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How to demystify your air fryer

How to demystify your air fryer
Tony Jackman’s air fryer chicken, served on a Mervyn Gers platter, a good example of air fryer practice making perfect. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Cuddle up to your air fryer, get to know it, and your air frying days will become memories to treasure. Here are TGIFood Editor Tony Jackman’s 10 steps to getting to know your air fryer better.

I wrote recently that an air fryer is an alien in your kitchen. Now I’m telling you quite the opposite: that your air fryer can be your friend. But only if you treat it well and get to know it. In return, your air fryer will reward you with hundreds of happy experiences.

If you’re anything like me, when you first bought your air fryer it seemed like an alien in your kitchen. It seemed to glare at you, and you glared right back. But your air fryer is a needy thing. It wants attention. It wants to be loved. It’s a bit like the needy monster plant, Audrey II, in the musical, Little Shop of Horrors, though rather than demand that you “Feed me!” it wants you to use it to feed yourself.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Air fryer recipes with Tony Jackman

Not that I’d go so far as to give my air fryer a pet name (though my blue car is called Picasso after the artist’s blue period, so you never know), but I can’t deny that there’s just a tinge of affection for the old girl now that I’ve grown to understand and appreciate her. (Sorry, I’m studying French, so everything suddenly has a gender.) Anyway, the point is that you have to get to know this machine, to understand it. And the best way to do that is to demystify the beast.

How to demystify your air fryer

  1. Take charge. Your air fryer is not an alien, despite my earlier column, Revenge of the Killer Air Fryer, a modern horror story. Rather accept that it is just another kitchen tool, such as a frying pan, an oven, a toaster, a microwave or a slow cooker. It is there for you to command it, to take charge. So…
  2. Get to know it. Think about what it really is and how it works as a kitchen tool. It works by blowing hot air around, like politicians and TV talk show anchors. And it has an element above the basket, just like a conventional oven. So it is a combination convection oven and grill and that is what you should have in mind when using it.
  3. Talking of TV show anchors, you need to ensure that anything that could float is anchored. So foil, for instance, should be tucked under something that is being cooked. If you’ve ever made a tarte tatin, think of the way the pastry is tucked under around the edges before it goes into the oven. Like that.
  4. Learn to judge how much fat to use. This is a matter of simple common sense. Once you know that droplets of liquid will fly around the little oven and potentially catch fire if they touch the grill, you also know that the less fat used the better. But this doesn’t mean you need only use an oil spray, as many recipes instruct you to do. As you’ll see in the recipe linked below, you can even use butter heated with honey. Just err on the side of less rather than more. Often, it’s best to mix aromatics into oil in a bowl, then roll the items to be cooked in it to coat them.
  5. Free yourself up to get creative. When you cook a steak on a griddle, a roast in the oven or lamb in a tagine, you get creative with it. So, instead of just rolling, say, potatoes, in oil before cooking them, add aromatics to the oil, such as spices or herbs, lemon juice, vinegar, and so on. But then only coat them with this solution so that they are still being fried. You could start by thinking about the dish you have in mind as your objective, and then figure out from there what your approach will be.
  6. Learn what to cook and what not. Your air fryer will not cook everything. But if you’re a creative cook, you may well find yourself figuring out how to cook certain things that will work that nobody else has thought of before. That’s what I’m doing and how, for instance, I formulated my recipe for air fryer hasselback potatoes. I went in blind and they came out wonderfully. Give it a go, but be sure to do so safely. So…
  7. Don’t be afraid of trial and error. It’s the best way to learn anything in life, and it applies to the alien in your kitchen that you’re getting to know too. Cheese won’t melt satisfactorily in an air fryer, say many pundits. But the Camembert I stuffed into figs for this recipe melted beautifully. So it’s a matter of how you do it, and that’s where the aforementioned ingenuity comes in, and trial and error do their work to make the difference and grow your knowledge.
  8. Understand how to adjust temperature and time. The controls of different models of air fryer are not consistent. In my Kenwood twin basket fryer, for instance, there is a row of symbols (meat, fish, poultry, etc) which, when you press them to set it, each show a specific temperature. So press one and it will give you 180℃, another 160℃ or 200℃. But there are also controls for changing temperature up or down, and also controls for changing the cooking duration time up or down. So I find that it doesn’t matter which icon I press, because if I press 160℃ but want 180℃, all I need to do is adjust it upwards before setting it and pressing play. So…
  9. Press play and pause. That’s the way I’ve come to think about the on/off button to start cooking. It reminds me of an old cassette player in which you’d insert the tape and press play. Then the phone rings so you press pause. You can interrupt the flow of the cooking at any time just by pressing the same button, making your adjustments (maybe you forgot to baste the contents, or want to change the cooking time and/or temperature). Just pause and when you’ve done what you want to do, press play again. These crispy chicken thighs were cooked in my air fryer for a total of 18 minutes, at two different temperatures, with me interrupting to figure out when they would be done.
  10. Take control of the controls. Try cooking a wide range of things that require you to become familiar with all of the various control options, just as you do when learning to use a computer or drive a car. It’s just a matter of practice, trial and error. In fact, all of the above comes down to getting the hang of the controls to the point where you don’t even think about it any more. You just prepare your ingredients, preheat the machine, get the cooking started and just cook. And that’s the entire point. You’re in charge. (Find the recipe for my reg figs with Camembert cheese and honey-butter here.) DM/TGIFood

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

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  • Penelope Meyer says:

    Dear Tony, I will see your air-fryer and raise you an instant pot duo. Yes, a pressure cooker and an air fryer in one, and the light of my life now. The pot comes with two lids, one is the pressure cooker and one is the air fryer. It was not cheap but I now do almost everything in it, and it uses about 80% less power. Lamb shanks have never been quicker and easier, pressure cook for 40 mins and then top off with the air fryer lid to crisp up in 20 minutes. I am still discovering all the amazing things you can cook/bake in it. Just made bread, proved and baked all in the instant pot. Brilliant.

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