The Surprising Trick for Making Crispy, Golden Air-Fryer Fried Chicken Cutlets

Skip deep frying and use your air fryer for easy, juicy katsu-style chicken encased in crunchy panko bread crumbs in under an hour.

air fryer chicken katsu hero
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Chicken katsu is an easy dish to love. Juicy chicken cutlets coated in an incredibly crisp layer of golden-brown panko bread crumbs, served with a sweet-and-savory tonkatsu sauce and a side of crisp shredded cabbage and steamed white rice, make for a simple and delicious weeknight meal. While both our classic chicken katsu and our katsu sando recipes call for shallow frying in bubbling oil (and produce delicious results), we wanted to see if we could produce similar results in an air fryer—our favorite appliance for shortening cook time and crisping all sorts of foods.

We found that the air fryer subtracts the annoyance of deep frying while delivering absolutely perfect, you-probably-can't-tell-the-difference-from-deep-fried results. With the help of an air fryer's powerful convection fan (because an air fryer, as you might already know, is just a supercharged mini convection oven), we're able to get katsu-style chicken that has juicy, tender meat encased within a light, shatteringly crisp panko crust in a fraction of the time—and with less mess—than fried versions. This easy air-fryer version of katsu comes together in about 30 minutes, and you need just a handful of ingredients to make it. 

The cutlets are wonderful with the classic katsu pairings of shredded cabbage, rice, and homemade tonkatsu sauce or a store-bought sauce like the excellent Bull-Dog brand sauce. But don’t stop there: We also love incorporating the crisp cutlets into sandwiches, serving them with just about any kind of salad, or with simple sides like air-fryer broccoli and air-fryer potatoes. Here are a few tips for golden and crisp panko-crusted chicken katsu in your air fryer. 

air fryer chicken katsu headnote
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Tips for Crisp Air-Fryer Chicken Katsu

Pound the chicken into thin cutlets. Both boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs will work well in this recipe, though they need to be treated a little differently. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs require a bit less prep than the chicken breasts; just use a meat pounder or the bottom of a heavy skillet to pound them inside a zipper-lock bag until they are an even quarter-inch thick. Just avoid mindless bludgeoning when pounding, as this can cause tears and holes in the meat—use firm but gentle pressure, focusing on the uneven spots.

Whole chicken breast halves are too big for this recipe (especially considering the massive chickens you find at the supermarket these days), so before pounding them thin, you’ll first need to split each breast into two cutlets. It's easy to do—if you've never done it before, just follow this step-by-step guide for how to cut chicken breasts into cutlets. Once split, the breasts can be pounded just like the chicken thighs.

Briefly dry-brine the chicken before cooking. Because it has a tendency to dry out, chicken—especially lean breasts—really benefits from a wet or dry brine. Treating the meat, either by soaking it in a saltwater solution (wet-brining) or by salting it and letting it rest (dry-brining), will cause its protein structure to break down a little bit, which in turn prevents the chicken from releasing moisture when cooked. Kenji tested and established in his chicken katsu recipe that dry-brining the chicken, even for just a brief time, is worth it. ( We typically prefer dry brining to wet brining because it is more efficient and that holds true for this recipe.) 

If you have time to salt your chicken and let it rest for a few hours, by all means do so, but we found that even just a 15 minute resting time yielded chicken that was juicier and better seasoned in every bite than unbrined chicken.

Is unbrined chicken bad? No, not by any means, and if you're in a rush to get dinner on the table, you can skip this step. But if you skip the brine altogether, we’d strongly suggest skipping lean chicken breasts and using fattier chicken thighs, which are less prone to drying out. 

Stick with the classic breading technique. We use the classic three-bowl dredging technique to ensure the chicken is evenly coated with panko before cooking. Dry (flour), wet (egg), dry again (panko) is the order of operation to guarantee the panko stays glued to the chicken. Don’t be tempted to skip the initial flour dredge. The flour is like the primer of the breaded-and-fried-cutlet world—it creates an even surface for the egg to cling to, which in turn helps the outer panko layer adhere well to the chicken, so you avoid a cooked cutlet with an uneven, patchy coating.

air fryer chicken katsu headnote 1
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Oil your panko. Since we are not deep frying the cutlets in a large vat of hot oil, we need to enhance the breaded cutlets’ ability to crisp and brown evenly at every stage possible. Coating the panko bread crumbs with a tablespoon of neutral oil like canola or vegetable oil before dredging promotes browning and crisping. 

Add some cooking spray and flip the cutlets for a well-browned crunchy coating. The success of this recipe relies on its ability to mimic classically prepared katsu’s crispy and browned deep-fried results. Oiling the panko as described above is one step to achieving this. The other key step is to lightly spray the tops of the chicken with cooking spray after you place the chicken in the preheated air-fryer basket. The light coating of the cooking spray is just enough to enhance browning without giving the chicken the off canned-oil flavor that can come with overzealous use of cooking spray.

air fryer chicken katsu headnote 3
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

If using chicken breast, cut the chicken breast in half, butterflying into 2 thin cutlets.

Place the butterflied cutlets or the whole thighs, one at a time, in a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag and pound gently to 1/4-inch thickness using a meat pounder or the bottom of a heavy 8-inch skillet. (See this guide to cutting chicken breasts into cutlets for step-by-step directions.) Season generously with salt and pepper. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, or for best results, refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight after seasoning.

air fryer chicken katsu step 2
Serious Eats/Air Fryer Chicken Katsu

Set a (6-quart) air fryer to 350°F and preheat for 5 minutes. Place flour, beaten eggs, and panko in three separate shallow bowls. Add oil to the panko and stir until the panko is well-coated. Working with one cutlet at a time, dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Dip chicken in egg, then dredge in panko, pressing gently to help panko adhere; transfer chicken to a plate. Repeat the process with the remaining cutlet.

air fryer chicken katsu step 3
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Place the prepared cutlets into the preheated air-fryer basket. Spray the tops of the chicken with cooking spray. Cook until golden-brown, 6 to 8 minutes, then flip the chicken cutlets and spray the top of the cutlets with cooking spray. Cook until golden brown and internal temperature reaches 160°F (70℃), 6 to 8 minutes for breasts and 175℉(80℃). Transfer chicken to a cutting board. Sprinkle with additional salt to taste and let rest for 5 minutes. 

air fryer chicken katsu step 4
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Slice katsu into thin strips. Serve with tonkatsu sauce, cabbage, and white rice, if using.

air fryer chicken katsu step 5
Serious Eats/Morgan Hunt Glaze

Special Equipment

Air Fryer

Notes

This recipe can easily be doubled and cooked in 2 batches. Hold the cooked cutlets warm in a 200℉ oven on a wire rack–lined rimmed baking sheet while cooking the other two cutlets.

This Juicy Air-Fryer Salmon Makes Weeknight Dinners a Breeze

Our foolproof air-fryer salmon cooks in under 15 minutes and guarantees tender fish with crisp skin every time.

Air-fryer salmon hero
Serious Eats/Jen Causey

Perfect roasted salmon should have crisp skin, and moist and tender flesh. But this can be tricky to achieve. The skin can stick to the cooking surface, the salmon can easily overcook, and the layer of fat underneath the skin can come out greasy. A simple, quick, and less messy way to get perfect roast salmon is to cook it in the air fryer.

While the device is called an air "fryer," you're technically still roasting when using one: Air fryers are essentially small, high-powered convection ovens. They take significantly less time to heat up and cook food, and their ability to circulate hot air quickly and evenly makes them especially handy for crisping up and roasting foods efficiently.

The enclosed cooking environment and compact structure of the air fryer also contains the mess more than if using a skillet or full-size oven. There’s no smelly fish fat splatter to clean off your stove’s backsplash or oven walls after cooking. And thanks to the air fryer’s built-in timer and controlled temperature, you don’t have to monitor the fish as closely as you would if cooking on the stovetop or in the oven.

How to Prevent the Salmon from Sticking in an Air Fryer

A major issue when cooking salmon with dry heat—whether it’s seared in a skillet or roasted in the oven or air fryer—is how the fish’s delicate flesh and skin are prone to sticking to the cooking surface. As Kenji points out in his pan-seared salmon recipe, if salmon touches a cooking surface that's too cold, it can actually form a chemical bond with the metal, making it almost impossible to lift or flip without tearing the fish or skin. Preheating the air fryer ensures the basket is already at the proper cooking temperature, so when the fish hits the basket, the hot surface will rapidly set the proteins in the fish before there is a chance for them to start bonding with the surface.

Patting the salmon fillets dry right before seasoning and oiling them and placing them in the air fryer basket is another way to guarantee the salmon starts cooking on immediate contact with the basket. Moisture left on the surface of the fish can quickly suck away heat, so it's important to dry your fish carefully.

If you do have a little time to spare, dry-brining the salmon at least 45 minutes in advance and letting it rest in the fridge on a wire rack set in a sheet pan uncovered for several hours can help the fish retain more moisture as it cooks while drying the surface. But if you don't have at least 45 minutes, it's best to season right before cooking, to prevent moisture drawn out by the salt from interfering with crisp skin.

And the final way to prevent the salmon from sticking in the air fryer basket is to create a non-stick cooking environment by rubbing the fish all over with oil and spraying the inside of the basket with cooking spray right before cooking. When spraying the basket, just make sure to do so away from direct heat of the air fryer. 

How to Get Tender Flaky Air-Fryer Salmon With Crisp Skin

As mentioned earlier, the constant air flow in the air fryer does a great job at drying the exterior of foods and promoting browning, but with salmon you want to make sure the fish’s skin crisps at the same rate as the inside of the fish is cooking. If the temperature is too high, the salmon skin will start to scorch before the fish is fully cooked inside, and if the temperature is too low, the flesh will overcook before the skin has a chance to crisp. After rounds and rounds of testing, we found three key steps to guarantee salmon that has crisp skin with a perfectly cooked interior.

  • Pay attention to fillet thickness: Two pieces of salmon that both weigh the exact same amount can be different thicknesses depending on the specific salmon and where on the fillet they're cut from. This difference in thickness can directly impact the final cooking result—the thinner the fillet, the less time it will take to cook, which means the skin has less time to turn crispy. The reverse scenario is true with thicker fillets.

    We tested cooking salmon fillets of five different thicknesses, starting at 3/4 inch thick and increasing in quarter inch increments all the way up to two inches thick. We found that the thinner fillets reached the proper internal cooking temperature before the skin had a chance to fully crisp, and the two-inch-thick fillet’s skin verged on burnt by the time the internal temperature reached our desired 120°F medium-rare. The “sweet spot” were fillets that were 1 1/4 to 1 1/2- inch thick. In the time it took the flesh of these fillets to reach 120°F, the skin dried out and had a pleasant crispness to it. Fillets of this thickness will come from the center cut of the salmon; try to avoid the tail end, which yields much thinner slabs of fish.



While you can adjust the air fryer temperature higher or lower than our advised temp for salmon fillets that are thicker or thinner than our recommended range, we had the most consistent and highest quality result when operating with fillets that fell into this recommended thickness zone.

  • Cook at 375°F: Similar to the testing scenario described above for the fillet thickness, we tested cooking temperatures with temperatures ranging from 325°F up to 400°F. Ultimately, we found the ideal cooking temperature to be 375°F. At this temperature, the fillet’s skin crisped at the same rate as the fish cooked to medium-rare.

    That said, if you're using thicker or thinner fillets than our recommended dimensions, you should adjust the cooking temperature up or down in an attempt to compensate: Lower to about 350°F if the salmon is more than 1 1/2 inch thick, and hotter to about 400°F if the salmon is less than 1 1/4 inches thick.
  • Cook the fillets skin side up: For many of us, myself included, the crisp skin on a piece of roasted fish is the highlight, so this air-fryer method had to deliver on that. We tested different approaches to cooking the salmon to find the one that yielded the most crispy skin, including placing it skin side down in the hot air fryer basket (this would be the correct way if pan-searing the fish), and also skin side up.

    The skin side up salmon produced much crispier skin. This is because, despite an air fryer's ability to move air all around the cooking chamber, the main heat source comes from above since that's where the heating element is. Plus, even with perforations in the air fryer basket, setting the skin against the basket surface when skin side down blocked air flow to the part of the fillet where we most wanted it for maximum crisping—unlike a skillet where contact with heated metal promotes crisping, contact with the fryer basket does the opposite.

How to Prevent Excessive Smoke While Cooking

If you’ve ever cooked fatty food in an air fryer before, you probably have experienced excessive smoking. This happens when the fat drips onto the heated cooking surface and heats above its smoking point. In the air fryer’s small enclosed cooking environment, that smoke builds up more quickly than it would in a larger oven. The best way to avoid this is to start with a clean air fryer. Regularly and thoroughly cleaning your air fryer avoids any unwanted grease build up that may create more smoke.

We aso minimize the risk of smoking by cooking the salmon skin side up. As mentioned earlier, this guarantees the fat layer under the skin renders into the fish’s flesh, and it doesn’t drip a much fat onto the bottom of the air fryer basket. If you’re still concerned about smoking, a couple tablespoons of water can also be added to the chamber under the the air fryer basket. The fat will then drip into the water and avoid smoking. Just be aware that added water will add moisture to the cooking environment, and may result in less crispy skin.

Set air fryer to 375°F and preheat for 5 minutes.

air-fryer salmon step1
Serious Eats/Jen Causey

Pat salmon dry with paper towels, rub all over with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. 

air-fryer salmon step 2
Serious Eats/Jen Causey

Lightly spray the preheated air fryer basket with vegetable oil spray. Place salmon in prepared basket, skin side up. Place basket in air fryer and cook until the skin is crispy and golden at edges, and the center is still translucent when checked with tip of paring knife and the thickest portion of the fillet registers 110°F (43°C) for rare, 120°F (49°C) for medium-rare, or 130°F (54°C) for medium, 7 to 12 minutes.

air-fryer salmon step 3
Serious Eats/Jen Causey

Carefully transfer salmon fillets to a paper towel–lined plate and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve.

air-fryer salmon step 4
Serious Eats/Jen Causey

Special Equipment

Air fryer