Everything You Need to Know About How Air Fryers Work

green beans next to an air fryer

NADINE GREEFF/Stocksy

Deep fat frying without the fat… sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? It’s natural to be suspicious of any kitchen gadget that rises to fame through an onslaught of infomercials, but unlike many dubious gizmos of yore (looking at you, quesadilla makers), air fryers are the real deal. Don’t think of them as magical machines that can replicate the deep fried experience for a fraction of the calories—think of them as tiny high-speed convection ovens that can slash cooking times and deliver the sort of fantastic results your standard home oven could only dream of. 

Inside an air fryer, hot air is rapidly circulated by a powerful fan, surrounding the food on all sides with constantly moving hot air that never cools down. Because air fryers are much smaller than standard home ovens, this hot air can blow around the food much more quickly, allowing it to cook nearly 20-percent faster than traditional methods. That rapid circulation of scorching air also allows the food to get impossibly crispy, hence the highly-marketable “air fryer” branding. (Let’s be real: would you rather buy a “small convection oven,” or a miracle machine that promises “healthy”  French fries?)

Because an air fryer is much smaller than a standard oven, food cooks much closer to the heating element, which makes the cooking process much more efficient. The high power fan (which you may see advertised as “Rapid Air Technology”) blasts the heated air inside the air fryer into a rapid loop, meaning it is constantly blowing past the heating element and staying at a steady temperature. This hot air not only circulates around the food, but the fan’s force pushes it through all the spaces and crevices in between whatever you’re cooking—it’s “submerged” in hot air much like how, in deep frying, it is submerged in hot oil. 

However, even though air frying produces incredibly crispy results, does not produce the same exact results as fryer does; fry oil is not in perpetual motion and clings to the surface of food, which allows it to deeply brown thanks to prolonged contact. While you can certainly cook completely oil-free in an air fryer, it’s best to toss ingredients with a tiny bit of oil, just as you would if roasting it. While the results won’t be 100% the same as deep frying, they’ll be a hell of a lot closer than oven “frying”.

Think of them as tiny high-speed convection ovens that can slash cooking times and deliver the sort of fantastic results your standard home oven could only dream of. 

There are three main types of air fryers you’ll see on the market: basket models, countertop, and hybrid. The cooking chamber of a basket resembles (you guessed it) a deep-fry basket, with perforated holes on all sides to allow for maximum air flow. These air fryers require you to shake the basket several times during the cooking process to ensure the food doesn’t stick together, and to ensure that every inch of what you’re cooking has a chance to be exposed to the air. Because the cooking chamber is deeper than it is wide, this means there’s a chance food won’t be cooked evenly (especially if it’s overfilled), and there’s a limited footprint for foods that cannot be stacked while cooking. Basket models are excellent for cooking frozen foods like French fries, vegetables, and small-cut foods that can stand up to the force of a few violent shakes. They are also good options for households of only one or two people; if you’re cooking for a crowd, even with a large basket model, you’ll likely have to air fry your food in batches. 

Countertop air fryers look like small ovens, because that’s exactly what they are. These normally have slots for multiple wire racks, which allows you to cook food in 2-3 layers, meaning you can make multiple dishes at the same time, or cook for a larger crowd than you would with a basket model. With this style you do not have to shake the food, but if you are cooking in layers, you may want to flip it halfway through to make sure you get even browning on all sides. Countertop air fryers take up a decent amount of space in the kitchen, but the plus side is that they can replace multiple other appliances as they can function as toasters, dehydrators, ovens, broilers, and, with some models, rotisseries. 

Hybrid models function as both an air fryer and a pressure cooker, which makes them attractive to people that don't have room for two appliances on their counters. If you’re a fan of pressure cooking, a hybrid model allows you to crisp your food after cooking under pressure. These models come with multiple round wire racks that can be stacked on top of each other, so while you may have less surface area to cook with than a countertop model, you’ll get more even cooking than a basket model. 

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