Sweet and Tangy Air-Fryer BBQ Chicken in Under 30 Minutes

For a quick and easy indoor take on barbecue chicken with perfectly juicy meat and a sweet, sticky glaze, turn to your air fryer.

Overhead view of air fryer bbq chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

When the weather permits, barbecued chicken on the grill is a staple in my weekly outdoor cooking routine. But on those occasions when I simply can’t run outside to grill, this air-fryer BBQ chicken recipe is a great indoor stand-in. With the help of the 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 juicy, lightly charred chicken pieces covered in a sticky sweet and tangy barbecue sauce, no grill required. It takes just five minutes of prep and cooks up in about 20 minutes so it’s great for busy weeknights. Here are a few tips for how to perfectly cook juicy BBQ chicken in your air fryer.

Tips for Great Air Fryer Barbecue Chicken

Rub the chicken with a flavorful spice paste: Use the time while the air fryer is preheating to toss the chicken in a classic barbecue rub containing salt, brown sugar, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, dry mustard, and cayenne. The sugar in the blend helps to promote browning on the chicken in the air fryer to mimic a chargrilled effect, while the smoked paprika adds a nuanced smoky flavor. Make sure to rub the chicken thoroughly with the blend for an even coating. 

Cook right after seasoning: Arguably my favorite part of cooking with my air fryer is how efficiently it heats up and cooks, saving me lots of time. With the goal of saving time in mind, we skip a lengthy dry brine session, and instead cook the chicken right after rubbing on the seasoning blend. While we at Serious Eats usually feel strongly that you should dry brine your chicken, in this specific recipe, we didn’t taste a huge difference between the chicken that was cooked right after seasoning versus chicken that was dry brined for up to 24 hours. This is probably because of the layers of flavor the potent spice blend and the thick and sweet barbecue sauce add to the chicken. We did find that letting the chicken rest in the refrigerator made it moister somewhat, but honestly, it was still juicy and flavorful without any refrigeration time before cooking. But don’t worry, for the dry brine lovers out there, I’ve still included an optional refrigeration time for the chicken, if you have the time.

Preheat the air-fryer basket: When you take the time to barbecue chicken outside on the grill, you don’t just throw it on a cold grill. You fire it up and get it piping hot so the chicken starts cooking on contact with the grill grates to produce those lovely char marks that scream summer BBQ. The same approach is taken when cooking with the air fryer. Make sure to preheat the air fryer—it takes just 5 minutes—before nestling the chicken into the basket. The chicken should sizzle on contact with the basket. Also make sure to leave space between each piece of chicken to encourage proper air flow and even cooking.

Smother in a tangy sauce during the last few minutes of cooking: The sauce is arguably the best part of barbecue chicken. While there are so many great ways to make barbecue sauce, for this chicken our ideal sauce clings to the chicken in a sticky glaze and has a balance of sweet, acidic, and smoky flavors, with just a touch of heat. Our version here uses ketchup and honey for sweetness, tangy apple cider vinegar and Worcheshire sauce to balance that sweetness, and smoky chipotle in adobo sauce and cumin to mimic the smoky flavor of barbecue chicken fresh off of the grill. If you like it extra smoky you can add a small amount of liquid smoke.

Adding sugary sauces too early in the cooking time can lead to a burnt mess, so for chicken that is perfectly smothered in a caramelized and lightly charred sauce, wait until the chicken pieces are partially cooked—for chicken thighs 160℉ and for chicken breasts about 125℉—before lacquering them with sauce, then flip and sauce both sides for even cooking. You’ll have glossy glazed barbecue chicken that looks and tastes pretty darn close to its grilled counterpart.

Choose your favorite chicken parts: We’ve written the main recipe here for chicken thighs with cooking times that work for both boneless, skinless or bone-in skin-on thighs. We love how the thighs' dark meat turns tender and juicy in the air fryer, but this recipe also works well with chicken breasts. For specific instructions on how to make it with breasts, see the variation below the main recipe. 

Whether you cook chicken thighs or breasts, I recommend pairing this air-fryer bbq chicken with a simple slaw or savory cornbread for a filling meal.

For the Sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together ketchup, vinegar, honey, Worcestershire, chipotle, cumin, salt, pepper, and liquid smoke, if using. Set aside. 

Overhead view of whisking bbq sauce
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

For the Chicken: Set a (6-quart) air fryer to 400°F and preheat for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together oil, brown sugar, salt, smoked paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, dry mustard, and cayenne (if using) until all spices are coated in oil to form a paste. Rub the spice paste all over the chicken. (If you have time, transfer chicken to a plate and refrigerate uncovered for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours before cooking.)

Two image collage of mixing spices and covering chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Place chicken flat in the preheated air-fryer basket, spaced as evenly apart as possible to allow for air circulation. Cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 160°F, 10 to 13 minutes. 

Overhead view of chicken in air fryer
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

Flip chicken over and spoon about 1 tablespoon of the prepared sauce over each thigh. Return to the air fryer and continue cooking until the sauce is glazy, edges are lightly charred, and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 175 to 180°F, 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully transfer to a cutting board to let rest for at least 5 to 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with the remaining sauce. 

Two image collage of brushing with bbq sauce and finished chicken
Serious Eats / Jen Causey

How to Make This Recipe with Chicken Breasts

If cooking chicken breasts, use two (6- to 8-ounce each) boneless skinless breasts or two (10- to 14-ounce each) bone-in chicken breasts, starting with the breasts presentation-side down. In step 3, cook the chicken breasts until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 120°F (for boneless skinless breasts this will take 5 to 10 minutes, for bone-in breasts this will take about 15 minutes). Then sauce, flip and sauce the chicken again and cook until it registers 160°F, 6 to 10 minutes.

Special Equipment

Air Fryer

Notes

Save the remaining chipotle in adobo for another use. Transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

The spice rub and the sauce can be made and stored separately in airtight containers for up to 7 days. 

The cooked chicken can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.