8 foods you should never cook in an air fryer - our expert air fryer reviewer explains

foods never to cook in an air fryer
(Image credit: Ninja)

If the billions (yes, billions) of views across social media tell you anything, it's that people really love air fryers. From roasting whole chickens to baking cakes, air fryer recipes are hugely popular online, and, on face value at least, it appears there's very little they can't do. 

However, you can't review as many of the best air fryers as I've done over the years without having some absolute air fryer fails. Some of the failures were my doing, but others proved that the wonderful appliances do have their limitations.  

To prevent you from suffering a similar fate, this guide delves into the foods that don't fare well in an air fryer. Hopefully, this list will not only help you in how to choose an air fryer but will help you maximize its use, without ruining it.

cooking a chicken in the ninja foodi air fryer

(Image credit: Future / Jennifer Oksien)

1. Whole roast chicken

Don't get me wrong, it is possible to roast a whole chicken in the air fryer, and I have had some successes - but I wouldn't recommend it. 

Firstly, unless you've got a large air fryer basket (or a small chicken), having enough space for the bird to sit comfortably in the fryer will be your first issue. Air fryers work in a similar way to convection ovens, just on a smaller scale. To get the best results, the hot air that circulates and cooks the food needs to heat up and move around freely and evenly. Squeezing a whole chicken into a tight air fryer basket stops this from happening and causes results to vary wildly. 

In fact, when I tried to roast a whole chicken in my air fryer, the bird was crispy and overdone on the outside, yet worryingly undercooked on the inside, near the bones.  Air frying it for longer to finish off cooking the middle only resulted in drying out and ruining the chicken nearer the surface and I had to abandon it completely. It was not ideal when I had a family waiting for a chicken roast on a Sunday.

There are ways around this. You can cook the chicken for longer at a much lower heat or place the chicken on a tray inside the basket in order to help the air move more freely. However, a conventional oven roasts a chicken more evenly, thanks to its larger space and consistent heat, and I now always default to this traditional option.

2. Battered fish

I'm not sure why I ever thought cooking battered fish in the air fryer was a good idea, but I learned the hard way why it isn't. 

My reasoning was that if I coated two cod fillets in a relatively thick beer batter and laid them on a tray in the air fryer, the air would circulate and create a crispy coating to rival deep frying, but without the oil and grease. The reality was an inedible mess. 

The batter dripped through the holes in the tray, and this not only caused it to become burnt onto the bottom of the basket but also meant that the fish stuck to the tray. Attempting to rip the fish off the tray removed all of the batter on the underside and broke the fish's flesh. 

Which, once I'd tasted the batter on the top of the fish, wasn't necessarily a bad thing. That's because it wasn't crispy at all. It was soggy and undercooked and tasted disgusting. 

There are certain foods that just don't work in the air fryer and require extra oil and grease, and wet-battered foods top the list.

Greens in an air fryer basket

(Image credit: Alamy)

3. Fresh greens

Cooking fresh greens in the air fryer is more hit-and-miss than the other foods in this list – sometimes they're delicious, sometimes they're far from it – and it depends largely on the greens in question. 

I tried to make crispy kale chips in the air fryer, hoping for a quick and healthy snack. However, the high heat and rapid air circulation caused the delicate greens to over-crisp and burn, losing their flavor and nutritional value. I tried to cook broccoli with parmesan as a side dish, but the smell of the burning broccoli stems was so horrible that I felt I could still smell it for days afterward. 

Yet green beans roasted with garlic and lemon in the air fryer are a revelation, and shredding the kale and cooking it in the style of seaweed from a Chinese restaurant is one of my go-to air fryer dishes.    

The key, I've found, is to hydrate the veg slightly before putting it in the air fryer. Whether that's parboiling it or simply soaking it in water for 20 minutes for cooking, this reduces the chances of the air fryer drying out the delicate flesh too quickly while helping "boil" it from the inside, which helps cook it more evenly.   

Oven baking at a lower temperature is an easier, more effective method, though. The oven's gentle heat dehydrates the greens slowly, crisping them without burning. This helps preserve the natural flavors and nutrients of the greens, making them a healthier and more enjoyable snack with much less hassle. 

4. Rice and pasta

There's a reason why there's an entire category of home appliances dedicated to cooking rice, in the form of rice cookers. That's because attempting to make rice in an air fryer is a minefield. 

Firstly, you can't just cook rice directly in the air fryer basket. This may seem obvious, but it's worth noting because it can be tempting to try. Instead, you need to put the rice into a dish or tin filled with water before covering it with a lid. 

Secondly, knowing how long to cook the rice can be difficult because of the many variables – the type of rice, the amount of water, the temperature of the air fryer, and how you would like your rice to be cooked. I've never managed to get it quite right and the rice is very often cooked unevenly. 

The same can be said for cooking pasta in the air fryer. It's much easier, quicker, and more consistent to cook both rice and pasta on the stove in my opinion.

Mac and cheese balls cooked in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future, Victoria Woollaston)

5. Cheese

I've made some of the most delicious cheese-based dishes of my life in an air fryer, but I've also had some absolute howlers. 

I tried to make mac and cheese balls in my air fryer, but they just fell apart and turned my air fryer basket into a sea of breadcrumbs, pasta, and melted cheese. I've also tried to finish dishes with cheese in the air fryer, in particular, a stuffed butternut squash dish I was experimenting with for Thanksgiving. It just created a weird, cheesy film over the filling and didn't add anything to the overall dish.  

I've found that if I'm cooking a dish with cheese stuffed inside, like mozzarella sticks or garlic pizza bread, it tends to be more gooey and tasty than if I cook a dish with cheese on top. The key comes down to not only the type of cheese but how you use it. For example, chalky, mature cheeses in slices don't melt as well or as consistently as oily, shredded cheeses.

An extra tip that I now use whenever making mac and cheese balls is to cook them first and freeze them overnight before coating them in breadcrumbs. I had refrigerated them before my cheesy failure, but it wasn't enough to hold them together. 

Steak cooked in an air fryer

(Image credit: Alamy)

6. Steak

Given how well air fryers cook chicken wings, leaving the meat moist and the skin crispy, I had hoped for a similar outcome when cooking steaks, aiming for a juicy, evenly cooked result. 

Alas, it was not to be. The air fryer didn't provide the consistent heat needed for a perfectly cooked steak, and it just made the whole thing taste bland and chewy. This was the same with pork chops, too. This is particularly galling when you've spent a lot of money on the meat itself. 

Pan-searing or grilling steak gives much better temperature control, creates a tastier coating, and reduces the chances of wasting your time and money. 

7. Pancakes

Having seen countless videos of pancakes made in the air fryer in the run-up to Mardi Gras in February, I naively thought I could achieve the same results. I was very wrong. In a similar vein to the mistakes I made with the beer-battered fish, the stack of pancakes I tried in the air fryer turned into an undercooked, disgusting mess. 

When I made them individually, they were more successful, but they took much longer to cook in the air fryer than on the stove, and the results were less consistent.

Muffin cooked in an air fryer

(Image credit: Future, Victoria Woollaston)

8. Muffins

I'm not a baker, and I don't try to hide it. I love the idea of making cakes and sweet treats in my air fryer, but they have to be simple recipes for me even to attempt them. I had figured muffins would be simple enough, even for me, but I was wrong. 

Now, muffins are fine to make in the air fryer, but I've included them in this list because they can be temperamental, and, as a result, you may end up thinking they don't work.

When I first tried to make blueberry muffins – well, my first five or so attempts – they were never cooked properly or evenly. No matter the mix, the temperature, or the time. I finally realized that I needed to use larger and wider cupcake cases to help distribute the cake mix, and this changed the game. 

Sadly, they still don't have the taste or texture of muffins made in the oven, and the results are still wildly inconsistent - but it was an improvement. 

Final thoughts

Air fryers are hugely versatile, and even the foods on this list, which I think taste better when cooked using conventional methods, aren't impossible. Nor should they be avoided entirely. Instead, they're each food you should approach with optimistic caution.

If you're still on the fence about which type of cooker to use, check out our air fryer vs oven guide. 

Victoria Woollaston
TTR Contributing Editor

Victoria Woollaston is a freelance lifestyle and technology journalist with almost two decades of experience reviewing gadgets, beauty tech and household appliances for the likes of WIRED, TechRadar, Expert Reviews, Alphr and more.