Recipes with Julie Van Rosendaal: Air fryers are hugely popular — but are they full of hot air?
The rundown on the season's most popular new kitchen toy
Air fryers have become the hot (ahem) kitchen appliance of the year, ousting the Instant Pot and selling out in stores across Canada over the holidays. The countertop units cook using a heat element, circulating the hot air inside with a fan — it's a small convection oven, using dry heat to cook your food. (Frying, by definition, means to cook food in hot oil, so air frying isn't really a thing — it's just baking or roasting.)
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The convection setting on an oven uses a fan to circulate the air inside, making your food cook more evenly. It's a great function for roasting and making things crispy because the fan also dries the surface of your food — regardless of cooking method, it's impossible to achieve a golden, crisp texture in the presence of moisture, as the Maillard reaction occurs at a higher temperature than boiling water. (This is why boiled and steamed foods don't brown.)
Most air fryers on the market are divided between two basic designs: those that resemble modern toaster ovens, and upright models with a pull-out "fryer basket" that encourages a further association with deep frying.
There are plenty of benefits to having a small countertop convection oven, but the marketing pitches can be extremely misleading.
Marketing these appliances as fryers vs. convection ovens leverages the idea that the technology magically transforms those typically high-calorie, not particularly nutrient-dense foods like fries, onion rings, chicken wings and gooey cheesy things, making them better for you by virtue of the fact that they're "air fried" (really baked). The common accompanying "guilt-free" message is a way of moralizing food that is deeply rooted in diet culture.
The "less oil = more healthy" message also suggests that the use of oil is what makes food unhealthy. The most common marketing angle associates fried food with fast food and highly processed food, yet cultures around the world have been cooking a huge range of foods using oil as a heat conduit for thousands of years.
Some manufacturers even claim to "remove and capture excess fat from your food as it cooks", but to be clear, animal fats melt at very low temperatures — about 100˚F — so in reality, any cooking method will render the fat from your food as it heats. This is why when you roast a chicken in the oven or cook bacon in a skillet, you wind up with fat drippings in the bottom of your pan. To present this as a result unique to their special technology is extremely misleading.
Even claims that your food is prepared with drastically less fat isn't entirely true: to check this theory, I cut a large potato in half, cut each half into sticks, tossed half in the 1 Tbsp. of oil recommended by the air fryer manufacturer, and cooked them according to their directions, and cooked the other in pre-measured oil on the stovetop.
I used the cold oil method, which involves covering the raw potato sticks in oil — I use canola — and heating it, cooking them through before they brown, which makes a perfect french fry.) I cooled and poured the oil back into my measuring cup and found only about a tablespoon was missing—so the oil you ingest using one method vs. the other is negligible.
There are plenty of advantages beyond the supposed health benefits companies tend to lean heavily on: a mini countertop convection oven allows for cooking small batches without having to preheat your oven, and it's great for reheating leftovers and making them crispy (pizza!), unlike the microwave. An air fryer's small size (like any small countertop oven) is perfect for people who live alone or are cooking for one or two, and are great for university dorm rooms.
On the other hand, they have limited capacities — particularly the drawer-style air fryers — so their small size may not be adequate for feeding larger families. And, of course, there are many people who fear frying, and find it easier to toss their potatoes in oil and cook them in an air fryer (or their oven) rather than on the stovetop. Simple press-button cooking can also be easier and safer for kids cooking or reheating food on their own.
Since air fryers are ovens, they tend to bake things well — they're great for biscuits, which are typically baked at higher temperatures and don't require a special pan.
They're also great for baking cookies, though they do darken faster in an air fryer (or any convection oven setting) than in your regular oven. I turned the heat down to 300˚F or 325˚F, and bake one large cookie at a time in an air fryer with a front pull-out basket (if you do a few small ones, they tend to spread into each other as they bake), which I kind of love being able to do without preheating the oven. Sometimes you only need one giant, freshly baked cookie.
Air Fryer Chocolate Chip Cookies
This dough can be kept in the fridge or even frozen in 1/2 cup pucks; when you need to bake one, take it out and let it sit on the countertop to thaw before baking. I put a square of parchment in the bottom of the basket (not too big, or the air will blow it up around the cookie… it will still bake, but can make for an odd shape) and bake for 18-20 minutes.
- 3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars until pale and light; beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the flour, baking soda and salt and beat or stir just until combined, adding the chocolate chips as the dough comes together.
Shape about 1/2 - 2/3 cup of dough into a thick puck (roll it into a ball, then flatten it slightly with your hand) and place on a square of parchment in the basket (or on the rack) of your air fryer.
Cook at 300˚F for 18-20 minutes, until golden and set (not doughy in the middle). Your cooking time and temperature may vary between models; I used a Philips TurboStar air fryer and had success at 300 and 325˚F, baking the cookies from 18-20 minutes. They will darken more than they do in your oven, so you may have to bake them a bit longer even if they look well done from the outside. Makes about 7 large cookies.
- Check out Julie Van Rosendaal's full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener below: