It seems the latest ‘must-have’ in the culinary world is the air fryer, being versatile, easy to use, and promises deep-fried flavour without all the oil. So, do they really make for healthier eating? And are they worth giving up some valuable workspace for one in your kitchen?
Firstly, I looked at how they actually cook food. Normal frying has food immersed in hot oil, but in the case of an air fryer, hot air does the cooking and mimics the effect of frying by blowing hot air on and around food. The heating element is often an electric coil, and a fan sits just above the coil and blows air down on the food, which surrounds the food, making it crispy and golden.
It works by coating the food in a thin layer of oil and circulating air at up to 200°C (approx. 400°F) to apply sufficient heat to cause the Maillard Reaction. This is a complex process which is the reaction between reducing sugars and an amine, creating glycosylamine by the impact of heat, which affects the taste, smell and appearance of food. Because of this, the air fryer can create a crispy exterior without the use of oil. However, frying is probably not the right term for it no matter how similar the results may be.
Most have temperature and timer adjustments for more precise cooking. Food is typically cooked in a basket that sits on a drip tray, and they can preheat to 400°F in under five minutes – compared to gas ovens (up to 13 minutes), or electric ovens (around 17-19 minutes). Air fryers not only preheat faster, but they can also cook faster, because the chamber in an air fryer is much smaller than a large oven, so the heating is more concentrated. Air frying food causes less formation of harmful compounds such as acrylamide, a probable carcinogen.
Air fryers don’t actually fry food, the process is more like baking than frying, and is healthier than deep frying because it uses hardly any oil – cutting the fat content of the food by up to 80%. For a person who eats fried food on a regular basis, the air fryer is the way to go. Changing from deep-fried food to air-fried food might aid in weight loss, but for a person who doesn’t eat fried food on a regular basis, it might have fewer health benefits than it would for a person who does.
On the pro side: the air fryer is quick, it can cook low-fat meals, it is easy to clean, will cook your food without your assistance, and if your air fryer has more features, it can be used in many different ways - some can even dehydrate food. Just make sure you stick to dry seasonings — less moisture leads to crispier results. They are cheap to run too. The wattage for most air fryers is still low so it's unlikely you'll be creating a huge electricity bill.
The cons: it won’t cook wet-battered foods - the batter gets blown off and causes a mess, whole chickens and roasts tend to cook unevenly, and with bacon, grease will fly around the interior. Because the heating element is so close, cheese will melt quickly and liquefy instead of making a crispy exterior as an oven would. Raw rice, other grains and pasta do not cook evenly and are better suited to stovetop cooking or appliances specifically for them. Leafy greens are too lightweight and will fly around in the air fryer, broccoli dries out and is said to taste like cardboard, toast spreads crumbs all over the inside, and for popcorn, they don’t get hot enough to pop the kernels. And because most are small, it'll take too long to feed a large family or a crowd.
Can the cost be justified? Well, that depends entirely on the model and the functions that it offers, the lifestyle you’re living now, how much space you have, and how you intend to use it. Prices range from around €30 upwards to the thousands, and there are plenty of recipes to try - you pay your money; you take your choice!
Air fryers – are they worth having?
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