Air fryers have become a staple in many households in recent years, mainly due to the rise in cleaner living, fast paced lifestyles and greater awareness of how diet can affect our health in the long term. With so many different types, functions and brands of air fryer out there, we’ve put together a guide to help you decide what’s best for you and your family.
What is an Air Fryer?
An air fryer is a countertop kitchen appliance which cooks food using a combination of oil and hot air. It uses a fraction of the oil of conventional deep fat frying, yet produces the same cooking effect as a traditional deep fat fryer. Air fryers cook food that tastes the same as it would if you were using a deep fat fryer, so they are far healthier to use. Some manufacturers believe air fryers can use to up to 80% less fat than conventional methods, as some models use as little as 1tbsp of oil at a time.
Air fryers are generally quieter and lighter than deep fat fryers and are far quicker and easier to clean, making them more hygienic. Advances in technology mean they are much more powerful than they used to be and have higher capacity than was previously available. You can grill, bake, roast or fry almost anything from chicken nuggets to curries and – believe it or not – even desserts!
Safety is another major plus with air fryers. Large pans of hot oil are all too easily pulled over or knocked – in the UK, chip pan fires are the most frequent cause of fire related injuries in the home. Air fryers keep hot food contained, with safety shut-offs a prominent feature on may models.
How does an Air Fryer Work?
Air fryers work using a similar principle to standard convection ovens but with the addition of oil. A mechanical convection fan drives hot air around the food which has been lightly coated with oil beforehand. The hot air bounces off the base, sides and top of the cooking chamber of the fryer, quickly crisping and cooking the food within.
So, what exactly happens to your food in the fryer? As the heat hits the food, it quickly becomes caramelized, leaving a crispy outer layer and cooking the food all round in minutes. The taste and texture are as good if not better than the results from a conventional deep fat fryer – some would say even better, as there are no pools of grease left on your plate afterwards.
We have a phenomenon known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ to thank for how well these air fryers work. The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction which results from sugars reducing during the cooking process, together with the heat of the cooking itself. It produces that unique browning effect that gives a distinct, rich flavor – examples can be found in seared steak, toasted marshmallows and browned sausages.
Some fryers use a paddle to turn and stir the food during cooking, while others have a rotating basket. There are models which are more of an ‘oven’ style – static units with sliding trays or shelves that are more reliant on convection of hot air to cook the food and are reminiscent of mini countertop convection ovens.
What Can You Make in it?
The possibilities are far more diverse than most people imagine. There is a myth that you can only make the same recipes as in a ‘normal’ deep fat fryer – chicken nuggets, fries, wedges – beige fat-filled fast food style dishes. The reality, however, couldn’t be farther away from a chicken nugget (unless you really like chicken nuggets, of course! We won’t judge!).
It is easy to quickly and easily produce a variety of foods, including egg fried rice, roasted vegetables, Bolognese and chilli. With the advances in programmable models, you can even bake pizzas, rotisserie cook a chicken and make your morning toast – even cooking the perfect steak is a breeze. Most models now include a recipe book or app you can refer to for ideas, but a search of the web will bring up a wealth of quick and simple meal prep ideas you can use with your air fryer.
If you’re a fan of jerky, an excellent function for you is the dehydrator, available on some of the more advanced models. It allows you to create delicious beef jerky at home and can even be used to make healthy dried fruit snacks, fruit leathers and dry out vegetables for storage. Some manufacturers offer a cake baking preset on their machines.
Children are far more enthusiastic about vegetables when they come from an air fryer: courgettes, carrots and even cauliflower or parsnip prepared in an air fryer can have them asking for second helpings. The reduced cooking time required to cook root vegetables means they retain more of the vitamins, minerals and flavor, keeping them tasty with a delicate texture. As a bonus there no need to thaw food first, so it’s easy to prepare something quick and delicious (although you should always refer to cooking instructions before starting preparations).
Foods cook in up to half the time compared to conventional methods and can contain up to 85% less fat versus traditional deep fat frying. There is a lot to be said for single pot cooking, which is a far more convenient and efficient way to cook in today’s fast-paced world. Anything that makes less mess in the kitchen and reduces the number of dishes stacking up for cleaning has to be a good thing!
How to Choose the Best Air Fryer
There are several considerations to bear in mind when choosing an air fryer to make sure it’s right for you.
The first factor is how much capacity you want your air fryer to have – will you be cooking full meals for a family of five or six, or just the occasional side of fries? The range of size and capacity of fryers out there is vast – from compact up to full family-size units.
Budget can affect the fryer you select, too. Choices range from cheaper more basic (but still perfectly functional) manual fryers with dials and switches, all the way up to higher ticket models which are more automated with touchscreens, buttons, WiFi connectivity and a whole host of preset cooking functions.
Then there’s the design to think about – do you want to have a window to see food as it’s cooking; what color scheme do you have in your kitchen; do you want a round or square shaped fryer? All of these are factors you may want to take into account. You can even use the design to complement your kitchen décor or color scheme.
The physical size not only of the interior (i.e. how much food it will cook at a time) but also the exterior are essential – how much room it will take up should be considered. Do you have a place for it on your countertop, or do you need to store it away in a cupboard? Will it sit on a shelf when not in use, and can it be reached safely?
Another question is which features are you really going to use – ideas and recipes are readily available, so if you’re willing to have a go it’s easy and quick to build up your own set of dishes for the family to enjoy. That said, if you want to cook the basics, then a standard simple model may be best for you.
If you love technology and like to keep up with the latest trends, there are fryers which have apps associated with them. They give access to recipes, cooking tips and tricks, tutorials, shopping lists and information about accessories and products – even allowing you to switch on and off the appliance in some cases. Some fryers can remind you to shake the basket during cooking, and many alert you when cooking time has finished.
If you’re not all that confident in the kitchen, many models have specific settings designed for different types of food – root vegetables, rotisserie chicken and desserts are just a few examples. Jot down your budget, the things that matter to you, and the things you would like to have – this will help you narrow down the choices – then you can go ahead and choose your favourite.
What Are the Best Air Fryers?
The best air fryers are durable, easy to clean and good quality. Ideally, it would be best to look for a fryer which has non-stick, dishwasher safe, removable basket/trays. The unit will then be easier to keep clean and free from contamination.
In the box, expect to get the air fryer itself, together with a basket or tray to get things started. A ‘quick start’ guide, along with some recipe ideas, full instructions and warranty information are also often included. Some air fryers arrive with extras such as additional racks, rotisserie forks, baking trays, baking cages etc.
Many foods need a higher temperature to cook effectively, particularly battered or coated foods (battered fish or breaded mushrooms, for instance). Make sure your fryer has the option to control the temperature – whether through a preset program or using a thermostat – so that you can get the results you want. Some models use a manual style dial, and others have a touchscreen or push button controls.
In terms of safety, you should look for a fryer which has a cool touch feature, meaning it will not be hot to the touch when in use, with the outside walls remaining cool at all times. It should also have rubber ‘feet’ underneath to make sure it doesn’t slip off the countertop or storage area and should have an automatic safety shut off in case of overheating as a minimum.
In summary, an air fryer will give your food the same texture and taste, with a fraction of the oil and will cost far less to run than a conventional deep fat fryer. You can use it to automate the cooking process or to carry out the essentials. Different styles, shapes, sizes, colors, functions and features are easy to find, and a well maintained fryer will keep you and your family fed with a delicious variety of meals for years to come.
If you want a safe, easy way to save money, time and find a simple way to improve your family’s diet, an air fryer is how to do it! Take a look today and find one that’s right for you.