FOR CHRISTMAS, my mother gave us an air fryer, an appliance I did not want and had never coveted. I’m simply not a gadget girl — just ask the pasta maker, panini press and spiralizer gathering dust on the pantry shelf.
Dubiously contemplating this beeping, blinking, penguinlike droid looking to move into my kitchen, I felt like Marilla Cuthbert in “Anne of Green Gables” wondering what she was supposed to do with a scrawny, redheaded girl.
My husband and daughter were much more enthusiastic about the prospect of fried foods we could make at home with much less fat and trouble. That is no doubt what’s driving the air fryer’s popularity. According to The New York Times, it has been one of the fastest-growing items in the category of small-home appliances since it was introduced in Europe in 2010.
Yet “fryer” is something of a misnomer. The air fryer functions more like a small-but-mighty convection oven. It heats up fast, and a fan circulates hot air around the food. It mimics the effects of frying, but it does much more. You can toast nuts and bread; bake cakes, cookies and hand pies; and even brown meat in this contraption. Was this a revved-up version of the Easy Bake Oven of my youth? Grudgingly, I decided to give it a whirl.
At first, I winged it with what I happened to have on hand — Brussels sprouts and tofu — Googling for guidance. The results were encouraging. With just a teaspoon of oil, the vegetables ended up crisp and golden brown in a shorter time than they would have in a regular oven, with less mess and without heating up the kitchen.
Most air-fryer recipes yield two to four portions, ideal if you are single; a couple; or, in our case, a family of three. You don’t want to crowd the basket. Toss or stir smaller items to help them crisp evenly. Having a bowl handy for that purpose is helpful.
Fried tofu required a little more effort. On her website “Viet World Kitchen,” Vietnamese cooking expert Andrea Nguyen recommends salting the cubed tofu to draw out moisture, then patting it dry and dredging it in a blend of cornstarch, rice flour and seasonings before air-frying to keep the tofu from shrinking and dehydrating too much. This technique worked beautifully.
Air-frying French fries from scratch was more work but still less fuss and muss than deep-frying. I used a recipe from “Air Fryer Perfection” by America’s Test Kitchen, which involved rinsing the cut potatoes in cold water, soaking them in warm water and cooking them for a total of 28 minutes, tossing them multiple times along the way. They weren’t perfection, but they came close and involved only two tablespoons of oil.
It was no hassle at all to air-fry Hasselback potatoes, the mid-20th-century classic made famous at Stockholm’s Hasselbacken Restaurant. The hardest part is cutting thin vertical slices into each potato without slicing through the bottom. One trick is to rest the potato in the bowl of a large spoon while you cut. Or, as Ben Mims suggests in “Air Fry Every Day,” set a chopstick alongside each potato to stop the knife. Leave about half an inch uncut on both ends. I kept the skins on and rubbed them with oil after slicing.
Three medium russet potatoes fit easily into my roomy air-fryer basket. I cooked them at 375 degrees for 40-45 minutes, brushing them again halfway through with another tablespoon of oil and sprinkling on salt and pepper. Serve them topped with sour cream and fresh chives or, as Mims suggests, with chive pesto: 3 tablespoons of olive oil, ¼ cup chopped chives, 2 tablespoons parsley, 1 tablespoon each of walnuts and grated Parmesan, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and a small garlic clove, all pureed together in a blender until smooth.
The air fryer excels at cooking vegetables. Mims offers a useful chart for prepping and cooking more than two dozen kinds, from asparagus to zucchini. Cubed eggplant does especially well in the air fryer, softening and caramelizing in about 15 minutes without absorbing a ton of oil, as it typically does. Roasted bell peppers are a snap. Trim the tops and bottoms, remove seeds, set them on their sides in the air fryer and cook at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, until they collapse and brown. Transfer the peppers to a bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap for about 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel off the charred skins with your fingers or a paring knife.
I had success cooking thick cod fillets mounted on layered lemon-garlic potatoes, using an aluminum foil sling to turn the stack so they cook evenly. (Fold a piece of foil 4 to 5 inches wide and long enough to go across the bottom and up the sides of the air-fryer basket.)
I tinkered several times with tortilla chips, lightly brushing corn tortillas with oil, seasoning them with salt and cumin, and cutting them into triangles, but I have yet to get them uniformly crisp. Fried zucchini sticks were a minor disaster after their panko and Parmesan breading failed to adhere. But chicken wings were a marvel. They are what ultimately earned the air fryer permanent resident status at our house.
Dry-Rubbed Chicken Wings, adapted from “Air Fry Every Day” by Ben Mims
You can jazz these up by adding a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a quarter teaspoon of garlic powder to the baking powder rub, or finish them Buffalo-style with melted butter and your favorite hot sauce.
1½ lbs. chicken wings, separated into flats and drumettes (no tips)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Spread wings on a large plate, and sprinkle the baking powder evenly over them. Toss with your hands to make sure each one is fully coated. Let stand in the fridge uncovered for at least one hour or overnight.
2. When ready to cook, sprinkle salt and pepper over the wings. Arrange them in the air fryer standing upright on their ends, leaning against the side of the basket or each other. Cook at 400 degrees until they are golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes.