Air fryers are mini convection ovens that can create a fried texture on food without frying. Credit: Sarah Walker Caron / BDN

When the air fryer first started gaining popularity a few years ago, a friend texted me, urging me to get one. She told me that the device had changed her cooking life — and her family loved the results. I eventually gave in and found that I love it too.

From heating up mozzarella sticks to making homemade donuts, the air fryer has been a fun addition to our home.

That said, it’s not as simple as plugging the device in and throwing whatever is handy in the basket and turning it on. So what do you need to know? I turned to three experts to help demystify the air fryer cooking process.

What is an air fryer?

This is important: Despite the name, an air fryer isn’t a fryer at all. You won’t be dumping oil into the basket — or figuring out what to do with it.

“An air-fryer is not a deep fryer. I’ve seen people dump two quarts of oil into an air fryer and wonder why their food didn’t work,” said Jim Mumford, a cookbook author and chemical engineer who writes the food blog Jim Cooks Food Good.

So how does it work then? An air fryer is actually a countertop convection oven that blows hot air rapidly around food. So you are, essentially, baking in an environment ideal for fryer-like results.

“Convection ovens are very efficient at cooking food thanks to the way that the hot air circulates around the food. That circulation of hot air allows breaded food to crisp up similar to deep frying, but with much less oil,” said Melissa Macher, a Registered Dietitian and food blogger who writes A Grateful Meal.

How can you achieve fried crispness in an air fryer?

While you aren’t deep frying in the air fryer, you also don’t want to go completely oil-free. Seriously. A little oil will boost the crispiness of your food for the ideal texture.

“Don’t completely skip oil — the air fryer is famous for reducing your need for oil, but that doesn’t mean you can eliminate it completely. Due to the turbulent air in the air fryer, some [foods] can be prone to drying out. Having a bit of oil can keep your vegetables and proteins stay moist, and can also help the outside crisp even better,” Bustard said.

Macher agrees, suggesting a bit of spray oil or a light brushing of oil on food before cooking. That, she said, will “make the food extra crispy.”

Avoid overcrowding

Another important thing: Because you want the air to circulate around the food, you need to limit what you put in the basket. This might mean cooking in batches to get it all done.

But the results? They will be so worth it.

“It may be tempting to dump a whole bunch of food into the air fryer basket, but depending on the type of food, it might need to be cooked in a single layer. Items like chicken breast, salmon patties, and homemade french fries can cook unevenly if there isn’t enough space around them for the air to circulate,” said Denise Bustard of Sweet Peas & Saffron.

What are some good starter foods for an air fryer?

The experts suggest starting with foods you’d typically cook in a fryer like chicken tenders or fries. This will help you get a feel for how the fryer works. You can also branch out into simple air fryer recipes.

“Try making air fryer chicken tenders, crispy air fryer chickpeas, or air fryer vegetables (carrots, broccoli and brussels sprouts are all good). These are simple recipes that are hard to screw up, and they come out so nice in the air fryer,” Bustard said.

What you shouldn’t cook in the air fryer, however, is anything too moist.

“An air fryer can’t get rid of moisture like a deep fryer; don’t put in limp wet veggies and expect a miracle. Instead, an air fryer should be used to quickly crisp up already breaded or crunchy foods (think breaded chicken tenders or brussel sprouts),” Mumford said.

Also, avoid battered foods that are often cooked in a deep fryer. Since the cooking method is different, it won’t net the same results.

“Avoid anything with a really wet batter (like battered fish), as it can drip through the basket and burn,” Bustard said.

How to get ideal results

When you bring your air fryer home, be sure to read the manual. Each one operates a little differently, so you want to be familiar with the workings — including recommended cooking times.

“Another thing to keep in mind is that food cooks faster in the air fryer thanks to the size and the hot air circulation. Always check the user manual or follow recipes specifically for air fryers to ensure that you don’t burn food,” Macher said.

You’ll also want to pause cooking and shake the basket for best results.

“The air fryer can cook hotter from the top than from the bottom, so it’s important to flip some foods like chicken breast halfway through cooking. When you have a basket full of veggies or frozen french fries, it’s important to give the basket a good shake to ensure they all cook through evenly,” Bustard said.

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Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...