Can a home air fryer rival KFC when it comes to fried chicken?

Deep fried chicken on a plate
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

There’s a wide array of kitchen appliances that can make cooking tasty treats easier and speedier, but some prove to be more popular than others - and this is certainly the case for air fryers.

Two million air fryers were sold between April and June last year, according to market research firm NPD. It’s not hard to see why these kitchen appliances have become so popular - not only do the best air fryers speed up cooking times, they also use considerably less oil to cook healthier versions of dishes that are traditionally deep fried in oil, such as fries and chicken wings. 

The UK has recently been warned to brace itself for shortages at branches of fast food chicken chain, KFC, due to disruption to the supply chain, and being huge fried chicken fans, this news left us dismayed. 

So we got to thinking, if air fryers can produce crisp, crunchy fries - can they be used to create a healthier alternative to fried chicken at home if you can’t get your take-away fix from elsewhere? 

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Read on to discover what happened when we made crispy chicken in an air fryer, or if you’ve already decided you want to invest in an air fryer, check out the best prices right now:  

Coating considerations

Before even switching the air fryer on, you’ve got to decide just what to use to coat the crispy chicken. 

Traditionally, fried chicken is coated in flour mixed with a range of herbs and spices, although the exact 11 that KFC uses in its recipe is a closely guarded secret. However, as cooking in an air fryer uses considerably less oil and a lower cooking temperature than deep frying, I was concerned as to whether the flour would actually brown and cook enough to create a thick crust with a satisfying crunch. 

So I started rifling through my pantry looking for other coatings I could use that would create a crisp, crunchy crust.

In a world before air fryers, chicken coated in breadcrumbs was often touted as a healthy alternative to fried chicken, as it crisps up when cooked in the oven without the need for the same level of oil as deep frying. I grabbed the Panko breadcrumbs, which are drier and flakier than regular breadcrumbs and absorb less oil, retaining a crisp coating while still aiming to be relatively healthy too.  

Then a box of cornflakes caught my eye. Replacing breadcrumbs with crushed cornflakes has been a popular trend for the past few years for those making healthier fried chicken because it provides a much crisper coating than breadcrumbs, and the warm amber color is more akin to the look of deep-fried chicken.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried several recipes desperate to recreate this crisp, crunchy chicken coating, and this one by British chef Tom Kerridge, has proved by far the most successful. 

So I decided to follow this recipe to the letter, but create two additional coatings substituting the flour in the recipe for panko breadcrumbs in one, and crushed cornflakes in the other, to see which, if any, created a crisp, evenly browned coating.  

While I was mulling over the different coatings, I also began to ponder the cut of meat I should use. KFC sells both fried chicken on the bone, and boneless fried chicken. Boneless chicken thighs would cook more quickly, taking around ten minutes in total, but would this be long enough to brown and crisp the coating? Meat on the bone might ensure the thighs cook for a duration that can create a golden crust. 

In order to test this, I chose to use both boneless and bone-in thighs that had been rolled in the different coatings, to decide just how you can achieve healthy fried chicken in an air fryer.  

I also decided to double-coat the chicken too - this means dipping the chicken in beaten egg, rolling it in the coating, and repeating the process, to ensure the crust is thick, rather than a fragile coating that falls off when the chicken is picked up. 

This was particularly important as the chicken, like all food cooked in an air fryer, must be turned half way through cooking to ensure even browning. 

Healthy fried bonesless chicken thighs made with different coatings in an air fryer

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Let's get cooking

Once I’d double-coated the chicken thighs, I used cooking oil spray and squirted each the top of each piece of chicken five times, to ensure it was as brown and as appetizing as possible. This was repeated when turning the chicken halfway through cooking too. 

I heated the Instant Vortex Plus air fryer, which currently holds the top spot in our list of best air fryers, to 356 F / 180 C (the recommended cooking temperature according to the Instant app that accompanies the air fryer for cooking crispy chicken) and started by cooking the boneless chicken thighs for five minutes each side.

Once getting to the end of the cooking time, I used a meat thermometer to check the temperature - each piece of chicken was above 165 F / 75 C - which is the required temperature for chicken according to the Food Safety website

I was disappointed with both the chicken coated in flour and panko bread crumbs. Even though I’d used spray oil, it was left looking extremely pale and not at all appetizing. There were also clearly areas of flour, which remained white and were not cooked at all. However, the chicken underneath the coating was succulent and juicy. 

The clear winner of this test was the chicken dipped in crushed cornflakes. In part this was thanks to the color of the cornflakes, which have golden amber hue compared to the white flour, and the pale cream shade of the panko breadcrumbs. 

Even after such a short amount of time in the air fryer, the cornflake-crusted chicken  was crisp and crunchy, while the panko breadcrumbs and flour were soft and in parts soggy too. 

Next we repeated the test with bone-in chicken thighs, and allowed ten minutes per side, after consulting the Instant app. Checking the temperature after 20 minutes, our meat thermometer was only registering  150F / 65 C, so we cooked the chicken for a further five minutes so it reached the correct temperature.

The longer cooking time proved to be more successful with all three coatings evenly browned and achieving a color that looked appetizing. The flour coating was still a little soggy in sections, however the panko breadcrumbs and crushed cornflakes were crisp all over. 

All three coatings were delicious, but for me, the cornflake-coated chicken was the winner, thanks to the satisfying crunch it provided. However, my partner thought the panko-breadcrumbed chicken was better, stating he found the cornflakes slightly over-cooked, almost bordering on burnt.  

Healthy fried chicken thighs made with different coatings in an air fryer

(Image credit: TechRadar)


Healthy fried chicken thighs made with different coatings next to the Instant Vortex Plus air fryer they were made in

(Image credit: TechRadar)

It’s clear an air fryer can rival KFC when it comes to producing crispy chicken, but what you use to coat the chicken and whether the meat includes the bone will affect just how crunchy the crust is. 

For the most satisfying crunch, use crushed cornflakes to coat the chicken especially if you’re using boneless chicken - as the shorter cook time isn’t enough to brown panko breadcrumbs and flour to an appetizing golden color. 

However, the initial color of the cornflakes goes some way to creating an appealing finish in such a short duration. With this in mind wholemeal breadcrumbs would also work, although we didn’t use these in our test.  

If you prefer your chicken on the bone, all three coatings will brown and crisp in the allotted cooking time, although the floured coating was still ever-so slightly soggy. 

For hard-core KFC fans, air-fryer crispy chicken may not taste exactly like the fast food you’ve come to know and love, but it is a healthier alternative that will suffice those that have a chicken craving, especially if their local store is struggling with food shortages. 

Carrie-Ann Skinner

Carrie-Ann Skinner was formerly Homes Editor at TechRadar, and has more than two decades of experience in both online and print journalism, with 13 years of that spent covering all-things tech. Carrie specializes in smart home devices such as smart plugs and smart lights, as well as large and small appliances including vacuum cleaners, air fryers, stand mixers, and coffee machines. Carrie is now a copy editor at PWC.