and glass that many cake pans are made of. Baking a cake in an air fryer is like heating up a swimming pool by pointing a hair dryer at the surface – a thumb or two on top might get a little warm, but you can forget about the sides and bottom. This does not mean that you should completely abandon air-frying baked goods. Just expect the bottom to be slightly less finished than the top.
There’s a reason most deep fryers yell at you and beep to turn food over or shake the basket about half way. Thus, both sides of the product will be exposed to the heating element, which will ensure an even crispy surface and even heating of the inside. Knowing this can help you tailor your favorite dishes to the air fryer. If you just need to air-toast the cake, consider making some handmade pies that aren’t big enough to block air circulation and that can be flipped to get a crispy crust on all sides.
Air frying soup is a bad idea. Biting wind sprays liquid everywhere, which can lead to problems with the heating element, and an unhappy heating element is a burden. A tablespoon of water to keep vegetables moist while roasting is fine, but don’t add more (for health and safety reasons).