It’s the culinary equivalent of the Tickle Me Elmo craze that swept children into a nationwide temper tantrum in the final late days of the 1990’s. All the cool kids have one, or are getting one, because no other toy can compare. This particular modern marvel is considerably more functional, more respectable, but one could argue, no less frivolous than the furry robotic puppet. I’m talking, of course, about the air fryer.
Leading holiday sales for retailers of small appliances all across the map, these wildly popular contraptions are in no danger of selling out, unlike the door buster deals of yesteryear that would inspire fist fights in minimal parking lots. There’s a different model for every day of the year, and well beyond. Demand hasn’t waned but supply has exploded with such a surplus that prices have fallen to irresistible rates, even without a Black Friday discount. Paralyzed by an overabundance of choices, where does the tentative, newbie fryer begin?
First, we need to talk about what an air fryer really is. Purportedly an alternative to deep frying, without any mandatory fat, hyperactive home shopping network hosts would like to shout from the rooftops that it’s a miracle device guaranteed to change your life. Imagine: all the mozzarella sticks, tater tots, and corn dogs you can eat! Welcome back to childhood and Merry Christmas to all! …If only it really worked like that.
It would be more accurate to describe the device as a super-heated countertop oven. Convection heating circulates air at scorching temperatures and breakneck speed, allowing food to cook faster than in a conventional built-in appliance. It works more efficiently because it’s also smaller, although that brings us to our first drawback: The size can be a limiting factor if you want to cook for more than two or three. Larger models are now available, but you will never be able to fit as much food into one as a full-sized kitchen appliance as a simple matter of physics.
The “frying” effect is most successful with prepared, frozen snacks, which have already been at least partially cooked with a fairly generous amount of fat. French fries are the clearest example of this phenomenon, especially since they’re hands-down the most popular order for this short cook to tackle. Crinkle-cut, curly, waffle, skinny, or home style wedges all come out golden brown and impeccably crisp, fluffy on the inside, glistening with the sheen of success- And oil. If you tried the same set-it-and-forget-it approach with raw potatoes sticks, it would a sad, starchy story, with a real limp ending. Set your expectations accurately and understand how to harness the unique abilities of the machine, however, and this toy starts to regain some of the initial shine.
If you’re still craving a healthier alternative to cool satisfying meals from scratch, there’s hope for this crazy contraption yet! I relying on mine primarily as a toaster alternative, since I don’t have space on my counter for both. Set to low temperatures, it can also function quite efficiently as a dehydrator, to preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs, or make some tasty snacks with minimal effort. Best of all, and especially critical as we enter the sweltering summer months, it keeps the kitchen cool, as opposed to the full-sized oven that radiates heat like a genuine furnace. As a general guideline for converting existing recipes, reduce the temperature by 25 – 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) and the baking time by 25%. It will take a bit of trial and error if starting from scratch, but plenty of resources and general guidelines are already out there to make the process painless. You can also find handy charts for best practices regarding specific produce picks.
For your initial voyage on the SS Air Fryer, it will be much smoother sailing if you let the experts pilot the ship. Start with recipes specifically designed for complexities and eccentricities of the machine to turn out hits right from the beginning. My favorite cookbooks are The Vegan Air Fryer by JL Fields, Vegan Cooking in Your Air Fryer by Kathy Hester, and The Essential Vegan Air Fryer Cookbook by Tess Challis, in no particular order. These three highly respected authors also have many other tips and tricks folded into the mix, so you’ll be well educated on the capabilities of your shiny new gadget by the time you read them cover to cover.
Okay, so what about the air fryer itself? Of all the colors, shapes, and sizes, how could you possibly choose the perfect model? I can’t claim to have tried them all, but over the course of two years, I have gone through three different unique types: The Philips GoWISE 3.7-Quart, the Power Air Fryer XL 5.3 Quart, and the Power Air Fryer XL Pro 6 Quart. Which did I ultimately chose to keep?
Presenting, the winner of this round, the Power Air Fryer Pro (previously named the “Oven Elite” at the time of purchase)! Shaped like a miniature, traditional oven with moveable racks, it’s simply more versatile and easier to use than models that only provide a solid basket receptacle. This one provides that too, along with a rotisserie spit, rotating metal skewer attachment, and wire mesh basket. Furthermore, it’s a bit more spacious than the aforementioned options, and the separate racks allow you to cook multiple foods at once. Breaking down all the finer points to consider:
- Much more space! Wire racks allow you to separately cook different foods at the same time.
- Rotating mesh basket means no more stopping and shaking food halfway through the cooking process to ensure more even browning.
- Works brilliantly as a dehydrator; minimum temperature of 90 degrees.
- Excellent and seamless toaster oven replacement. Creates a consistently golden crust on bread, bagels, and beyond. There’s even a dedicated pizza button for reheating leftovers.
- Removable and non-stick drip tray makes for easy cleanup afterwards.
- Not exactly plug-and-play. Had a hell of a time figuring out how to install the skewers, and still couldn’t stop them from falling out eventually, regardless of the configuration.
- The window is nice, but it would be more helpful if the light inside the unit stayed on after you closed the door. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose if you can’t see when the food is done?
- Maximum temperature of 400 degrees. I’d wager that’s enough for 90% of all cooking needs, and most foods could just be cooked for a little bit longer to compensate, but it can be limiting for more precise, high-heat preparations.
Ready to embark on your exciting journey towards extra crispy, perfectly tender, and simply easier homemade meals? With expectations appropriately set and temperatures properly dialed in, the much lauded air fryer is a handy little helper that can make it happen. Naturally, all those years of testing and tasting have built up a considerable backlog of my own recipes to share, so stay tuned for much more!