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June 4, 2021
I Cannot Quit the Air Fryer
Article-Air-Fryer

It may not be great at frying, but it has plenty of unexpected tricks up its sleeve.

Trust me when I say I never wanted to buy an air fryer. Why would I need yet another clunky appliance fighting for limited real estate in my New York City kitchen? I already had an oven, and it had always served me well . . . right?

First, you may wonder, what is an air fryer? Think of it as a mini countertop convection oven taking one of two shapes: the common capsule style with a drawer basket that vaguely resembles a dorm trash can, and the type that looks like a souped-up toaster from the 1950s. Both versions rely on the circulation of hot air (convection heat) to cook food evenly and quickly—spurring the look of browned (ahem, “fried”) food—without any oil or preheating time.

Back in 2017, TASTE published Terrence Doyle’s dubious assessment of the then-just-hitting-the-mainstream air fryer. After testing the three-quart-sized device, he recommended readers forgo the appliance and stick to the standard oven for “healthier” versions of fried foods like chicken wings and French fries. His argument hinged on the air fryer’s biggest selling point, that you can still enjoy these popular fried snacks with just a fraction of the oil. But we all know that stacking a chicken wing fried in oil against one that’s baked (what’s essentially happening in an air fryer’s convection heat) is an unfair battle. Pre–air fryer ownership, I, too, shared Doyle’s skeptical stance.

But something changed. My limited perception of what an air fryer purported to do (act as a stand-in for an actual fryer) expanded to include so much more of what it actually could do—thanks to social media and YouTube.

I don’t remember the exact time when I started really caring about air fryer YouTube, but it was at some point in the last few years—when I began voraciously consuming lifestyle videos originating from South Korea. These YouTubers were mainly women—many of them stay-at-home or new mothers, some of them single working women or students living solo—all of whom documented the quiet goings-on in their clean, aesthetically pleasing, food-filled lives. (The New York Times wrote about the rise of these Korean YouTubers in February 2021.)

In many of these YouTubers’ kitchens of varying sizes, I’d spy a familiar figure on the counter: a small, drawer-style air fryer. But they weren’t being used to “fry” up mozzarella sticks or mimic the hyperbolic crunch of an order of brasserie pommes frites. (Well, at least, not exclusively.) Instead, they were dutifully filling a void, providing something that many kitchens in South Korea lacked: an oven. While you can certainly find ovens in newer homes and apartments, it’s still not uncommon for many kitchens to be outfitted with only a stovetop as a cooking device in a country not historically accustomed to baking or roasting its food.

I don’t remember the exact time when I started really caring about air fryer YouTube, but it was at some point in the last few years.

So, what were they using their air fryers for? Sure, I saw some expected frozen items like chicken wings and dumplings come into play, but I was more intrigued by the foods not normally deep-fried (or “fried” using convection heat) that were getting the air fryer treatment. Among these were drinking snacks, or anju—a whole category in Korean cuisine referring to food consumed with alcohol—including grilled squid (ojingeo gui) and baked corn cheese, as well as traditional Korean favorites like scorched rice (nurungji) and sweet potato (goguma), air fried whole or sliced into moon-shaped “chips.”

“A lot of people get into the air fryer with sweet potato baking,” James Park tells me. “It’s their easiest introduction to the appliance. They love how fluffy and perfectly baked those sweet potatoes come out.” Park, who is Eater’s social media manager, shared the multifunctional joy that is the air fryer with his parents when he visited them in Pohang, South Korea, last winter. He opened their world beyond the gateway of sweet potatoes and taught them how to cook things like cubed steak from frozen, simply tossed with olive oil; a slab of pork belly with a dusting of salt and Trader Joe’s mushroom seasoning blend; and sliced oyster and enoki mushrooms sprinkled with salt and the same Trader Joe’s mushroom seasoning blend before being scattered around the basket and cooked until crisp.

Park is a self-professed air fryer enthusiast, delighting viewers with colorful mukbang content (occasionally featuring his adorable parents, if we’re lucky) on his Instagram, @jamesyworld. He even has a Stories Highlight, “Will it airfry?,” where he saves many of his successful air frying adventures with items ranging from frozen red bean buns to fish cake bars and cheese-stuffed sesame pancakes. He tells me the Korean-style corn dogs and ube Basque cheesecake (“a big, big, big game changer”) are among the air fried food posts his followers engage with most. While the foods are different, the common theme is crisp or caramelized goodness coming out of a single, multipurpose device—and fast.

Philips, one of the leaders among air fryer manufacturers that is consistently ranked near the top on consumer review sites like Wirecutter and Forbes, confirms the appliance’s growing popularity. “We have seen an increased demand and year over year growth of over 100% year to date,” says Catherine Diaz-Cardoso, senior marketing manager for Philips Domestic Appliances, of the company’s booming business. She also shares that the digital version of its Philips Premium Airfryer XXL, which currently retails for $350, has been its best-selling model.

Home cooks certainly don’t need a pricey version to reap the benefits; a solid air fryer can be had in the $100 to $150 range that will accomplish the same feats of culinary supremacy seen on YouTube. Since receiving a testing unit of the Philips model, I’ve pushed it to prove its worth. Unsurprisingly, the savory, party-app-style snacks from Trader Joe’s like breaded fried ravioli and sesame teriyaki chicken wings excel here. But so do the brand’s frozen croissants, something I’d normally bake up in the oven. Rather than relying on the air fryer as a frying-alternative device, I started thinking of it as a mini convection oven, an approach cookbook author and Los Angeles Times cooking columnist Ben Mims has espoused since publishing Air Fry Every Day, an entire cookbook dedicated to air-fryer-friendly recipes, in 2018.

While the foods are different, the common theme is crisp or caramelized goodness coming out of a single, multipurpose device—and fast.

“I feel like [demand has] quadrupled, like ten times over,” he says of the changing air fryer landscape since his cookbook came out. Mims, who devoted an entire chapter to vegetables, thinks the air fryer’s even, consistent heat really pulls its weight. “I found that things like eggplant, okra, zucchini, squash, and any kind of soggy or gluey texture [vegetable]—because they kind of get dehydrated and roasted at high heat at the same time—would caramelize and crisp up more.” Instead of sitting flat on a sheet pan, where they’d likely retain some level of sogginess, air-fried vegetables cook on a rack in the basket, ensuring that every part of the surface gets kissed by the hot, circulating air. Finally! A fix for those limp zucchini “fries” I convince myself are worth making every bumper crop season.

Back home, I continued challenging myself to use the no-preheat-necessary air fryer when I’d normally turn to the oven for food that relies on even heat for golden-brown results. In went the whole chicken (a just-under-three-pound bird in 35 minutes), the salted mackerel fillets (ten minutes at 400 degrees), the last third of a day-old baguette magically revived from the brink of extinction with a water shower (four to five minutes at 325 degrees). The conclusion was, “Where has this device been all my life?” Of course, there were also chicken wings and thighs, French fries (the frozen bagged variety and wedges cut from fresh potatoes), corn “ribs” ripped from TikTok, and leftover rice cakes that got doused in honey and crushed nuts (a nice breakfast alternative you may want to try). All turned out wonderfully, with a kitchen that never got hot and a total of zero preheating minutes involved—a truly welcome time-saver during the last pandemic year, which had most of us cooking and eating nearly every meal at home.

Even as we slowly emerge from these quarantimes, I have no plans to unseat the versatile air fryer from its prime spot on my counter, as it’s been hugely helpful with both cooking and reheating during the busy workweek. (Besides, I still need to tackle the air fryer darling Basque cheesecake first.) With summer approaching, I know I’m going to lean on it even more. Who wants to turn on the oven during a sticky New York summer?!

Now, about its weaknesses. There are a few. It can get loud; it can get smoky if there’s a lot of fat being rendered off or splattered against the heating element; and it can be a pain to clean, especially if you’re cooking anything with a marinade (soak it in hot, sudsy water overnight and go at it with a stiff brush the next day). And there are definitely foods that should be excluded from the air fryer treatment, if you don’t want to end up spending more time batch cooking. Despite the Philips model’s roomier-than-most basket, anything my household of three will consume a lot of in one sitting, like cauliflower or chicken wings (which are often marinated), benefit from the roominess and easy cleanup of a large sheet pan lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Still, the benefits outweigh any downsides for me. If you’ve been on the fence about getting an air fryer, let Park be the gentle nudge you need: “Just try the corn dogs. That’s going to change everyone’s mind.”

Hana Asbrink

Hana Asbrink is a food writer and recipe developer based in New York. You can find her @hanaasbrink on Instagram and YouTube, where she shares relaxing food tutorials.