So, you got yourself an air fryer and said goodbye to takeouts. However, after using your new appliance and ending up with dry chicken for dinner, you suddenly wondered if you made a mistake. Before you throw in the towel (and throw out your fryer), it might be worth trying to resolve the problem first.
Here are 6 tips to avoid dry chicken in an air fryer:
- Brine the chicken.
- Use a little oil.
- Preheat the air fryer.
- Check the temperature of the air fryer.
- Adjust the cooking time.
- Use a food thermometer.
This article will go into more detail on the mistakes that lead to dry chicken in an air fryer, and how to correct them. After you’re done reading (and trying out) these tips, I hope you’ll have the juiciest chicken from your air fryer moving forward.
1. Brine the Chicken
Brining is a process that involves soaking meat in a solution of water and salt, with spices added to taste. The salt in the brine acts on the proteins in the meat and denatures them, meaning they improve their ability to retain moisture.
Also, the brine causes the muscle fibers in the meat to swell, trapping even more moisture.
Now, moisture naturally evaporates from the meat during cooking. But because the brining process locks in moisture, your chicken remains moist, tender, and juicy.
I should note that brining shouldn’t be confused with marinating. Although both seem to be similar, they serve different purposes.
Brining is a way of tenderizing and moisturizing meats that typically dry out when cooked, like turkey and chicken. And while the meat may be imbued with flavors from the brining process, that’s not its actual purpose.
That’s where marinating comes in.
Marinating has a lot more to do with infusing the meat with flavors and less to do with texture. Various herbs and spices in the marinade work together to season the meat.
Thankfully, you don’t have to choose between having only juicy meat or flavored meat. You can marinate meat after brining it to enjoy the benefits of both processes.
But if your primary concern is the dryness of your chicken, you can skip the marinade and focus on brining instead.
Here’s a simple way to make a brine:
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- Additional herbs, sugar, or aromatic ingredients (optional)
- Combine the water and salt in a large container.
- Stir with a whisk to dissolve the salt.
- Heat the mixture to infuse additional ingredients (sugar, herbs, and aromatic ingredients) into the brine.
- Heat only a quarter of the water.
- When adding the remaining liquid, use cold water so the solution cools down faster.
- Place the chicken in the container with brine.
- Leave boneless chicken pieces in brine for 30 minutes, bone-in chicken pieces for one to two hours, and a whole chicken for four to 12 hours.
2. Use a Little Oil
The main benefit of air fryers is that they don’t need oil to cook food. That’s why these increasingly ubiquitous kitchen appliances are often touted as “healthy.” However, did you know that air fryers still need a little oil? Not as much oil as standard cooking tools, but still.
The hot air in an air fryer can cook meat without oil. However, that means the meat often turns out dry with a leathery texture.
Having to use oil anyway may be disappointing for air fryer cooks. But the good news is that you only need a little bit of it, albeit (as I said earlier) much less than conventional frying requires.
For most recipes, one to two teaspoons of oil should suffice. And for dishes such as breaded meats that call for crispier results, one to two tablespoons of oil should do the trick.
All you have to do is spray enough oil on the chicken to coat it before loading it into the air fryer. This neat trick will do wonders for your chicken’s texture and moisture levels without sacrificing the health benefits.
3. Preheat the Air Fryer
While this should be a no-brainer for seasoned cooks, many air fryer users forget to preheat their appliances before cooking. So if you’re guilty of this, don’t worry about it too much: You’re certainly not the only one. It’s important to note that all methods of cooking and baking require preheating, and your air fryer is no exception.
Preheating ensures that your food begins cooking once you load it into the air fryer, greatly contributing to its crispy, well-cooked texture.
Ideally, you should preheat your air fryer for at least 10 minutes before loading the food into it.
4. Check the Temperature of the Air Fryer
It’s easy to take for granted the temperature in air fryers. After all, if the appliance works well enough, the temperature should stay at the level you want. But even if blindly trusting the electronic digits on an air fryer won’t bring about humanity’s downfall, it can result in some unappetizingly dry chicken for dinner.
Keep in mind that there are variations in the stated temperatures of different models of air fryers. If you’ve ever done any sort of frying, you’ll know that having the right temperature is important, and those few degrees can make or break how your food turns out.
If your air fryer’s actual temperature is higher than indicated on your appliance’s package or label, the chicken you’re frying can easily dry out.
To protect against that, a manual temperature check of your air fryer is recommended at least once every six months to catch any oddities that could affect your cooking.
You can carry out this manual check using a thermometer, which will give you a more precise reading of your air fryer’s temperature. Should there be any differences, you can make the necessary adjustments.
5. Adjust the Cooking Time
Cooking at higher temperatures for extended periods is usually the reason air-fried chicken turns out dry. As a cook, you should always be mindful of the relationship between temperature and time. After all, food that cooks at a certain temperature for an hour will dry out more than the same dish cooked at that same temperature for five minutes.
Air fryers typically come with cooking charts from their manufacturers. If you didn’t get one with yours, you can easily find one on the internet, either from your appliance’s website or other food and cooking websites. These cooking charts indicate the temperatures and air-frying times for different types of food or recipes.
However, as I’ve previously noted, there are variations in the ideal temperatures for different models of air fryers. These discrepancies have an impact on how long you should cook, as well as the quality of the food you cook.
If your air fryer’s actual temperature is higher than what the appliance indicates, the cooking time per your appliance’s cooking chart might be too long.
For example, the approximately 20 minutes for cooking chicken breasts or thighs may dry out the meat if the air fryer is operating at higher temperatures.
The first step to remedy this is to determine the appliance’s actual temperature with a thermometer at least once every six months. Once you figure that out, you can adjust your cooking time accordingly to get the chicken with just the right amount of moisture and crispiness.
6. Use a Food Thermometer
I’ve already talked in detail about how discrepancies in temperature can affect cooking time — and, consequently, how your air-fried chicken recipe turns out. Also, I’ve shown you how to solve that particular problem. Now, let me introduce you to an even more accurate and convenient way to prevent the drying out of your air-fried chicken: namely, the use of a food thermometer.
A food thermometer is especially recommended when air-frying meat products. This device works just like any thermometer would, but (as its name implies) it’s specifically designed for food.
Food thermometers are primarily used to check the temperature of meat towards the end of cooking. A reading is obtained by inserting the food thermometer into the thickest part, making sure not to touch any bones.
You can use this device to check whether your chicken is at the USDA-recommended temperature of 165 ºF (73.8 ºC) for poultry products.
This simple step guarantees your chicken is cooked well enough to be safe for consumption. Plus, it allows you to monitor the temperature and make sure you’re not overcooking and thus drying out your chicken.
For air fryers, I recommend the KIZEN Digital Meat Thermometer with Probe (available on Amazon.com). It’ll read your food’s temperature within seconds, and you don’t have to worry about the appliance sustaining damage from moisture, as it’s waterproof.