Coming up next on T3's air fryer news feed: the best things to cook in an air fryer, as chosen by me. When I launched this roundup, it was my 3 best things to air fry but because it's Friday I've expanded it to 5 delicious foods – and one of them is actually a vegetable! But all the rest are not; sorry vegetarians and vegans, I'll get an article like this done just for you, very soon.
2022 has been a crazy year, not least because I've belatedly come to enjoy using air fryers. If you'd asked me last year I'd have said, 'I've got an £800 oven. Why on earth would I want to cook things in a small plastic box with a fan and a heating element in it?' However, a few portions of perfectly cooked meat and a few very easy post-dinner clean-ups later and I am now the typical late convert. Always telling people they should buy one, with the evangelical air of a door-to-door god botherer. And these are a few of my favourite things to cook in one.
I've already told you my Top Secret Recipe for how to make perfect air fryer chips. If you want to know more about my zealous love of air fryers – and I'm sure you do – you can also read about my favourite air fryer (and multi-cooker) the Ninja Foodi SmartLid. Needless to say, we also have an extensive guide to the best air fryers, should you wish to buy one after witnessing the deliciousness.
1. Fried chicken
Want a longer, more detailed version of this? Try how to make perfect air fryer chicken (extended remix).
Chicken is the signature air fryer dish, for me. If you aren't a vegetarian but are an air fryer and you aren't doing chicken, you are a fool, frankly. And I pity the fool who does not cook chicken in his or her air fryer. it's so easy, delicious and – especially if you do wings – extremely cheap. My local Sainsburys does massive boxes of very big, juicy wings for about £2, so I assume Aldi and Lidl must practically give them away.
My top tip for fried chicken is to season only with a little salt and pepper and maybe some oregano or even mixed herbs, using a light puff of sunflower or rapeseed oil to ensure the seasoning adheres to the meat. You can use a tonne of chilli, spices and all the other fine things we enjoy on fried chicken but it tends to get a bit lost when air fried. Sometimes literally, as the oven's fan can blow dry seasoning clean off if you use too much.
Cooking with a sticky liquid marinade or BBQ sauce works reasonably well, but the best way to get the flavour into your chicken is to add a sauce afterwards. My absolute top tip for this is a lot of hot sauce – I use Frank's Buffalo – melted together with about a third of a block of butter. I realise this slightly ruins the 'health' element of air frying, so you could use just use the sauce on its own if you prefer. Not as nice, though.
If using wings, the poultry portions should be deliciously crisp after about 18-22 minutes on 200ºC-220ºC/400ºF-450ºF, but you may want to experiment a bit with your specific machine's settings, and you will probably need to up the timings if using larger chicken portions, such as legs. I wouldn't use breast if I were you.
One final tip: do not overload the cooking basket! Ideally, the chicken bits should not be touching each other. Batch cooking may be required as a result – sorry about that.
Air fried steak, done right, is incredible. I did not expect this. Cheaper meats such as pork, chicken and chops seem like the obvious things to do in an air fryer and, indeed, they regularly come out delicious. Wanting to try something different, I eventually got a relatively cheap bit of supermarket steak and it came out tasting very good but with a texture that was slightly different to what you get from using a pan, and hence a bit odd. Very tasty though.
With some trepidation, some weeks later, I then tried air frying a more expensive steak. I was extremely worried that I would be wasting £15 by doing this so I devised a slightly convoluted method of doing it, but the result was absolutely incredible.
I can't give timings for this; you have to use a meat thermometer such as the Thermapen One. I turned the air fryer up to its highest setting, put in the steak with only salt on top and a little oil spray all over. After about 2 minutes I flipped it, salted the other side and gave it another few minutes, jabbing the Thermapen in occasionally until I could see it was cooked to a rare degree – about 50ºC/120ºF.
The slightly complicated bit was I then transferred it to a very hot pan for a brief spell, so the external texture was more seared and less peculiar than my first air fried steak had been. This also pushed up the internal temperature to medium rare, which is how most people like it. Perfecto.
The result was absolutely delicious and genuinely melt in the mouth. Which was a relief after spending 15 quid on a steak, to be turned into an experimental dinner. Interestingly, in my excitement at this experiment, I totally forgot to rest the meat after cooking it, so conceivably it could have been even better.
I thought I had better have at least one thing that wasn't previously running around in a field, and other than chips, I can't think of anything better to do in an air fryer than broccoli. Specifically sprouting or 'tenderstem' varieties, although bog-standard broccoli could also work if sliced quite thinly.
Air frying broccoli naturally gives a very different result to boiling or steaming, and really brings out the flavour of the vegetable, and it also tends to retain rather more crunch, which I quite like.
Hot tip, though: if you cook it for as long as you dare, the stems of the broccoli will soften much more and the head will just begin to char. Yes, I know slightly burnt broccoli may not sound like everyone's ideal side dish but it is delicious served on a bed of Greek yogurt and hot sauce. More like a main meal than a side, in fact. I don't know if this is something people eat in the Middle East, but it certainly has that kind of flavour profile, and if it's not something they actually eat, well… they should.
Salmon is a meaty fish that even confirmed fish-haters sometimes like. Even better, I have discovered something rather awesome that you can do to salmon in an air fryer. A skilled chef could probably do it in a pan as well, but I've never successfully managed it with any other cooking method. In an air fryer, I nailed it first time.
You can knock out a few delicious fillets in 10 minutes flat in an air fryer at 200ºC/400ºF – to be honest, I hardly ever deviate from this 'standard' temperature on mine. Just season your fishy portion with salt, pepper, jerk seasoning, herbs, cajun seasoning – whatever your bag happens to be, flavour-wise. It's easy peasy, and once done, you can add a bit of lemon squeezey.
So now onto the clever bit. If you slice the skin off the salmon before you start cooking and then give it an extra 5 minutes while the fillets rest – keep 'em warm under a bit of foil – it will crisp up in an unbelievably tasty way. You end up with something that could easily hail from a top restaurant, or Masterchef: The Professionals or Iron Chef episode. Yet as you can tell from the fact that I managed to do it, it requires no skill or effort whatsoever. The skin will turn into something like a kind of salmony pork scratching. Which brings me on to…
5. Pork belly
Okay, so I am now dropping any pretence of 'health frying', but this is such a lush, fatty, unctuous and delicious thing to air fry. Pork is seldom mentioned in relation to air fryers but it's in fact almost the perfect meat to do in one. Pork belly in particular works brilliantly. Belly is possibly the most underrated meat there is. Even better, unlike a lot of traditionally cheap cuts, it hasn't been co-opted by foodies, causing its price to rocket. That's what happened with, for instance, brisket.
You could cook pork belly on a lower heat for a longer time, but you'd be better off doing that in a standard oven in your Le Creuset. I just tend to give it a whiff of the oil spray, whack it in at the standard 200ºC/400ºF and cook for no more than an hour. A meat thermometer such as the brilliant Thermapen I mentioned before is your friend here; you want an internal temperature of at least 65ºC/145ºF. However, another great thing about pork belly is that it's extremely hard to overcook, so this should not be too much stress.
As with the salmon and the chicken, the truly great thing about pork in an air fryer is that you can get perfectly crispy crackling without drying out the meat. I don't think I've ever had bad pork belly under any form of cooking, but air fried pork belly is a revelation. An average size cut of this delicious meat will fit in most air fryers, but if yours is too small there's always the option of belly slices, which taste absolutely fantastic, and are extremely easy to fit. They'll need way less cooking time.
- More air fryer info
- How to use an air fryer – a beginner's guide
- Absolutely everything you need to know about air fryers
- How to clean an air fryer