Everything You Need to Know About Baking in the Air Fryer
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Everything You Need to Know About Baking in the Air Fryer

Jul 31, 2023

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Essentially a small convection oven, it can be great for baking — if you don’t mind some trial and error

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I’ll be the first to admit that I was a longtime air fryer hater, often leaning on the retort that they’re “just little ovens.” But I’ve since eaten my words. Or rather, I’ve eaten kale rolls and lasagna in tins sized for two; a few cookies, baked fresh late at night; and small squares of fast focaccia — all of them made within minutes in the air fryer.

It turns out that what I thought was a gimmick is actually one of the appliance’s greatest strengths: Essentially a small convection oven, the air fryer is a great tool for baking, especially small-batch baking, and cooking when it’s too hot to turn on the conventional oven. While it’s true that I never thought I’d be so into such a hyped-up appliance, it’s also true that ever since I got my air fryer last Black Friday, I’ve given less attention to my oven, instead translating recipes for the air fryer.

Still, it’s not a one-for-one swap. The tops of my broccoli trees in Hetty McKinnon’s broccoli forest loaf singed on my first air fryer attempt. And making focaccia comes with a slight trade-off: Although the air fryer is fast and doesn’t heat up my home, it also produces heat from the top, meaning that the bottom of the bread doesn’t get as crispy as it would in the oven. To troubleshoot such problems — and to encourage more people to embrace the air fryer’s “just an oven” quality — I asked a few experts for their best air fryer advice.

Baking in small batches and when it’s hot outside are where the air fryer excels. Rebecca Abbott and Jennifer West, co-creators of the Air Frying Foodie website and authors of the forthcoming cookbook Air Fryer All Day, live in Arizona and Louisiana, respectively. In those hot conditions, “the last thing I want is my kitchen oven at 350 degrees for an hour,” Abbott says. The air fryer, which uses less energy and gives off less heat, comes in handy when the weather is oppressive.

But also, “I love it because I live alone,” says Heather Johnson, the blogger behind The Food Hussy and author of The “I Love My Air Fryer” Cooking for One Recipe Book. Instead of waiting for the oven to bake a large cake that will just end up going stale, Johnson opts for baking individual portions in the air fryer. “It makes it nice and convenient when you’re only cooking for one or two,” she says. And compared to those mug cakes made in the microwave, she says, “I feel like it bakes better and it tastes more like a real cake that you took out of the oven.”

If you’re relying on a recipe written for ovens, you’ll want to make sure you convert the time and temperature for an air fryer.

“You always want to make sure that you’re not taking your favorite cake recipe and just making less of it,” says Samantha Erb, the recipe developer behind the blog Everyday Family Cooking. Instead, she recommends decreasing both the temperature by about 25 degrees and the cooking time by about 20 percent, which is also the general principle when you’re using a convection oven. (To simplify your life, Erb offers an air fryer conversion calculator on her blog.)

For those attempting to make a traditional oven recipe in the air fryer for the first time, Abbott offers a general rule of thumb: Check it at 30 percent of the recipe’s cooking time (in other words, if something is supposed to cook for an hour in the oven, check it at 20 minutes to see where it’s at, she says). This is especially important because different air fryer styles and models have different fan speeds and wattages, which can affect cooking times.

Start with an easy recipe like biscuits, bread, or rolls, Abbott advises. “It’s just a simple few-ingredients way to test out what your air fryer can do before you start getting into cakes,” she says. Frozen cookie dough and store-bought biscuit dough can be fun places to start. Abbott uses the latter to make air fryer doughnuts that bake in about five minutes. “Once you get the hang of it, jump into the cakes and the cheesecakes and the pies,” she says. (A note on pies: You’ll want to blind-bake them, or bake the shell before adding the filling, because “once you put that filling on top, most of the time, the air fryer can’t get to the crust,” Abbott says.)

There are air fryer-sized options for just about every type of bakeware, including muffin and springform pans. To bake smaller batches of lasagna, focaccia, cakes, and cornbread, I measured the size of my air fryer and went for a small, deep baking dish like this 6-inch square one from Wilton. (A warning: Even with lots of butter, baked eggs stick hard to this pan, so you might want to go with a nonstick option if you plan to bake eggs often.) Erb likes her small cake pan from Fat Daddio’s. But depending on the size of your air fryer and what you’re looking to bake, you might not need to purchase anything new; your silicone cupcake liners and ramekins can do double duty.

For cookies, bread, and biscuits, consider just using parchment paper, which will prevent sticking and keep whatever it is you’re baking from falling through the openings in the air fryer’s basket. “Parchment paper is not going to let air go through it completely, but it’s a little bit better than using a baking sheet, and it’s much cheaper,” Erb says. Precut parchment paper liners, some with holes for air circulation, are also available. And don’t worry about the parchment paper blowing around the air fryer and burning; your baked goods will weigh it down.

To bake most efficiently, Erb recommends preheating the air fryer — especially if your recipe calls for baking powder, which needs a certain temperature to activate.

But other air fryer experts have a different take. With cakes, “I don’t think it hurts to preheat it, but I feel like I’ve also made them without preheating because it’s only a couple of minutes,” Abbott says. In fact, both she and West caution that cookies in particular can come out worse with a preheated air fryer. Instead, they recommend putting cookies on parchment and then turning on the device. (To ensure that the cookies set, you’ll also want to let them sit for a few minutes before taking them out of the air fryer.)

Most basket air fryers have their heating elements at the top and work by circulating hot air, while convection ovens generally have their heating elements in the back. This means that when you’re cooking with an air fryer, the top of whatever you’re baking is “always at risk of getting burned,” Johnson says. And, she notes, thin, runny batters like quiche can blow around if your bakeware is too full. Covering your dish with foil can prevent both burning and splattering.

While Johnson doesn’t always cover her cakes with foil, Abbott says it can be helpful, as she discovered while testing her carrot cake recipe, which at times came out with a browned top and soupy center. If you’re encountering the same problem with your cakes, “you’ll want to cover it with foil once the top is cooked and then let it keep air frying until you get that clean-toothpick center,” Abbott says.

Of course, Johnson notes, certain baked dishes like lasagna are better with some browning. In those cases, she recommends covering the dish until it’s cooked through, then removing the foil in the last few minutes so the top can brown without burning. If you do decide to use foil, Johnson recommends wrapping it underneath the baking dish. This prevents it from blowing off while the air circulates, which can cause the foil to touch or get sucked into the heating element, where it can burn.

As I’ve found with focaccia, the air fryer doesn’t produce the same results as an oven, so it helps to temper your expectations accordingly. When making cookies, for example, Erb says “you have to know that it is going to be a crunchier cookie on top than a crunchier cookie on the bottom.” And, she adds, where oven-baked pizza gets crispy on the bottom and mostly gooey on the top, the top of an air fryer pizza will likely get more color and texture. Still, there are times I’d rather have a fast focaccia than a perfect focaccia — it all depends on my mood.

The bottom line is that it’s worth playing around to see what you can bake in the air fryer. Although many people think it’s “just for chicken nuggets and french fries, there’s so much you can do in it,” Johnson says. Baking in the air fryer won’t always be perfect, but making small batches — quickly — means the appliance has a lower barrier to entry. If your first cookie turns out badly, after all, you only need to wait a few more minutes until another one is ready.

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