The golden promises of the air fryer were just too tempting to ignore.
Browned and crisp French fries, craggy chicken wings coated in hot sauce, breaded calamari that crunches audibly when you bite down — all without the unctuous mess, wafting odor and calorie count of deep-frying. Home cooks celebrated the appliance not just for its faux-frying capabilities, but also for its ability to cook small amounts of food (potato wedges, broccoli spears, chicken) much faster than their regular ovens.
Could air fryers really be the best kitchen innovation since my beloved electric pressure cooker, or is it all just too good to be true?
After extensive testing, my colleagues at Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times Co., panned the appliance as overhyped and overpriced. The Kitchn, a home-cooking website, firmly agreed with that assessment, while Cooking Light magazine reported uneven results.
The only way I’d find out if an air fryer was worth my precious counter space would be to try it for myself.
An air fryer is basically a shrunken countertop convection oven. Some models are smallish and egg-shaped, with a footprint similar to that of a coffee maker. Others resemble large toaster ovens, boasting a bevy of functions — roast, convection bake, toast, dehydrate, proof — in addition to air frying.
Like convection ovens, every model is equipped with high-speed fans to circulate hot air around your food. But air fryers blow air more forcefully and at hotter temperatures than regular convection, in an attempt to mimic the browning of deep-frying, using teaspoons of oil rather than cups.
If it sounds too good to be true, well, maybe it is.
Air fryers have been one of the fastest-growing items in the category of small home appliances since they were introduced in Europe in 2010. According to Joe Derochowski, home-industry adviser at the NPD Group, a market research firm, nearly 10 million air fryers were sold in the United States from late May 2017 to mid-March 2019. He likened their growth to that of multicookers like the Instant Pot, of which about 13 million were sold in the same time period. And growth is accelerating over the past 12 months: Air fryer sales increased 69 percent, year over year, in 2018.
These numbers account only for stand-alone air fryers, and not countertop convection ovens with air-frying functions, like the Breville Smart Oven and the Cuisinart AirFryer Toaster Oven.
For my own testing, I chose a small (2.75-quart) free-standing model by Philips, the one recommended by Wirecutter, which wouldn’t require as much valuable counter space as some of the other models.
Then I set some parameters. I wanted to determine what the machine did best, not everything it was capable of, so I nixed the entire category of baking recipes. I also 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.
That definitely does, however, include French fries made from fresh potatoes. I’ll happily devour a plate of extra-crisp, darkly browned fries as my dinner, along with a salad. Deep-frying French fries in the standard way is particularly messy, though, because you need to fry them at least twice for maximum crispness.
After air frying nearly a dozen batches using different techniques, I found that cooking them in stages at two different temperatures (350 degrees, then 400) yielded a solid A-minus batch of fries: not as good as deep-fried, but better than my oven-baked fries, and easy enough for a Tuesday at home when the craving struck.
Next, I moved on to chicken wings, turning to Ben Mims’ cookbook “Air Fry Every Day” (Clarkson Potter, 2018) for guidance. Using a trick he picked up from J. Kenji López-Alt, of the website Serious Eats, Mims coats the chicken skin with baking powder before air frying. The baking powder expands in the heat and causes the skin to bubble up and turn supremely crisp, he explained.
It worked perfectly, yielding ultra-crunchy, golden wings that soaked up the sweet and spicy butter sauce I tossed them in when they were done. I also made the same wings in my regular oven using the convection setting, and they were almost as crisp-skinned, although they took longer.
Neither version was as good as regular, deep-fried wings, but they were pretty darn close and good enough to get devoured in minutes.
“People think they can just replace their FryDaddys with air fryers and get healthier versions of the fatty food they love,” he said, referring to the countertop deep fryer. “But air-fried chicken is never going to taste as good as oil-fried.”
The Southern-fried chicken legs I made in the air fryer were some of the worst of my experiments — burned yet soggy and thoroughly rubbery. Slightly more successful but still not worth eating were breaded shrimp and calamari, doughnuts and jalapeño poppers, all of which cooked unevenly and failed to brown and crisp to a satisfying degree. Pizza was also a bust.
So I asked Mims, other than chicken wings and French fries, what were the best things I could make in my air fryer?
“Vegetables!” he said before I’d even finished the question. “Especially the soggy ones.
“The air fryer fan wicks away excess moisture, almost dehydrating food, so it’s really great for notoriously soggy vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, eggplant and okra,” he continued. “The pieces get dried and crunchy on the outside and tender within.”
I tried his suggestions, tossing the vegetables with a tiny bit of oil and air frying until the pieces were burnished, glistening and tender-crisp. They were all a bit better than if I’d run them under my broiler, and far easier and less messy than frying.
Brussels sprouts and eggplant were especially compelling because they were able to retain the most oil, either by absorbing it, as in the case of the eggplant, or by being trapped within the layers of the Brussels sprout. This extra oil in turn made the vegetables fantastically crisp. (With other vegetables, the fan’s force caused the oil to slide right off.)
The air fryer also did a very good job cooking small amounts of food, like a couple of salmon fillets or skin-on, boneless chicken thighs, which look and taste as if you’d roasted them, but get there more quickly and evenly than in my regular oven. This is in part because of the hot air flow from convection, and in part because the small chamber of the machine doesn’t require much, if any, preheating.
For many households, this speediness is even more important than being able to cook favorite foods with far less fat.
“People come to air fryers thinking they’re going to do fried chicken, chicken wings and French fries all the time, but then they end up using them more for weeknight meals,” said Dean Brindle, vice president of category strategy and product development at De’Longhi NA, a home-appliance manufacturer based in Italy, which unveiled its version of the air fryer in 2015.
“There’s been an evolution in what consumers want,” he said, “there are the slow-cooker dump recipes, the sheet-pan recipes, and now those same folks are turning to air fryers for speed and convenience.”
Once they learn how to use the machines, he continued, they are experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, looking for variety that goes beyond the American comfort foods usually associated with the appliance.
Urvashi Pitre, also known as the butter chicken lady, has written cookbooks for both the Instant Pot and more recently, the air fryer (“Every Day Easy Air Fryer,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). She loves her air fryer for making crisp-edged foods like beef kebabs, lamb kibbe and tandoori chicken.
“When I published the book, I was a little worried because it wasn’t just mainstream American recipes, but it did extremely well nonetheless,” she said, adding that “between the Instant Pot and the air fryer, I haven’t turned on my full-sized oven in years.”
Here’s the thing I realized about the air fryer: “Frying” is the thing it does worst of all.
If you’re in the market for a tiny, speedy countertop oven, you’ll probably be happy. But I already have a big oven that I don’t mind using on a daily basis. And while the air fryer was brilliant with Brussels sprouts and eggplant, the results from my broiler were very close behind.
But what was even worse was that all that air-fried food only made me crave real fried food, aggravating the itch rather than scratching it.
With just a little sadness, I gave my air fryer to a friend, who uses it to make meatballs and sweet potatoes for her 5-year-old. And I’m glad to have my countertop back, which leaves me plenty of room to wield my sheet pans without knocking into my Instant Pot.
6 Tips for Using Your Air Fryer
The air fryer — the latest “it” kitchen appliance — is a wildly popular countertop convection oven that uses circulating hot air to cook food quickly. I put one through its paces to see if it could really mimic the taste of deep-fried foods without all the fat. I also picked up a few tips along the way, which I’m passing on to you.
Don’t overcrowd: If you stuff the air fryer basket or rack, your food will steam rather than crisp. For a smaller model, this could mean cooking food in many, many batches. (If you are routinely cooking for more than two or three people, consider buying a larger-capacity model.)
Don’t overcook: Take care not to cook food too long: The fan may dry things out, turning ingredients from crisp to hard and leathery.
Use dry breading: Dry coating works much better than a wet batter, so cloak ingredients in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, in that order, for added crunch, and to help ensure that the breading sticks. (Air fryer fans are very powerful, and if an ingredient is not well-coated, the breading could fly right off.) You could also try pressing down on the crumbs so they adhere.
Add a little oil: Unless a food is inherently fatty (such as bacon, skin-on chicken or a batch of meatballs made from beef that isn’t too lean) always add at least a little oil, which encourages browning. Otherwise, the fan could dry out the food before it browns.
Prevent smoking: If you’re cooking really greasy food like bacon, put a tablespoon of water or a piece of bread in the bottom of the air fryer to catch the grease and keep it from potentially smoking.
Give it a shake: Always turn your food or shake the basket to ensure even cooking.