If you're thinking about getting an air fryer, you'll not only want to familiarize yourself with the various features different models offer, but also how the actual cooking works.
And this is a good idea, because—unlike slow cookers or even Instant Pots—air fryers are not a "set it and forget it" type of appliance. Air fryers have their quirks and require a good amount of hands-on attention. Here are some of the main points of what cooking with an air-fryer entails.
Don't Overcrowd It
The first rule of cooking with an air-fryer is, don't overcrowd the basket. Just because a certain amount of food will fit in the basket, doesn't mean that's how much you should try to cook at one time. Why? Because the air-fryer works on the principle of circulating air. And if the basket is too full, that leaves no room for the air to circulate.
Your particular model will come with instructions on how full to fill the basket. But in general, the fuller you fill it, the less evenly the food will cook and the longer it will take. Additionally, if you fill it too full (say, trying to cram a five-pound chicken into the basket), you will risk burning the top.
Dry Your Food
The whole reason for using an air fryer is to produce crispy, browned food. Browning is a result of a chemical process called caramelization that causes carbohydrates to darken when heated to above 300 F or so (with proteins, a similar process called the Maillard reaction occurs). But crispiness is a result of drying out the surface of the food.
This happens very efficiently in a deep-fryer, since the food is completely immersed in hot oil, which boils away the moisture in the surface of the food, leaving it crispy. When you see bubbling in hot oil, it's the escaping moisture that's causing it.
As such, the drier your food is when you start to cook it, the better job the air fryer (which is less efficient than a deep fryer) will do at crisping the exterior of whatever it is you're cooking. So, before you add it to the basket, thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels.
Spray the Basket
The cooking basket on your air fryer likely boasts a nonstick coating, but as anyone who's used nonstick cookware before knows, food sometimes sticks to it anyway. And foods with a breading or breadcrumb coating, which you're likely to be cooking in an air fryer, do tend to stick, and when you try to turn or remove them, the breading can peel off.
The solution is to give the basket a quick spritz with cooking oil spray. This is also helpful if you're cooking delicate protein items like fish, even without a coating, since fish can break apart when it sticks.
Rotate, Flip, and Toss
Speaking of turning the food, this is crucially important when cooking in an air fryer. Even if you don't overload it, the cooking basket on an air fryer is going to be pretty cramped, which—as we discussed earlier—is an impediment to air flow and even cooking.
To ensure that all the pieces of your food are equally crisp and brown, you're going to need to turn and flip it a few times during cooking. Just use a pair of tongs to rotate whatever it is, move items from the bottom toward the top and vice-versa.
With smaller pieces of food, like French fries, you'll want to periodically pull out the bucket that holds the basket and give it a shake. In fact, some cooks find it helpful to transfer the food into a large bowl, toss it around, then return it to the basket to continue cooking.
Cook in Batches
This is also related to the issue of capacity. Because you can't fit much food into the basket, you're going to have to do it in batches. This might not be as much of a issue if you're planning to serve a bunch of French fries or onion rings to a group of friends. Just keep preparing batches and serving them as they're ready.
On the other hand, if you're looking to serve everyone all at once, you'll have to keep the earlier batches warm somewhere while you continue cooking the later ones.
Keep It Clean
Lastly, because the interior is so cramped, it means that even the slightest amount of grease splatter or dripping is going to end up forming a cooked-on residue. And if you don't clean it thoroughly after each use, this residue, especially if it's on the upper part near the heating element, is going to cause your air fryer to start smoking.
Not only is this unpleasant, but the smoke is going to transfer a burnt flavor to your food. To prevent this, clean the inside of your air fryer after each use with a mild detergent (follow your manufacturer's instructions on cleaning).