By - admin

The Best Frozen Foods To Cook In Your Air Fryer, And How To Cook Them

Graphic: Shep McAllister

Editor’s Note: Bill Oakley, friend of the site, writer of one of the best Simpsons scenes of all time, and Instagram-famous fast food and snack food critic hinted to us in an earlier interview that the air fryer is his favorite way to cook frozen snack foods. Following a much-ballyhooed New York Times article on the appliance that glossed right over this supposed best use case, we asked him to expand on that thought for us, and expand he did.

The air fryer is the best thing to happen to lovers of snack and convenience food since the microwave. I state this boldly, firmly, and without fear of correction. It is a fact. Period.

Advertisement

Last month (On April 1st — Perhaps it was an April Fools’ prank?), the nation’s paper of record, the New York Times, published their big — and presumably long-awaited by some — article on the air fryer. Up front, the author baldly asserted that, for her review, she intentionally “skipped frozen prepared products like French fries, breaded fish sticks and chicken nuggets: Since I was testing to see if the machine warranted a spot on my counter, I stuck to foods I wanted to eat.”

This is like buying an Xbox One and only using it to play DVD’s of “Veronica’s Closet.”

Advertisement

It is intentionally ignoring the area in which the device unquestionably excels! The watchword for this product is (as discovered below) “delightfully crisp”. Using it, one can — with virtually no fuss and minimal clean-up — produce baked and/or breaded frozen food products with a light, airy, crispy crunch — a type of deliciousness rarely achieved in an oven and impossible in a microwave (even with a damned “crisping sleeve!”)

The air fryer offers the kind of fully-cooked crispy-crunchiness you’d ordinarily expect from deep frying, but without the big hassle AND without all that artery-clogging grease. (Even if you’re an unapologetically unhealthy eater, you have to admit in many cases deep frying leaves food slimy and off-puttingly greasy.)

After I read the Times article and registered my displeasure throughout the world via the Internet (just like Comic Book Guy), I was approached by the editors of this fine site to write the article *I* wanted to see — a comprehensive guide to air-frying frozen snack and convenience food.

Advertisement

Even a low-rent gourmand such as myself can only eat so many air-fried Pizza Rolls, so I asked my good friend, Achewood cartoonist and fellow air-fryer enthusiast (also actual serious food critic) Chris Onstad to help out. We hit up Winco, Safeway, Walmart, and Target and amassed freezers full of food tailor-made for this project.

Bill’s Air Fryer:

GoWISE USA 3.7 qt. Digital Air Fryer, in Black.

Chris’s Air Fryer:

Eric Thiess’s PowerAirFryer Oven and 7-in-1 Multi-Cooker.

Rubber-Tipped Tongs:

Manufacturers recommend using rubber-tipped tongs so you don’t scratch up the non-stick interior of the ovens. We both use Oberhaus’s 9″ and 12″ silicone tongs.

Figuring out the correct time and temperature for cooking items in an air fryer is annoying, because virtually no food manufacturer puts it on the package. Furthermore, air fryers vary widely in size, and the amount of food you’re cooking can affect your cook time as well. So we searched the web, consulted message boards, and used a lot of trial and error.

In most cases, if you can’t find a time or temp, use the Golden Mean:

380° for 8 minutes, with a shake halfway through.

We found that this works as a jumping-off point for nearly every snack. You can tack on a few more minutes if need be. And ALWAYS shake or flip whatever you’re cooking (unless it’s designed to be face-up only, like pizza, duh) so your nuggets or whatever get cooked evenly. Shaking and flipping is an ironclad rule, so ironclad that we are not including it in the write-ups below. Always do it.

Advertisement

Some sites recommend spraying the food with cooking oil before air frying, but we found that all the food we cooked was greasy enough already that this was never necessary.

We could’ve spent six months and thousands of dollars on this project — so at the outset, we decided we wouldn’t cover other delightful ways the air fryer excels, though we’ll briefly touch on them here:

  • It’s great for reheating pizza (370° for 5 minutes). Yes I’ve tried the much-ballyhooed frying pan method dozens of times, and this is better. I’ve also tried the oven, the microwave, and even a grill, and the air fryer tops them all. (Note: the cheese may get darker than you are used to, but it will taste the same.)
  • It’s a great way to cook hot dogs and bratwurst.
  • You can even reheat a McDonald’s cheeseburger in it. Set it for 270° for 5 minutes – separate top and bottom half, remove the pickle, and remove the non-meat half from the oven after 3 minutes. This method is not ideal, and the bun will be strangely crisp, but it will work in a pinch, I promise.

But that’s not what we’re focusing on today, so let’s begin our journey forth into the galaxy of air-fried frozen food:

Van de Camp’s Beer-Battered Fish Filets

Some frozen products have a type of breading that never gets crisp (NGC Syndrome, as we dubbed it) even when cooked to the point of burning, and this was one of them. Strong fishy taste, mushy crust, fell apart on picking up.

Cooked: 390° for 12 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 3.0/10


Screamin’ Sicilian “Holy Pepperoni” Pizza (“I’m Single” size)

The air fryer did a great cooking job here: sizzling pepperoni and spots of well-browned cheese atop a fully-cooked, crisp yet airy crust. But the flavors were just frustratingly bland and indistinct, like a pizza you’d buy at 7-Eleven. So, the fryer did its job, but the pizza manufacturer did not. (Perhaps the saddest thing about this little 6.5″ square pizza is that it delivers 85% of your daily saturated fat and 80% of your salt!)

Cooked: 390° for 7 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 3.0/10


Digiorno Traditional Crust Supreme Pizza (Personal Size)

DiGiorno Traditional Crust Pepperoni (Personal Size)

Because this is a widely-popular brand of microwave pizza, we both tried air-frying it — and failed miserably. Chris tried 390° for 10 minutes, and wound up with a delicious combo of perfectly-cooked toppings and cheese laying atop a partially-cooked slab of doughy crust.

Advertisement

I tried both 350° for 13 minutes, before upping it to 400 for an additional 5 minutes. At this point, the toppings and cheese were totally burned, but the crust STILL was not fully cooked. These pizzas (with their “rising crust”) are generally okay in a microwave and good in a regular oven though. As Chris said, “I think it is safe to say at this point that this product is not ideal for air frying.”

Rating: 3.4/10 (still better than the Screamin’ Sicilian)

Foster Farms Mango-Habanero Boneless Wyngz

(Sidebar: You really must read up on why these and other such products use the cockamamie word “WYNGZ”)

Advertisement

These are the the poster child for NGC Syndrome. I tried 370°/18 minutes, 380°/20 minutes, and 380°/20 minutes with a spray of oil. In every case, the crust never got crispy and, as I upped the cooking time, they finally started to burn without ever achieving crispiness. They are marginally better in a conventional oven (375°/25 minutes) but even then still suffer from NGC. They’re still okay tasting, though.

Rating: 5.0/10


Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips

Virtually identical breading to the above, with a virtually identical result. However, my twelve year-old daughter preferred these to the (in my opinion) vastly-superior batter-dipped Tyson tenders below.

Cooked: 390°for 12 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 5.8/10


Chung’s Gourmet-Quality Vegetable Mini Egg Rolls

Microwaved, these stank. They had a tough, dry outer shell, with an interior that had somehow managed to burn (!), yet had the texture of mashed potatoes. Air-fried, Chris found them to be, yes, “delightfully crisp” though the filling still wasn’t going to win any flavor or texture awards. Still not bad, though, and a vast improvement over microwave.

Cooked: 390° for 10 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 6.0/10


Jose Ole Steak and Cheese Chimichanga

Tina’s Red Hot Beef Frozen Burrito

These are popular brands, and I’ve eaten them both microwaved many times. But in the air fryer, they are much, much crispier and thus, better. For both, the inside center was still a bit lukewarm even as the outside was on the verge of burning, though. It seemed as if we had reached the apex of what these products could ever be — which is high mediocre.

Cooked: 400° for 10 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 6.1/10


Jose Ole Chicken Taquitos

The same result as with the above, but overall a better-tasting product.

Cooked: 380° for 10 minutes, in Bill’s oven.

Rating: 6.8/10

Hot Pockets — Hickory Ham and Cheddar Flavor

We tried a variety of Hot Pockets, as it’s one of the most popular (and most microwaved) convenience foods in America. Hickory Ham and Cheddar was good, though not great. Microwaved with the “crisping sleeve”, Chris found this had a tough and not crunchy crust, with a collapsed interior. In the air fryer, however, it improved greatly, resulting in a terrific crust with (his exact words) “tall, proudly-swollen innards”. It was perfectly cooked but, frankly, the flavor was run-of-the-mill.

Cooked: 390°for 13 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 7.1/10


Ore-Ida Bagel Bites Cheese & Pepperoni Pizza Snacks

You never knew this mediocre product could taste so near-good! The bagels were, yes, “delightfully crispy” and the toppings well-cooked. The air fryer took half the time of a conventional oven, and produced better results. I guarantee no other Bagel Bites have ever attained this level of a high B-minus.

Cooked: 370° for 7 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 7.2/10 (the maximum possible score for this product)


Farm Rich Mozzarella Sticks

Similar to the Bagel Bites, the air fryer allows this product to live its best life. No further improvement is possible. Crispy exterior, lusciously melted cheese within. I guarantee they would be no better in any restaurant that would stoop to serving them.

Cooked: 360°for 6 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 7.3/10


Ajinomoto Pork & Chicken Gyoza Dumplings

Day-Lee Pride Pork Gyoza

Purchased from Asian grocery stores, these are two varieties of fairly standard gyoza (dumplings). The only cooking method recommended on the package is pan frying, which is certainly the superior method (along with maybe steaming). However, for someone who just wants to dump a package of stuff into a receptacle and leave (note: still shake them halfway through, dammit!), rather than hassle over rudimentary food preparation, the air fryer works GREAT!

Advertisement

In both cases, I just dumped the whole package into the fryer and let it work its magic. The results were nicely cooked and somewhat (oddly?) crunchy gyoza, without the greasiness of pan frying. I know this is culinary heresy, but this method is serious boon to the lazy gyoza-lover.

Cooked: 380° for 10 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 7.4/10


Stouffer’s French Bread Pepperoni Pizza

I have eaten ten gazillion of these things since they were introduced in the 1980s, so I say with some authority: the air-fried version of this pizza is exactly as good as the oven-baked version — in less than half the time. The cheese is darker and the french bread has a lighter, airier crunch than the heavier, greasier oven version. It is not necessarily an improvement, but it is a lateral move with a savings of 14 precious minutes of pizza anticipation time.

Advertisement

Cooked: 350° for 10 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer. (vs. 375° for 24 minutes in the oven)

Rating: 7.8/10


Bar-S All-Beef Corn Dogs

In the microwave, these were lousy and resulted in a steaming, sizzling hot dog encased in a birthday-cake-ish breading that was soggy and falling apart. In the air fryer, they held together nicely, got crisp, and were equal to the kind of deep-fried corn dog you’d get at a county fair.

Cooked: 390° for 13 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.0/10


Foster Farms Chicken Corn Dogs (with “Honey Crunchy Crust”)

Similar in nearly every way to the above. The chicken dog is a little less juicy than the beef one of Bar-S, but by the time you dip the thing in mustard, that ceases to matter.

Cooked: 390° for 13 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.0/10

If you’re getting sick of the phrase “delightfully crispy”, maybe now’s the time to check out.

Totino’s Combination Pizza Rolls

Once again, a product that reaches new heights of deliciousness in the air fryer. After years of eating these oven-baked (because they’re awful microwaved), the first one from the air fryer was a revelation. Don’t laugh these off, they are seriously good once you discover how to cook them in an air fryer.

Cooked: 380° for 7 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.1/10


Ore-Ida Mini-Tater Tots

I couldn’t stop eating these, and my daughter and I agreed they were easily as good as the best restaurant tater tots. We never had as much success with the standard-sized ones, but I’m sure with some tinkering we could get there if we could just stop eating these damn things.

Cooked: 400° for 10 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.2/10


Tyson Batter-Dipped Chicken Breast Tenders

These were the best and most-liked chicken product tested in the Oakley household. Unlike the others, they didn’t suffer from NGC — likely because of the puffy (non-crumbly) exterior which crisped to perfection in the air fryer. My son, who had literally never asked for seconds of any food in his entire life, asked for seconds and even thirds until I finally had to cut him off.

Cooked: 400° for 11 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.2/10


Checkers/Rally Frozen Famous Fries

These were the best potato (fry or tot) product we found during our research. They’ve been around for years, and have been recommended by many people on my Instagram as they simulate the popular fries at their namesake fast food chain. They were DELIGHTFULLY CRISP, yet with a pleasingly moist interior, and were certainly 85% as good as fries right out of a deep fat fryer. They cannot be microwaved, but for comparison I oven-baked them and they turned out drier and rated barely a 6.5.

Cooked: 400° for 12 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.3/10


Great Value Breaded Boneless Chicken Wyngz

Chris is a reserved guy who rarely “flips out,” but he was flipping out over these, the Wal-Mart house brand of “Wyngz” (see above). This was the most successful chicken product we tried, with the best overall breading. His exact quote: “I would believe you if you told me that these had come out of the deep fryer at any major fast food restaurant. Not as perfect as a Popeye’s breaded chicken tender. But they were awfully close.” (This is astonishingly high praise as we are both Popeye’s aficionados!)

Cooked: 390° for 12 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.5/10 (would be higher, but they are a little on the salty side)


Sea-Pak Jumbo Coconut Shrimp

Holy hell these were delicious and SO WELL COOKED! They had a light, utterly perfect crispiness and oh yum oh man the coconut was so delightful and they came with this great dipping sauce and just typing this up my mouth is starting to water as I reminisce about these…

Advertisement

The only thing holding them back from sheer perfection was the quality of the shrimp, which were a bit squishy (but still good). They are not microwaveable and the oven test (425° for 11 minutes ) resulted in slightly inferior shrimp with a heavier, greasier crispiness.

Cooked: 400° for 8 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 8.6/10


Uncle Eb’s Field-Fresh Spicy Crispy Bunny Legs

These were an unexpected delight, with a peppery coating that paired perfectly with the rabbit thighs and haunches and— we inserted this fake product just to make sure you were still paying attention as we get to our Final Four. Keep your eyes on the prize, we’re almost done!

Cooked: Lovingly

Rating: Bunnylicious


El Monterey Taco-Seasoned Beef & Cheese Extra-Crunchy Taquitos

Chris declared these “fantastic” — saying the interior and exterior cooked to perfection at the same time (a rarity for frozen snack foods, as we’ve seen). The filling was nicely seasoned, and the individual ingredients could be tasted. But the best thing about these is the food-science engineering of the “tortilla” shell — crunchy, slightly puffy, greaseless, tearing easily when bit. They’re like micro-chimichangas.

Cooked: 390° for 10 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer

Rating: 9.0/10


Hot Pockets — Spicy Pepperoni Flavor

This must be some new test-marketed variety of Hot Pocket, or perhaps a Wal-Mart exclusive, as I’ve never seen them anywhere else before and they can only be purchased in a box of five. Or perhaps they were planted by a future me traveling back from an alternate reality to expose myself to the future of deliciousness, because damn damn damn these were excellent. In the microwave, they were a 3.5 at best: floppy, not crispy, like a big, slightly-singed ravioli. But after a few tries in the air fryer to find the perfect time and temp, I nailed it. The finished product had an amazingly delectable, crispy crust with a cheesy, pepperoni-y, peppery inside that was out of this world. It was like buying a Hot Pocket fresh out of the oven from a professional bakery. I kid you not.

Cooked: 390° for 9 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 9.2/10

Chris: Hot Pockets – White Meat Chicken, Broccoli, and Cheddar

It’s genuinely weird that Hot Pockets have successfully existed as a mediocre microwave food for decades, when in fact, if they’d ever been properly cooked, they secretly verged on magnificence.

Advertisement

Again, the microwave test here was a disappointment, but Chris found that with the air fryer, the Pocket’s crust was tender and flaky and tap-a-fork-on-it pleasing. The really remarkable difference, though, was in the aroma, flavor, and texture of the filling: a whiff reminiscent of an actual white wine cheese sauce, and the whole filling had a creamy, cheesy, comforting consistency. Chris pronounced this his favorite of the entire heap of air-fried food he cooked.

Cooked: 390° for 12 minutes, in Chris’s air fryer.

Rating: 9.3/10

Bill: Sea-Pak Clam Strips

From this humbly-named, humbly-packaged product springs greatness, truly. It was a tough call between the Spicy Pepperoni Hot Pocket and these, but the criteria I’ve used is how many times a day I still crave for this product. And now, ten days after eating them, it’s down to four times a day, so the clam strips take home the gold. (I only crave those Hot Pockets twice a day, for the record.)

Advertisement

Imagine a seafood place right on the boardwalk or beach with a name like the Rusty Scupper. And you go in and order The Captain’s Platter (of course). (And if this kind of thing doesn’t appeal to you, why are you reading this article? Go back to the New York Times Food Section link above!) Among the deep-fried cornucopia on your plate are fried clams. Really well-fried, delicious clams. The kind you could only get from a colossal deep fryer operated by a former motorcycle gang member drinking a Colt 45.

These are those! But less greasy! Dip them in some cocktail sauce and tartar sauce and it’s like you’re right there in the Scupper. I want some right now.

Cooked: 400° for 8 minutes, in Bill’s air fryer.

Rating: 9.4/10

After all this air-fried, processed, frozen food, Chris and I are going to go on a salad-only diet for the next week — even though, as stated, the air fryer greatly reduces unhealthy oils and greasiness. And, honestly, it does great with vegetables and healthy foods too. I’ve cooked a lot of delicious* broccoli and brussels sprouts in mine.

*At least the kids tell me they’re delicious, I refuse to try them.