The best thing to make in an air fryer is air fried chicken. There, I've said it. You can cook all sorts of delicious things in these sturdy little ovens, but the air fried food that comes closest to tasting like REAL fried food is buffalo chicken wings. It is also possible to air fry a whole chicken and the results are good, but chicken portions – chicken wings in particular – are the best.
Do air fryers really fry? In truth, they don’t. But chicken is uniquely well suited to cooking in one because it comes out with many of the characteristics of food properly deep fried in oil.
You can't just chuck any old chicken in your air fryer and hope for the best. If you want the best air fried chicken, a little bit of skill is required, but if you follow my guidelines, you can't fail.
I did this, as with all my air frying, in a Ninja Foodi Max SmartLid. Anything from our best air fryer guide would be suitable but unless you are eating for one, the bigger the air fryer, the better. That's because your chicken portions ideally need to be well spaced out, so the hot air of your fryer can work its magic.
I recently revealed how to cook perfect air fryer chips, and it involved cooking them twice. Or if you're really hardcore, three times. Not that I am a one-trick pony or anything but my advice for making the perfect air fired chicken is… to cook it twice. Or at least, in two stages. Do that, and you will have one of the best things to cook in an air fryer, at least in my opinion.
1. What are the ingredients?
This is not a trick question. I mean, yes, obviously the ingredients are 'some chicken'. But what part/s of the chicken? In my opinion, by far the best option is wings. These cost next to nothing and are extremely well suited to air frying – just as they are to frying in oil.
Drumsticks also work well, although they are more prone to drying out due to their shape being less squat than wings. Thighs are excellent but very fatty. Or perhaps I should say they are excellent because they are very fatty. Whole legs are good but tend to come out more like they've been grilled than fried, and they may also be too big for your air fryer.
Whole breasts come out more like they've been roasted, but you can cut them into strips and oil them up a bit and get pretty tasty results. Because breasts are so lean, drying out is an issue, but if you can find the perfect timing for your machine, it can work.
Finally, there is the option of a whole chicken, should your air fryer be a big beast like mine. This can give mind-blowing results, or it can come out like mediocre roast chicken. I will write a whole other article about doing a whole chicken at some point, because it really is a very different art.
Other ingredients: oil spray (rapeseed, sunflower or anything else with a high smoke point), salt and pepper to season during cooking, and your choice of sauce to add afterwards.
2. What is the method?
Preparation is very simple with my style. Just salt and pepper your chicken portions – wings ideally – all over. You can do this while they're already in the fryer, or get more chef-y and toss in a bowl of salt and pepper. You can add other seasonings such as oregano, paprika, curry spices, Chinese spices or whatever you like BUT I find with air frying that you're better off adding the flavour after you've finished cooking. Apart from anything else, some air fryers have a tendency to blast dry seasonings off of the meat with their blasts of hot air, making it a touch futile.
It's very useful to have something from our best meat thermometer guide to hand at this point – I recommend the Thermapen One. Although it should be really hard to undercook the chicken using this technique, it can help avoid overcooking.
Cooking is also simple, but with a little bit of a cunning twist, so I can feel like I'm a proper chef. First preheat if your fryer requires it – mine claims not to, so I don't usually bother.
Put your chicken bits in the basket or on the rack, depending on what type of air fryer you have. Try to keep them apart – they'll cook much better if they're not touching, let along piled up on top of each other like, erm, battery chickens.
Spray the wings with a good amount of oil and cook at 180ºC/360ºF for 10-12 minutes. As always, you may need to experiment and adjust, because air fryers are all very different to each other. Once the beeper goes, turn over, spray again and give them another 12 minutes.
After this, the wings should be cooked, but they will be more like roasted or pan-fried chicken. So the clever bit is you now turn your air fryer right up and cook for a further 6 minutes to get the crispy and 'fried hard', as they say in the States. I do this at 210ºC/410ºF but if your top setting is 200ºC/390ºF, as is often the case with air fryers, that is fine.
Serving is the obvious next step. So at the moment, if you do it like I do, you have some nice fried chicken that tastes slightly of salt and pepper. At this point, add whatever sauce you like – hot sauce or barbecue sauce being the obvious options. You could try Chinese crispy chilli sauce, Sriracha sauce, Paul Newman's BBQ sauce, Reggae Reggae jerk sauce, Encona, Tabasco, and so on and so on. With the thicker sauces it's a really good idea to warm in a pan or microwave before adding to the chicken, as it will adhere better, taste nicer, and not be a cold sauce on a hot chicken.
My go-to sauce is Frank's buffalo hot sauce – or just your basic Frank's hot sauce if that isn't available – melted with some butter in a pan or microwave. The result is not very healthy but you don't need huge amounts of it, and my god it is tasty. Cut through the hot, buttery, meaty richness by adding pickled onions – no, not that type; this type of pickled onion (opens in new tab) – and you have something truly mind-blowing. Chef's kiss! Mwah!
3. Batter up?
Now, I know there is a spectre at this feast, and it is the absence of any coating on the fried chicken. Doing it without a coating is a perfectly legit approach and it's called buffalo fried chicken. In effect, the recipe I've just given you is a simple, air fried buffalo wing. However, I know that many fried chicken lovers prefer a batter or breaded coating on their fried chicken. Unfortunately, I have slightly bad news on this front: making batter or breadcrumbs stay on chicken while you air fry it is pretty bloody hard.
I have had some semi-reasonable success with coating chicken wings very lightly in a milk and egg mixture and then dredging in seasoned flour and potato starch but, you do end up with a right mess in the bottom of the air fryer, and I can't get the result anywhere near as crispy as what you'd get from a deep fat fryer. If I ever crack it, I'll let you know.
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