Fried! – any thought you had that air fryers were a passing fad

Fried! – any thought you had that air fryers were a passing fad
(Photo: Louis Hansel on Unsplash)

In context of the history of the world, convection ovens were introduced just the other day and air fryers last week. Microwave ovens? Their days may yet be numbered. Perhaps. But air fryers aren’t going anywhere just yet. Here’s why.

It all comes down to one word: crisp. We like food that is crispy, that has crunch, and it is frying that gives us that pleasure. In a juicy steak fried golden brown but tender inside. In a hasselback potato or a perfect chip. 

Yet, frying went out of fashion in the headlong rush to eat only the healthiest of healthy food, and frying became seen as unhealthy. Which is why you often find the word “healthy” in the labelling and packaging of air fryers. There is still fat when “frying” in one – there can be no frying without it – but there is so little of it that it is considered insignificant or no consequence.

Which ignores one small salient point: yes, we do cook our chips in lots of fat when deep frying them the old-fashioned way in a deep pot of hot oil. But we discard almost all of that fat. Do you really drink the oil? No, we don’t. So the actual difference in the amount of fat used for cooking that chip in a pot of oil and that chip straight out of the air fryer is minimal.

Cooking chips the old-fashioned way

The one thing that I am glad to be away from when cooking chips the old-fashioned way is the risk there always was of spilling the boiling oil on the stove and, worse, on yourself. This has long given me pause. But I won’t be giving up doing it that way on occasion.

Nor do I believe it’s all that much less healthy to do so. If you’ve drained your oil-fried chips properly, hardly any fat is left. Of course, there’s the small matter of cost: it’s just cheaper to cook in less oil than in a lot of it, and with the prices of cooking oil today that is a significant factor.

But if you’re cooking in an air fryer or a pot of oil, chips must be cooked properly. You know those soggy, oil-drenched chips you bought from the dodgy takeaway? They weren’t cooked correctly. If you immerse chips that are too cold into oil that is not hot enough, they will not start cooking immediately and will start to soak up oil, which you will then not be able to get rid of. So you need to know the right temperature for cooking chips in hot oil.

See TGIF’s air fryer recipes

Traditional frying methods induce the Maillard reaction at temperatures of 140°C to 165°C by submerging foods in hot oil, well above the boiling point of water, writes Wikipedia. “The air fryer,” adds Wiki, “works by coating the food in a thin layer of oil and circulating air at up to 200°C to apply sufficient heat to cause the reaction.”

It’s worth noting here that the perfect temperature for frying chips or other food such as chicken wings in hot oil is 160°C, no more, no less. 

Where did air fryers come from?

The air fryer came into being by chance in 2005 when an inventor in the Netherlands, Fred van der Weij, experimented with a gadget to make lovely crisp chips with less effort and time than known cooking methods. By 2007 he had a prototype and he ultimately sold the idea to Philips, which introduced the world’s first air fryer in 2010. The company was the first to use the term “air fryer”.

It took until 2018 for that little phrase “air fryer”, now on everybody’s lips, to become widely known and used, and then the world under lockdown took to the machines in droves. 

Now, it seems clear, the air fryer is here to stay, just as the microwave, which became popular for home use in the 1970s though had been invented as early as 1945, was never going to go away. Right? Microwaves are still with us, five (and more) decades later, but there’s the question that only time will answer: does the advent of the air fryer necessarily mean the ultimate demise of the “mike”? 

If it’s of any worth to the debate, this week I moved my microwave aside to make way for a second air fryer. Now, this isn’t normal practice and I’m not suggesting you should chuck your mike on the tip just yet. I’m not your average customer:  I need two air fryers because I need variety when cooking so many meals for our daily recipes published here. 

How does an air fryer work?

The New York Times writes that Van der Weij took three years to develop the prototype of his original egg-shaped machine before Philips introduced it at the Internationale Funkausstellung in Berlin. “It combined close-range radiation and increased air flow to better heat the food’s surface. Philips now owns the patents for Mr Van der Weij’s air-frying technology,” the NYT reported, adding: “It was kind of a holy grail that many companies were looking for: to make better French fries. He said: ‘To find a way to make the handling much easier and the results much better would be a very big potential, that was clear. But I did not expect it would be as big as it is right now’.”

Among the first to follow suit was Instant Brands, whose combination air fryer plus pressure cooker plus who knows what else did not win favour with me when I first had one on loan in 2021. But the Instant air fryer is a true winner. My dislike of the combo-do-everything model does not mean there’s anything wrong with it; I have colleagues who swear by it. But I prefer a simple machine that focuses on the one thing it is best at; so a straightforward air fryer is the one for me. If you do use a combo machine that pressure cooks and does who knows what else, feel free to share your success stories with me at [email protected].

What is an air fryer, precisely?

Wikipedia is never quick to delve deeply into things for fear of inaccuracy, all this under a banner proclaiming how unsure it is of the facts below said disclaimer. Hardly inspires confidence. Nevertheless, Wiki describes an airfryer like this: “An air fryer is a small countertop convection oven designed to simulate deep frying without submerging the food in oil. A fan circulates hot air at a high speed, producing a crisp layer via browning reactions such as the Maillard reaction. Some product reviewers find that regular convection ovens or convection toaster ovens produce better results, or say that air frying is essentially the same as convection baking.”

Air fryers, adds Wiki, “circulate hot air to cook food that would otherwise be submerged in oil. The air fryer’s cooking chamber radiates heat from a heating element near the food, and a fan circulates hot air.

“The original Philips Airfryer used radiant heat from a heating element just above the food and convection heat from a strong air stream flowing upwards through the open bottom of the food chamber, delivering heat from all sides, with a small volume of hot air forced to pass from the heater surface and over the food, with no idle air circulating as in a convection oven. A shaped guide directed the airflow over the bottom of the food. The technique was patented as Rapid Air technology.”

A bit of air fryer ‘history’

The Chicago Tribune claims that air-frying technology has “a lengthy history that dates back some 70 years”, but there’s a difference between components for a car having been invented and somebody inventing an actual car that you can drive around in. Others say that the technology has existed since 1945 with the invention of the convection oven we all know so well. But the point is that the air fryer is a step away from the floor and the wall on to the countertop, while its most pertinent feature is its ability to give the impression of frying in hardly any fat at all.

So frying, because so little fat is used in an air fryer, becomes fashionable again in a world in which many have argued for years that the very last thing we should be doing is frying.

Many of those same people are now “air frying”.

Shake the basket

That moment when your machine instructs you to shake the basket, or whatever our particular machine’s vocabulary might be for this (some are called drawer, especially the twin drawer models), is a design feature. Not all air fryers have “a basket” in the sense of a slotted one as such (my first, the rejected combo one, had an actual basket, but my Kenwood twin drawer model does not). It has two pans with nonstick coating. (So, yes, never scrape them.) But even in the Kenwood, you’re instructed to “shake” at a certain point during cooking.

Philips has the answer as to why, on its own website: “Shaking the food in your air fryer’s basket ensures that air will circulate around it when it is stacked in more than one layer. This way you can also check the colour and cooking progress of the ingredients to reach a more even cooking result.”

Stick it in an air fryer

The ubiquity of the appliance is well described in the NYT article: “Fans have tapped into the old habits of a fry cook, air-frying anything they get hold of and hoping it works. You name it, someone has probably stuck it into an air fryer: cooked penne for ‘pasta chips’, or whole, shelled eggs for a soft or boiled texture.”

The piece claims that by 2020 as many as 36% of US households owned an air fryer, and that number can only have soared in the three years since then. That figure was already 20% higher than the previous year.

The story quotes retired science professor Ruth Cowan as saying that “Americans buy more kitchen gadgets than people in the rest of the world, and that’s probably because advertisers promise it will change their lives”. She adds: “The kitchens of US consumers also tend to have more counter and storage space.” 

And this applies in many South African households where an “American kitchen” has been a feature since the 1960s. Almost every South African kitchen that gets “done” is done in the airy, spacious US way with plenty of counter space and wall-fitted cupboards.

The race to make air fryers more than air fryers – as evidenced in my borrowed Instant combo model, which can also dehydrate, bake, grill, answer the phone and babysit the kids – is now on, but I suspect that the models that stick around for the long haul will be the ones that do one thing really well. Who actually uses all those attachments that come with so many gadgets? Mostly, we use an appliance for its core function.

Not all appliances stick around forever. The electric knife was always going to die a slow, lingering death somewhere in a box that hadn’t been opened since three houses ago. I’ve owned two in my time, and on both occasions it took only three or four uses before I relegated it to a bottom drawer. Who wants a sharp object juddering its way through your beautifully turned out steak or leg of lamb? Horrible invention and well worthy of its ignominy. (My second electric knife was a gift.)

But air fryers will not be like that. They’re just too good. Their advantages in speed, efficiency and in saving money outweigh any disadvantages there may be, not that there is a long list of those. They’re here to stay and if I were a gambling man I would put a lot of money on that. Time to get off the fence? DM/TGIFood


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Dryden says:

    Well presented article as usual from Tony Jackman

  • jonathan Basckin says:

    And one can make melba toast as thick as a house, plank or even I. And very fine croutons too.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    I must admit to poo-pooing air fryers as a fad – until I bought a discounted one, and became an instant fan. Frites made from regular and sweet potatoes (c’mon, they’re skinny and fine-cut, so not chips) are amazing; my wife loves it as a salted roast peanut maker; I have successfully experimented with salmon or trout plus garlic and chillies cooked from frozen – with chips in the same chamber – and I have a whole cookbook of recipes left to play with 😁 And your column, obviously!

    But I also love my microwave, as I have since the 1980s: there is nothing better for baking the couple of potatoes to accompany leftover mice/stew, also heated in same; so too for quickly making scrambled eggs or even a whole poached fish supper for 8. Oh, and for making my signature garden chillie sauce 😄

    Thanks for the recipes, Tony: keep ‘em coming!!

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