What not to cook in an air fryer: 9 foods you shouldn't air fry if you want the best results

Air fryers are selling out faster than you can fry an egg, but some foods really shouldn't be put in an air fryer and only a hob or oven will do

A collage of five different foods to show what not to cook in an air fryer including popcorn, wet batter, grains and kale
(Image credit: Future)

The air fryer frenzy continues to sizzle, and with promises of them being a healthier way to cook all manner of things using less oil, time, money, and energy, it’s not hard to see why.

And while there are plenty of things you can cook in an air fryer as a healthier option to alternative methods of cooking, there are certain things that don't get optimum results when cooked in even the best air fryer.

Richard Gurdin, air fryer buyer, and expert at Robert Dyas explains, "Air fryers are designed to dry cook food by easily circulating hot air in the chamber, which is good news for lots of foods, but not so much for others." Some things just won’t cook in an air fryer, and some will, but will just taste better, or save you time or effort, by cooking them via a more traditional method instead.

So if you're ready to snap up the best air fryer deals on offer take a look at what not to cook in an air fryer first, to avoid disappointing results.

1. Yorkshire puddings

Wet batter in tray alongside yorkshire puddings to show one of the things not to cooking in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

In fact, most things that encompass wet batter won’t cook in an air fryer as there isn’t a component in air fryers that’s able to set the wet batter. Instead, it would all just pool into the base of the vessel, leaving a disheartening, sloppy mess. Even if you know how to clean an air fryer well this would be an unwelcome task, one to avoid – plus you'd have no dinner.

Plus, particularly with Yorkshire puddings, you need a decent amount of oil (problematic in itself as that would also just go everywhere) that needs to be sizzling hot before you can pour your batter in, otherwise, the puddings will be greasy and flaccid rather than light and puffy. 

On another practical note, it’s unusual for air fryers, particularly smaller ones, to feature a glass door or window, so you can see what’s happening inside without opening it. This means that even if you heated the oil in a ramekin in order to contain it, you wouldn’t be able to check to see if the batter is rising or not, defying the golden rule of achieving perfect Yorkies – don’t disturb them until they’re cooked! Furthermore, air fryers cook quickly, so even just 60 seconds could spell the difference between triumph and disaster. 

Fresh fish fillets, chicken, prawns, and even veg dipped in wet batter won’t work in an air fryer either, explains Richard Gurdin, air fryer buyer and expert at Robert Dyas, "wet batter goes everywhere, and without a proper oil bath, the batter won’t set, which means you won’t get the crispy, fried item you’d hoped for". 

So if it’s fish and chips that you fancy for tea, it’s best to stick to the frozen kind, which will cook to crispy perfection in an air fryer. 

2. Popcorn

A pan of freshly popped popcorn to show what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

Can this classic movie snack be cooked in an air fryer? In most models – no. Not only are the majority of air fryers unable to reach the high temperature (400 degrees) that popcorn kernels need to enable them to actually pop, but the fan would cause the kernels to fly about everywhere, including the heating element, which they can get easily get lodged into – risking not just unsuccessful popcorn, but your air fryer short-circuiting and even causing a fire. 

It's best to keep things traditional when making popcorn to watch the best feel-good Christmas movies this season. It’s much less hazardous, and actually more fun, to pop kernels in a large, glass-lidded pot on the hob, or for extra speed, buy the bagged, microwavable type which incidentally, is solely for microwaves and not air fryers. 

Jen Bedloe, w&h's Food Director, agrees and adds: "my family loves the bags of microwave popcorn – just be careful you have the microwave set to the correct temperature so the corn doesn’t scorch."

3. Pasta

bowl of pasta on a white tablecloth with red stripes to show what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

Who doesn’t love pasta? It’s quick, easy, tasty, and versatile, and if you opt for the wholewheat stuff, it’s healthy too. But the way in which an air fryer works isn’t conducive to boiling water meaning it's not suitable for cooking pasta.

Its heating coil and fan combination won’t allow any water inside the machine to reach boiling point, which is the precise moment that dried pasta is traditionally added, and then brought back to the boil and simmered. Pre-boil the water in a descaled kettle for even quicker cooking times.

In fact, anything that needs boiling hot water to cook just won’t work in an air fryer, so stick to a saucepan on the humble hob, just ensure you use a lid to contain the heat and conserve energy. Jen says, "for perfect pasta cook in a large pot of salted boiling water. Italians would tell you to make sure the water is as salty as the Mediterranean sea. And cook it to al denté, which means to the tooth in Italian. The pasta should have a slight bite and not be too soft."

What an air fryer is great for, though, is making pasta chips! Coat any (cooked) pasta shapes with a little oil then season, sprinkle with parmesan or spices, and air fry for 8-10 minutes. An easy route to turning leftovers into heavenly snacks.

4. Seared steak

Steak on a wooden chopping board

(Image credit: Getty Images | Eliton Santos)

It’s not that you can’t cook beef with how you use an air fryer, but to achieve optimum flavour, a steak should be seasoned and seared in hot fat before you cook it. The high heat caramelises the meat’s surface and injects it with a depth of flavour that’s difficult to achieve otherwise. 

Most air fryers aren’t able to reach the temperature needed to sear the meat (about 450 degrees) but even if they could, the meat would need to be placed as close to the air fryer’s heating element as possible and because you need to be generous with the seasoning, there’s the danger that it would just fly off, straight into the heating element, causing a mess and a fire risk.

Steak cooked in one of the best induction pans over the hob trumps an air fryer on the flavour front. Yes, you’ll use a little more fat, but it’s an easier and more effective method of searing the steak and spooning the fat over it as it cooks, helping to keep it juicy and full of deliciousness.  

However, Rose Fooks Deputy Food Editor points out that, “Some air fryer models have a health grill function, and these are great for searing meat without any need for added fat.” Check your settings to see if your air fryer is suitable, if not stick to the hob.

5. Crusty pies

crusty top pie on dining table showing what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

You can bake pies, both sweet and savory,  in an air fryer, but because the heating element in an air fryer is only at the top, there’s more risk of a soggy bottom. So crusty pies are very much out of the question.

Furthermore, the speed at which an air fryer cooks means the pastry can burn before the pie filling is properly cooked. 

Frozen pies seem a sensible solution, as the filling is pre-cooked and the hot air will steam the frost off of it, crisping the pastry up a treat. Plus they won’t take as long to bake in an air fryer as they would in an oven. Rose suggests covering the top of the pie with foil, saying, “covering the top with foil will reflect some of the heat, this should stop the top burning while the rest cooks.”

6. Rice and grains

Bags of grains and pulses on a worktop to show what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

Wendy Miranda, Lakeland’s consumer expert explains that an air fryer works by, "circulating really hot air around your food at high speed using Rapid Air Technology.  It will ‘fry’ your food using a fraction of the oil you’d normally use for deep frying." 

This suggests that air fryers are healthy, but what about cooking healthy foods that are typically cooked by boiling as they need to absorb lots of liquid in order to cook and taste as they should? "Rice and other grains that need to be submerged in boiling water can't be cooked inside an air fryer", states Richard. 

You can’t put lots of water in an air fryer, let alone boil it, so you’ll need to stick to more traditional methods such as boiling or steaming, in a saucepan or in a rice cooker, when it comes to grains to ensure that they’re properly cooked. 

There are ways to get around this – such as rinsing (long grain only) rice thoroughly, placing it in a container with boiled water, covering and then placing it in the air fryer – but these methods involve more faff and effort than steaming or boiling (and even microwaving) and will actually take longer to cook.

Jen agrees, explaining: 'it’s so easy to cook rice on the hob, that this air fryer method is more faff than it’s worth. For easy results, measure a fingertip’s depth of water above the level of the rice in a saucepan pan. Bring up to a simmer, cover, cook for 5 mins, then turn off the heat and leave to steam in the pan. Fluff up the grains with a fork and serve." 

7. A whole roast dinner

Roast dinner in a roasting dish ready to serve used to demonstrate what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

There’s been lots of talk about air fryers having the ability to cook a whole chicken, but we'd warn against cooking a full roast. Even if a whole chicken fits in your air fryer, the bird would need extra room all around it in order to not disturb the hot air flow when cooking the other elements of the roast. Furthermore, the part of it that’s nearest to the heating element is likely to cook faster than the areas furthest from the heating element, leaving you in a half burnt/half-raw chicken quandary. 

But let’s say you have a big air fryer and a small meat joint – what about all the trimmings? Sure, you could cook your meat and leave it to rest whilst you cook the roasties, the Yorkies, the pigs in blankets, the gravy, the stuffing, and all the veg but in reality, there just wouldn’t be enough room, not even in an air fryer with a large cavity. And the timings would all be off! Plus, some of the essential trimmings, namely Yorkies and gravy, can’t be cooked in an air fryer anyway. 

It would be much more energy-efficient, not to mention easier, to put everything in a conventional oven – even the crumble for pudding – ensuring it’s all cooked at the same time. Veg can be roasted rather than boiled, saving you from using the hob, too.

Do put the air fryer to good use the following day though, as something it excels in is reheating cooked food. Soggy roast potatoes will reclaim their crispy coatings in a matter of minutes while wilted veg will be tasty and springy again and dry meat with getting its juice back. A microwave will make cold things hot, but it doesn’t have the ability to reclaim the crispiness and freshness of pre-cooked food that an air fryer does.

8. Light, leafy greens

Bowl of cooked kale and ginger to show what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

Most veg can be cooked in an air fryer and will retain more nutrients by doing so, but some delicate leafy green veggies such as spinach and kale just aren’t robust enough for the forceful fan and intense heat of an air fryer. 

The fan inside the air fryer moves heat into the chamber at super speed, so the veg will literally just fly about increasing the risk of them hitting the heating element and burning, even becoming carcinogenic. Better for our health as well as our taste buds it's best to steam or wilt them with some trusty boiled water and add a dash of seasoning.

A dry seasoning is another problem for an air fryer; lots of loose herbs and spices will just whoosh off, whipping around the air fryer and sticking to the sides of it rather than the actual food. Furthermore, getting it on the heating element could cause burning and clogging, not to mention the extra cleaning up. 

9. Toast or toasties

Toastie on a wooden serving board with a ramekin of chutney to show what not to cook in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future)

If your toaster’s on the blink, could you perfect your breakfast in an air fryer instead? The answer is yes, but don’t bother! As air fryers use hot air and a fan to cook food, a piece of bread in a medium-large air fryer is likely to just dart about inside the cavity, being too light for the powerful fan. You could weigh it down with something, but you’d then have to flip the bread over halfway through cooking in order for it to cook and brown evenly on both sides. 

Secondly, some air fryers need to be pre-heated, and the bread itself will take about three minutes to toast – so that totals six-eight minutes of cooking time vs a basic toaster which will typically take three minutes. 

These are similar issues with making a cheese toastie. In a toastie maker, it would take about five minutes to make a cheese toastie, with the pressure of the machine sealing the edges of the bread together, thus keeping the cheese inside. In an air fryer, again depending on its size and power, there’s nothing keep to the two pieces of bread together as they cook; you could use cocktail sticks to pin the layers together but there are more issues to come – namely, that the cheese probably oozes out and make a mess, the toastie will need to be flipped and the cooking time is five minutes on each side.

Our advice? Jen says, "If you do try toasties in the air fryer, put the sandwich on a sheet of baking paper and make sure you have spread the outside with butter and you have plenty of cheese in the filling." But overall you’ll save time, energy, and effort by making toast in a toaster and a cheese toastie in a toastie maker or a best toaster oven air fryer

Fiona Galley

Fiona Galley has been a freelance journalist since 2015, contributing to lifestyle titles both online and in print including Modern Gardens, Ideal Home Christmas, goodto.com, Candis, and idealhome.com. Her career in interior journalism has spanned almost 20 years, previously she was the in-house Lifestyle Editor at Essentials magazine, where she styled shoots, compiled shopping sections, and looked after the reader's homes pages.