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Heating up your favorite foods with an air fryer has become one of the most popular at-home cooking methods, and there are truly a shocking number of items you can make with this small (but mighty) kitchen appliance, such as chicken wings, French fries, bacon, crispy vegetables, and even a grilled cheese sandwich. Truly, what can’t the air fryer do? Well, a few things, actually. In fact, there are a number of foods you should never cook in the air fryer.
According to Eat This, Not That! expert board member Chef Nik Fields, also known as The Chic Chef, not all foods cook well in the air fryer. Some will get too soggy, too messy, or just cook unevenly.
Isla Zoey, chef and Editor at Air Fryer Mag—a place for sharing experiences, insights, and tips about cooking with air fryers—adds that “Air fryers undeniably have revolutionized the culinary world with their ability to cook food with minimal oil, but not all foods are well-suited for this cooking method.” Things like wet-battered food, leafy greens, and sticky sauces that you’d normally be fine putting in the oven or a deep-fryer will not always work in the air fryer.
The air fryer is limited to certain types of food because of how it functions. Air fryers work by combining hot air and a fan to cook whatever is inside, which is ideal for a number of reasons. For one, this mechanism allows you to use your air fryer right on your countertop, as the heat is contained inside. It’s also known to provide a crispy outer layer reminiscent of something you might get when using a deep fryer, but since you don’t have to deep fry the food in oil when using an air fryer, this method is known for being healthier.
So, before you experiment with another air fryer creation, be sure to keep these foods to never cook in the air fryer in mind, so that your experience will be delicious, easy, and mess-free. Then, check out How To Cook Bacon in an Air Fryer the Right Way.
If you’re an air fryer fan, chances are you’ve heard about how you can actually make a grilled cheese inside this tiny appliance. But Paul Sidoriak of Grilling Montana, author of two cookbooks on outdoor cooking and facilitator of an air fryer/indoor grilling group on Facebook with almost 60,000 followers, says that if you’re going to put cheese in your air fryer, you’ll definitely want to avoid using the grated kind.
“The air fryer has such a small footprint and the fan that blows hot air around is extremely powerful, so grated cheese will get sucked from your food and redistributed all over the air fryer (including getting into the fan),” says Sidoriak.
If you absolutely must use cheese and all you have is the grated kind, you can try some of Sidoriak’s tips on how to prevent the cheese from flying around and making a mess all over your air fryer. “The first thing to do is to bury the cheese under your food. You can still make something like nachos, but they may become upside-down nachos with the cheese intermingled, rather than dripping from the top,” says Sidoriak. “The other workaround is to put the cheese on food that’s already hot—preferably piping hot. Sprinkle the cheese on the food and allow it to wilt and melt slightly. This will make it harder for the fan to blow around and will make for far less clean up.”
This one may not be very surprising, but Zoey warns that trying to cook any sort of raw grain in the air fryer will result in a failed attempt and quite a bit of burning if you’re not careful.
“Foods like rice or pasta need to be cooked in liquid, which is not possible in an air fryer,” says Zoey. “These foods will dry out instead of becoming tender.”
You can, however, heat up cooked grains like rice in the air fryer, and according to the Food Network, heating up some rice with a dash of olive oil can be a great way to enjoy some leftovers—just as long as your grain is fully cooked first.
If you’re taking out the air fryer to cook up some chicken or steak, you may want to check the type of marinade you’re using first. According to Jacob Miller, retired health professional, BBQ expert, and founder of Barbecue Pals, “Foods that are coated in sticky or sugary sauces—such as barbecue or teriyaki sauce—should be avoided in the air fryer. The sugars in the sauces can caramelize quickly and potentially burn, leading to an unpleasant taste and a difficult-to-clean air fryer basket.”
Instead, just air fry your meat with some simple spices, and then you can coat the finished product in your favorite sauce when it’s already cooked through.
Because of the name “air fryer,” people often assume that this appliance cooks things similarly to how you’d fry something up in oil. Or they may look at the small machine and think that it can work in the same way as something like an oven or microwave. But the air fryer works in its own unique way by blowing hot air around to cook your food, meaning there are some delicate items that will get destroyed if you try cooking them with this method.
For instance, “Light, flaky pastries such as filo or puff pastries can end up blown around and deformed by the powerful fan inside the air fryer,” says Zoey. If you’re going to be cooking a pastry item, or warming one up, you’re far better off popping it into the oven.
The air fryer isn’t a great cooking method for foods that require delicate techniques, as this way of heating food is made to be quite intense in order to cook food quickly. According to Miller, this means that delicate, flaky fish won’t hold up very well in the air fryer.
“Delicate seafood such as scallops, shrimp, and flaky fish fillets are best prepared using gentle cooking methods like sautéing or grilling, and the intense heat of the air fryer can easily overcook these delicate proteins and lead to a rubbery texture,” says Miller.
You may hear the words “air fryer” and assume that you can put any type of frying batter inside. However, because you’re not traditionally frying food with this kitchen appliance, not all batters work—this is especially true for any type of wet batter.
“It’s messy and the batter won’t set,” said Chef Nik. “You won’t receive that crunch when it’s fried in traditional oil.”
Instead of dipping foods—like chicken— in a wet batter, make a healthier breadcrumb coating instead. Dip the chicken into eggs and coat it in breadcrumbs before placing it in the air fryer.
Making a batch of crispy kale chips in the oven with some salt and olive oil is a great way to satisfy your savory cravings while keeping your calories low and your nutrients high. Because it’s such a common bite to make in the oven, it’s understandable that some people may wonder whether or not they can pop some leafy greens in the air fryer to speed up the process.
But Chef Nik points out that leafy greens—like cabbage, kale, and spinach—aren’t the best for crisping up in the air fryer.
“Unlike cooking with oil, the air fryer cooks unevenly and will cause foods that are lighter weight to burn faster and become soggy.”
When it comes to making popcorn, you may assume that you can just pop some instant popcorn inside your air fryer. This is an understandable assumption, as an air fryer seems to cook things really quickly, right? Even though it may cook some of your favorite foods faster than something like an oven, it won’t do much to the popcorn kernels.
Simply put, “The air-fryer doesn’t get hot enough for the kernels to pop,” says Chef Nik.
So if you’re looking to pop up some popcorn for movie night, you’re better off cooking it in a pot, microwave, or in a classic popcorn maker—not the air fryer.
If you want to roast up an entire chicken, it’s best to just do it in the oven instead of attempting to cook it up in an air fryer. Chef Nik points out that the uneven temperature won’t cook the chicken thoroughly and will cause parts of the chicken to dry out.
“Also, the air fryer is smaller than the chicken so it won’t all roast at the same time,” she says. So, while you can get away with air frying almost everything, you may want to skip these particular items next time you’re looking to use this convenient kitchen appliance.
A previous version of this story was published on July 23, 2022. It has been updated to include additional copy and proofreading revisions, as well as updated contextual links.