Warning: air fryer mistakes can ruin your mealtimes. These compact fan ovens are largely idiot-proof but there are things you can do wrong with them that mean food comes out tasting bad, undercooked or, in a worst case scenario, on fire.
Air fryers have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and now everyone either wants one, or has bought one. I am not going to lie: I was extremely sceptical about air fryers, not least because I tried some of the very early ones and they were, frankly, rubbish. However, I'm a convert ever since I acquired my faithful Ninja Foodi Max SmartLid – easily the best air fryer for my purposes, since it doubles as a multi-cooker and claims to serve up no fewer than 15 cooking settings in total.
Everybody makes mistakes; even me. If you've recently purchased a new air fryer, these are the mistakes you are probably making. So stop making them, already! If you're looking for further inspiration, try the handy guides to how to make perfect air fryer chips, and how to make perfect air fryer chicken. Put the two together and you will never need to visit KFC ever again.
1. Buying a crap air fryer
If you are intending to use your air fryer as your main oven, don't fall at the first hurdle by buying a cheapo one. There are some good, affordable air fryers for those who only intend to air fry infrequently but if you want quality results on a daily basis, you really should get a top quality air fryer.
This need not involve spending huge amounts of money, as even the absolute top-of-the-range models from Ninja, Philips, Tefal et al are generally around the £250/$250/AU$350 mark. Case in point: the Ninja SmartLid machine that I use, and which features more bells and whistles than you can shake an air fried drumstick at, is currently just £250 at Amazon in the UK (opens in new tab). It does all the same things as an Instant Pot as well, so you're effectively getting two of the most sought-after cooking devices of the past 5 years, for the price of one.
2. Not cleaning your air fryer
Read our handy guide: how to clean an air fryer. It tells you everything you need to know. One benefit of buying a more premium air fryer in the first place – see mistake #1, above – is that it will have better non-stick coatings, and will be easier to clean, particularly if you have a dishwasher as the key parts will usually all be dishwasher proof.
You need to clean the removable, cooking parts after every use. I don't know why some people seem to have a problem with this concept. Do they also re-use the same frying pan or saucepan from last night's dinner without cleaning it? If so, that is gross.
It's also advisable to regularly clean any silicone/rubber seals, and keep an eye out for anything burnt on to the cooking element. A small amount of food matter on the interior or element isn't a problem as it will be cremated the next time you fire up your fryer. However if more builds up, you have a potential fire hazard, and will also start to get unpleasant flavours added to your painstakingly-constructed recipes.
Do NOT, however, try to clean air fryers with oven cleaner, bleach or anything else remotely abrasive. It will not end well for you.
Truth be told, if you are getting food burnt onto the parts of the oven that cannot be removed and cleaned, you are almost certainly overloading your air fryer. Which brings me on to Air Fryer Mistake #3.
3. Overloading your air fryer
An air fryer is essentially a small fan oven. The thing that makes it worth using instead of your actual fan oven is that its compact size and usually, much more powerful fan can give cooking results that you would struggle to get from a standard cooker. That's because the food is blasted with hot air, which cooks quickly, evenly and, most important, 'crispily', if that is a term.
However, an air fryer can only do that to best effect if the hot air is able to move around, over and – in most cases – under the food it's cooking. If you overload the cooking basket in your air fryer you might as well just shove it in a roasting tin in your big oven. That's especially true if you also fail to turn and/or shake it during cooking. So do that, too.
If your air fryer has shelves or multiple baskets, make use of them to space out your food as much as possible. Clearly if you're cooking something like chips or fries, it's not usually practical to space them out individually, unless your family only likes 2-3 chips each with dinner. But leave some space at the top of the cooking basket/s and give them a shake or two during the cooking time, so they get the chance to cook through properly, for maximum taste n' crisp.
While you're shaking your chips, you could also give them a bonus spray of cooking oil too, which brings me to the next terrible error people make with their air fryers…
4. Not using oil in your air fryer
There is a Big Lie – or, more charitably, a misunderstanding – at the heart of the air fryer industry, and it is the idea that you really can 'fry' food using 'air'. Clearly you cannot. Fat is essential for flavour, crispiness and even cooking. It's just with an air fryer, you don't need very much of it, particularly when compared to roasting in oven, deep fat frying or – in most cases, shallow frying in a pan.
For the best results, I strongly recommend you use spray oil. It is so much more easy to direct than slopping oil out of a bottle. The smoke point of oil is important, as some cooking oils will actually start to smoke and burn at the high-ish temperatures that air fryers reach (200-220ºC usually).
Spray oil in the UK only seems to come in three varieties – sunflower, rapeseed (canola) and olive oil. I recommend rapeseed (canola) oil as it's largely flavourless, and what flavour there is, I prefer to sunflower oil. I would generally not recommend olive oil sprays, as olive oil has the lowest smoke point and hence may add an unpleasant burnt flavour to your air fried supper. There is also a fair amount of evidence that burnt oils in food can be bad for your long-term health.
Another benefit of spraying oil onto your food makes it slightly sticky, which means salt, pepper, herbs and spices will adhere to it. In certain air fryers – again, particularly the cheaper ones – seasoning can otherwise be a bit of a nightmare, as it is immediately blasted off the food when the fan powers up.
5. Not experimenting with your air fryer
The name 'air fryer' naturally makes most people think of chips, sausages, and other things you fry, but the best air fryers are actually extremely versatile. You can cook practically anything in an air fryer that you could cook in oven or pan, and they are also great for reheating leftovers.
The general advice for cooking something in an air fryer that you'd normally do in the oven is to reduce the temperature by 10-20ºC – this will vary, as all air fryers are different, but you'll soon get the hang of it with yours. You should also reduce the cooking time – according to T3's Carrie Marshall, by 20%.
There are much better things to do with air fryers than making chips – meat and fish in particular loves to be air fried. Surprisingly, that is true for expensive steak as well as affordable salmon fillets or chicken wings. Air fried chips are really no better (or worse) than oven chips so it would be foolhardy in the extreme to only use your air fryer for that.
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