Years and years ago I remember watching a fascinating Wesson oil commercial that, for some reason, still stands out in my mind today. The perky housewife in the advertisement (all housewives were perky in those days) took a whole loaf of unsliced bread, chopped off all the crusts, picked it up with tongs and submerged it in a pot of hot oil for 20 seconds. This was to show that cooking in Wesson oil gave food an incredibly crunchy exterior while still keeping the interior grease-free. What struck me was how good the bread looked; I knew I wanted to try it one day.
With a kitchen of my own, I could deep fry a loaf of bread any day I wanted to. I haven’t yet, and am pretty sure I never will, because while fried food can bring fabulous taste and a terrific crunch to the table, it also comes with plenty of calories, unhealthy fats and, even more annoying, at least in the short term, messy splatters that need to be cleaned up. Still, wouldn’t it be great if someone could find a way to duplicate the positive attributes of fried foods without all the unwelcome drawbacks?
Clearly I am not the only one to ponder this conundrum because air fryers have become hot sellers in recent years. Countertop versions began making waves in 2010 when Philips debuted its first model at the IFA Consumer Electronics show in Berlin, using something called Rapid Air technology to quickly circulate hot air all around the food. Essentially they functioned more as a convection oven than a deep fryer, but the end result was food that crisped up nicely on the outside with just a bare minimum of oil. An instant hit, the air fryer was named one of the top five inventions at the show and, in no time at all, became the hottest (no pun intended) kitchen gadget around.
There is no doubt that part of the air fryer’s popularity is its providential timing, debuting in the market at a time when consumers had been hankering for healthier eats. It’s hard to resist the allure of a gadget that lets you have your cake, or, in this case, your French fries, and eat it too. Hoping to give one a test drive, I made several inquiries and, after being told numerous times that no review samples were available because they were flying off the shelves like hotcakes, I finally got my hands on a Philips HD9230.
As it happens, my air fryer showed up on my birthday, and what could be better than getting a really big box delivered on your birthday? The first thing that struck me was its size: it is quite large and I wasn’t quite sure that it was going to fit into any of my kitchen cabinets. (Thankfully it did, because I really hate cluttering up my counters with appliances.) The second thing that jumped out at me was that despite its rather bulky size, my air fryer wasn’t going to produce large batches of food – the machine needs ample interior space to properly circulate hot air, so there is just no way to make room for a large size food basket without creating a Godzilla-sized air fryer. Still, Philips has found ways to amp up the cooking space at least a little without greatly expanding the machine’s footprint, and my air fryer comes with a bi-level basket for double the air frying fun.
It was a no brainer that as soon as I got the metal racks toiveled that we were going to be rustling up a batch of French fries. After tossing some frozen fries in a tablespoon of oil, I popped them into the air fryer and, 15 minutes later, I had a lovely batch of fries just waiting to be salted and enjoyed.
Do air fried fries taste exactly like deep fried fries? No, of course not. If you were to put French fries on a spectrum, air fried fries are crispier than regular baked ones but not quite as crunchy as fries that were actually fried in oil, be it in a skillet or in a deep fryer. While some people might have a problem with that, it was perfectly fine for me and everyone in my house was more than happy to enjoy the lighter but still crispy version. I would estimate that my air fryer could probably turn out enough fries for four people in one batch, but since the fries cook relatively quickly, making them in batches for a larger number of people might not be too inconvenient.
My next culinary adventure involved shnitzel, with pretty similar results. The shnitzel didn’t quite have the same crunch it would have gotten had I fried it in oil, but it was quite good for something that was cooked in a single spoonful of oil.
Intrigued, I started leafing through the pages of the cookbook that came with it and found recipes for steaks, ready in just nine minutes, and meatballs that cook for just 13 minutes. The idea of cooking a whole chicken started brewing in my head but one look at the air fryer basket had me changing my mind. There was no way it could accommodate a whole uncut bird. Instead, I used a quartered chicken, seasoned with some simple spices, and 22 minutes later it was a true thing of beauty: slightly crisped on the outside, nice and moist on the inside and totally delicious.
Of course, no kitchen appliance is worth owning if clean up is a hassle, and I admit I was a little concerned about just how much work there would be in cleaning up after the chicken. After giving the non-stick basket a quick wipe with a paper towel or two to soak up the grease and get off a few large globs of icky stuff, I tossed it in the dishwasher, hoping for the best. When the cycle ended, I pulled out the basket and, voila!, it was spotless.
When I got married my sister-in-law gave us a microwave oven and I remember her telling me that it was well worth taking the time to learn how to use it properly and I think the same logic holds true here. Air fryers cook quickly, with a bare minimum of fat, and can offer some nice cooking possibilities if you take the time to learn how to maximize their potential.
Whether or not an air fryer is for you depends on your kitchen space, budget, the size of your family and your willingness to accept food that mimics, but doesn’t mirror, the taste of fried food. With most of my kids out of the house and those of us left at home striving for healthier eating habits, an air fryer is a welcome addition to my kitchen that will hopefully have us all enjoying food that is yummy, diet-friendly and ready in a flash.