For something that is really quite easy to cook, there sure has been a lot written about steak. The kings of all beef cuts, the various types of steak all suit being fried in a very hot pan or barbecued on a hot grill. But can you air fry a steak? I wasn't at all convinced you could – not very well, anyway – but it turns out I was wrong. I've now made air fried steak 5 times. It is very easy and the results are mouth-watering.
Recently, Meater – makers of the Meater Block, which T3's Mat Gallagher recently reviewed – sent me one of their excellent wireless meat thermometers and two steaks to test it out with. So I decided to give it another go.
As ever, I used the Ninja Foodi Max SmartLid for the air frying. Other machines from our best air fryer guide may give different results when cooking steak, but given their similar temperature ranges and construction, I doubt it.
While good quality steak is undoubtedly one of the best things to cook in an air fryer, there is one problem with using this method. For some steak lovers, it will be a big problem, and it all comes down to a fundamental question about these ovens: do air fryers really fry? And the answer to that is 'no, not really'.
What type of steak is best for air frying?
To be completely honest, if you want my verdict, the real optimum steak to air fry is relatively inexpensive, thin cut steak. You almost literally can't muck it up, and if you do, it's less of a wrench than if you destroy a £15 lump of fillet. Thin, cheap steak can be cooked in a tiny amount of time and the high, consistent, all-around heat of the air fryer really brings the best out of cheaper meat. That's especially true if you season it heavily and eat it slathered with a BBQ sauce or hot sauce.
But what we're looking at in this feature is good-to-excellent quality, aged steak from a butcher. When it comes to the expensive stuff, you want it as thick cut as possible, as that makes it harder to overcook it. In my opinion, the UK classics – rib-eye, sirloin and rump – are preferable for air frying to more expensive or esoteric cuts like filet mignon, skirt steak, bavette, etc.
It's also essential, unless you are an extremely skilled and confident chef, to use a meat thermometer. So it's just as well my air fryer has one built in, for steak #1 and Meater sent me a Meater+ for steak #2. I did consider cooking the steaks one at a time, so the air fryer would be less crowded, but this would obviously involve either me or my partner having to wait longer to eat, and we're both hungry guys. So both at once it was, then.
What is the best way to air fry steak?
Okay, so here is what I usually do.
1. Stick thermometer into meat, if using a cook-in probe. If I was using something like the Thermapen One, I would check the temperature every 2-3 minutes. A lot of air fryers are not really designed to be repeatedly opened during cooking – although my Ninja SmartLid seems fine with this – so a probe that remains inside the closed fryer seems a better bet.
2. Preheat the air fryer to its highest setting. You want it as hot as it can possibly be, which in most cases is about 200ºC (which is not actually all that hot, but whatevs mate). Interestingly, Ninja insists that my air fryer doesn't need to be preheated, and certainly it does heat up very fast. However for steak, I ignore their advice and run it for 5 minutes before I start so it is, again, as hot as it can get from the very start of cooking.
2. Place steak/s in the air fryer, on a rack if your air fryer has one – so it's off the floor of the fryer. Then add far more salt than you think you need. Some cooks feel that you shouldn't add pepper at this point, and some feel that you should add about 9 billion seasonings but I generally go with an awful lot of salt and quite a lot of freshly-ground black pepper. Come on, it's not gonna kill you. In the short term. I don't think it's worth adding any oil, but it probably is worth oiling the rack the meat is on, to prevent sticking.
3. Cook whilst keeping an eye on your thermometer reading/s. With the Meater+, the temperature comes up on your phone, connected via Bluetooth. You can actually use the Meater app to tell you when meat is perfectly done, but steak cooks so quickly that I think doing it manually is probably easier. The Ninja air fryer's temperature naturally appears on its screen.
4. When the temperature reaches about 25ºC, turn the steaks and season the other side. You'll probably be surprised how quickly this happens.
5. For medium rare, you should then cease cooking when the thermometer hits about 55ºC – that's about 127-130ºF. The 'correct' internal cooked temperature of meat is the one element of steak cookery that is genuinely complex, as the internal temperature will continue to go up after you remove it from the pan, and during resting. However, for reasons I don't understand, air frying seems to remove the usefulness of resting steak. Oh, and also everyone has a different idea of what the optimum medium rare temperature is, anyway. A lot of chefs would push on to 60ºC or 140ºF but I guess I prefer it more 'rare' than 'medium'.
What I end up with, via this method, is a really delicious, buttery soft and juicy steak, cooked on the outside but with a perfect layer of dark pink at its heart. However, what air fried steak invariably lacks is any kind of outer crust. So while the flavour is almost spot on – better than many pan-fried steaks I've cooked over the years, in fact – there's no searing, meaning the flavour is slightly different, and the texture or mouth feel is not quite right.
So here's what I did this time…
This immediately ceases to be an air fryer recipe at this point, so look away now if you are a purist.
It occurred to me that I could partly air fry my steaks, as that gives such great flavour results, and then sear them in a pan. It's a similar idea to reverse searing roasts, where you apply the greatest amount of heat last instead of at the beginning of cooking. I think possibly a blow torch might be the best way to do this, but alas, I don't own a blow torch as I am just not that macho.
So I fired up the induction hob while the air fryer was doing its thang, and got a cast iron pan from Lodge absolutely smoking hot. Now you could try this part of the cook using your air fryer's 'sear' function, if it has one. However in my experience, that setting takes too long to heat up, and never gets hot enough anyway.
Instead of cooking to a medium rare 55ºC-ish, I stopped at a very rare 40ºC/104ºF, and moved the steaks straight to the pan. With hindsight, I probably could have stopped even sooner. A few minutes on each side in this cast iron inferno, followed by 6-7 minutes resting, and I had something not far from the perfect steak.
Whether you use this step or not, I think there's a lot to be said for air frying steaks, especially for less experienced chefs, those who are not fans of charring and sear lines – if such people exist – and, of course, anyone whose main cooking device is an air fryer. Not everyone has lots of hob space and a cupboard full of the best pans. Hopefully you can make great steak every time in your air fryer too.
- 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