A few months back, I went to a kitchen appliance trade show and was surprised by the large number of manufacturers coming out with air fryers. “Enjoy great tasting fried food”[sic] reads the cover recipe booklet for Philip’s new Airfryer XXL, a lovely sounding idea. With their focus on faux fried flavor, an aversion to fat, and an emphasis on convenience in the marketing from almost every manufacturer, the rise of air fryers felt like the second coming of the George Foreman Grill.
Honestly, though, I was suspicious. Wasn’t air frying more of a tweaked version of baking than a luxurious, crisp-making wallow in hot oil?
I called in one of Philips new XXL models, which is both large and a good representative of the best of the industry’s offerings.
It arrived in the morning and, lacking other options in my fridge and pantry, I made baked potatoes for my wife Elisabeth and myself. Pulling the air fryer out of the box, three things became immediately apparent. First, these things take up a lot of counter space—pretty much the footprint of a five-gallon bucket, and two-thirds the height. (Other brands might be smaller but not that much.) Second, the fan that that runs whenever it’s on is loud, effectively sucking the conversation or ambient music right up into the ether. The third thing was how ridiculously tiny the cooking basket is; at nine inches by nine inches by two and three-quarter inches high, two large potatoes effectively maxed out its capacity.
The spuds were good but that was more of a sour cream, cheddar, and chives thing than an air fryer thing. Clearly, more testing was in order.
What is it that makes air fryers unique? The answer might be, “Nothing, really.” Air fryers are convection ovens in a bucket, meaning that like a regular oven, they have a heating element and like a slightly fancier oven with a convection feature, they have a fan that circulates the hot air, keeping the temperature consistent throughout the cooking area. Thanks to faster-than-a-normal-oven heat transfer capabilities from that rapidly circulating air, convection ovens can shorten the cooking time of some foods, potentially giving them a crispier exterior that brand-conscious marketeers seem to consider to be similar to fried food.
An air fryer would be flattened in a mano-a-mano with a real Fryalator and its big tub of hot oil.
Let’s be clear, though: an air fryer would be flattened in a mano-a-mano with a real Fryalator and its big tub of hot oil. Few of us deep fry at home, though, as it involves that huge amount of hot oil which you have to deal with after dinner. So does air frying bring us close enough to the ideal to take the plunge?
I’d been back and forth with a Philips representative, asking for suggestions on what to cook that really put the machine’s skills to the fore, and was flummoxed when they suggested frozen french fries.
“Hell,” I thought. “I’ll bite.”
I went to the store and there they were, same brand and everything. I split up the bag, and started one batch in the air fryer, and another in my oven with the convection off, then made a follow-up batch using the convection setting. The air fryer fries were nicely browned and crisp, but a bit hollowed out, seemingly at the expense of some pleasant creaminess inside. The no-convection oven batch was more leathery on the outside, creamy within, and noticeably less browned. The convection oven version landed squarely between the two.
While all three specimens were reminiscent of special treats mom would make for my sister and me when we were kids and she didn’t want to cook, they were in no way as good as real French fries. If a perfect paper cone full of Belgian fries eaten on a Brussels sidewalk is a 10 and excellent fries at your favorite bar are a seven, then the oven fries were a two, the convection oven version was a two point five and the air fryer a three. With a bit of tweaking, like preheating the sheet pan for the oven version, I guessed I could bring each of those home-cooked numbers up a point, but none of the fries I’d made were terribly compelling.
For the Birds
Another recommended recipe was a whole chicken like the one found on the cover of the XXL’s recipe booklet. Having now used the machine, I had some serious geometry questions, most significantly how to cram a whole bird into the air fryer’s basket.
The booklet sneakily recommended cooking a three-pounder, but I sensed trouble. Birds that small aren’t easy to find at Safeway. Elisabeth checked at the grocery store near my house and after flipping through a bin of chickens, she couldn’t find one smaller than 3.5 pounds. Considering it’s an organic market and those birds tend to be smaller than the typical Oven Stuffer Roaster, this was disconcerting.
I called my butcher, who said theirs are almost always larger than three pounds, but that they’d root around for me.
“We found a runt!” she said, holding the tiny fowl aloft when I walked into the shop. It weighed 2.75 pounds. I bought that one along with a 3.25 pounder, planning to roast them both for friends.
I preheated the air fryer and my oven, prepped the birds and immediately ran into trouble. I had to cram the tiny chicken into the air fryer basket, and as soon as I closed the door, I could smell something burning. I’d clearly exceeded the height limit for this ride, and now dinner was running late. I fished the slightly singed chicken out, set it on a cutting board and—getting a little desperate since people were on the way over—did what must have looked like man-on-chicken chest compressions in an attempt to break the backbone, or at least flatten the thing out a bit before performing some innovative re-trussing. Surprisingly, it worked.
Taking a bite, the meat was surprisingly juicy, but the crust was horrible, with a peculiar texture that, while sloughing around between my teeth, reminded me of shale.
In my relatively tiny oven, I perched the larger bird on a bunch of vegetables: onion quarters, whole carrots, and fennel. Below that, I used the free space to roast another tray of veggies. When I pulled the oven chicken out, I put the veggies in the roasting pan up by the broiler for a quick bit of extra browning.
It all made for a lovely meal, particularly once I could turn off the air fryer and hear our guests. The air fryer chicken was tiny but tasty with crispy skin, perhaps even superior to the oven-roasted bird. That said, its advantage over the oven chicken might just be because it finished earlier, and I wanted to get food on the table.
From there, I tried another recipe in the Philips recipe booklet: shrimp on lemongrass skewers with sweet potato fries. The idea is that you’re supposed to cook it all in batches, a detail that subtly pops up on the very last line of the recipe. My estimate is that you’d have to do the fries in (at least) two batches, followed by the shrimp in two, turning it into 60 minutes of cooking time. Compare that to cooking the fries in the oven (there wasn’t much difference in taste in the fries between the three methods), then blasting the shrimp under the broiler. Don’t get me wrong, the results of all three methods for the shrimp were excellent, but the oven and broiler gave me more options and slightly superior results, and, thanks to the relatively luxurious amount of space in my oven, I could cook much more food in about half the time.
The air fryer hail Mary was buttermilk fried chicken. If I could pull it off, I thought, it’d be pretty fantastic. The recipe starts out right, marinating chicken thighs in buttermilk for hours before dredging them in flour, and dropping them into the air fryer.
Oh, friends! It was so sad! I could only cook four thighs at a time, despite the recipe’s idea that you could fit six. (Where do they find these miniature chickens? Why not call for a broiler or a squab?) Two people would need to wait an hour of “fry” time to get more than two pieces each—often a necessity with good fried chicken. When done, the exterior was blotchy and scaly, and vaguely, but not really, fried-looking. Taking a bite, the meat was surprisingly juicy, but the crust was horrible, with a peculiar texture that, while sloughing around between my teeth, reminded me of shale.
It also recalled a bender I went on while researching a story about chicken wings in Buffalo. There, at a bar called Kelly’s Korner, a very large man named T.C. railed against the heretical idea of ranch dressing being served alongside his flats and drumettes.
“If someone ever gives you ranch dressing,” he exclaimed before downing a shot of Jameson’s, “you throw that shit against the wall!”
Nothing flew against the wall in my test kitchen, but attempting fried chicken in an air fryer was miserably unworthy of reproduction.
Sorry, Please Fry Again
So here’s the deal: you don’t need one of these things. They’re loud, even the big ones have a surprisingly small capacity, they don’t do anything significantly better than an oven and you probably have an oven anyway. They’d also require bumping your toaster and coffeemaker onto a storage shelf.
Instead, if you’re into the air-frying idea, save the potentially significant amount of money you’d spend on one (high-end models can cost $400 or more) and upgrade to a convection feature the next time your real oven croaks.
The marketing materials for the scores of companies that make these hot-air blowers will tell you that they are a great way to cook that cuts down on fat. But good lord, fried is fried, and “air fried” is not that. Better to eat well most of the time then go to your favorite fried chicken place on your birthday, or do it up at home with a couple of liters of canola oil and a Dutch oven. The rare dose of perfection is far better than the consistent drip of mediocrity.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.