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The air fryer, a new star in the kitchen

The air fryer, a new star in the kitchen

Speed, convenience, low fat and safety are the advantages of a small appliance which is gaining in popularity in Spain and elsewhere


Friday, 10 February 2023, 11:23

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The air fryer is on its way to becoming the new microwave. This is not because they are interchangeable appliances - they are not - but because it is likely that both will be in every kitchen before long.

Whether air fryers are only used to eat chips without feeling guilty or they become the all-purpose kitchen tool as they already are in the USA, where 40 per cent of homes have one, they have several advantages: they are affordable, can reduce fat content by up to 80% in many foods which are family favourites (and save money on oil), are easy to clean, manageable, don't take up much space and are safe to use. Let's look at how they work and what can be cooked in them.

The first thing to know is that they are not actually fryers but small convection ovens adapted to make them more manageable. Unlike traditional radiant ovens, where wood, gas or an electric heating element generates a heat source which radiates around the compartment, convection ones cook food by fans circulating very hot air around it. Many ovens today combine both types of heat.

The convection oven is a modern invention and, like some other domestic appliances, was not originally designed for houses.

William Leslie Maxon, a prolific inventor before his death in 1947, served in the American navy and developed a system of pre-cooking, deep-freezing and regeneration to provide some hot meals for soldiers in the Second World War. After the war, the W. L. Maxson Corporation adapted his invention to heat up frozen meals. The famous TV dinners which many families and singles embraced in the 1950s became popular thanks to the speed of the Whirlwind oven. It took exactly half the time of a gas oven and was used not only in houses but on planes as well.

But then the arms race produced a strong competitor for the convection oven: the microwave, discovered accidentally in 1945 during research for the development of new radar systems.

Although they took a long time to reach Spain, the first microwave ovens for family use were sold in the USA in 1947 and they ended up winning the battle with the convection oven, which continued to be used for baking or for rapid heating in domestic radiant ovens. But in the early 21st century Dutchman Fred van der Weij started thinking about low-fat frying and remembered Maxson. What he did was adapt the convection oven. He reduced its size, gave it a removable perforated basket so the air could circulate and got in touch with the Dutch multinational Philips, who put the first Airfryer on the market in 2010.

One great thing about an air fryer is that it is easy to use. It only has two controls: one to programme the cooking time and the other to regulate the temperature. The maximum temperature is usually 200C; it can be higher but this is not necessary because it is from 150C that the crispy golden coatings start to develop. The cooking process is slower than a traditional fryer, so if the temperature is set too high the food will be raw in the middle. For example, cooking potatoes in a frying pan or traditional fryer takes approximately ten minutes. In an air fryer it will take twice as long but the finish is more than acceptable, as long as they are eaten immediately. Once fried, potatoes done in an air fryer end up like cardboard and not very appetising.

There are some other rules to use an air fryer with success. First, don't overload it. Space needs to be left between the foods. If they are potatoes, it is important not to pile them up, so the hot air can get to each part.

The second rule is bear in mind that most foods will need to be impregnated with oil to seal them, help them to brown and stop them sticking to each other. Pre-cooked foods, however, do not need any oil at all, as they already have plenty.

So what can be cooked in an air fryer? Potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables (eg carrots), bananas, meat in chunks, all types of hamburgers, breaded meats, croquettes, and of course other vegetables as long as they are not too dry or too juicy. For example, courgettes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers cut into strips and cherry tomatoes (sprayed with oil) all work well.

It is also essential to open the drawer during the cooking, to turn the food over or, in the case of fried potatoes, to stir them. The machine will stop automatically and then resume the programmed function afterwards. If more time needs to be added, that is no problem either.

What is important is not to use tongs or metal utensils to turn the food over, to avoid scratching the non-stick surface. The machine must also be left to get cold before washing it, to preserve its non-stick surface. And yes, do always clean it because a dirty basket will just create smoke and unpleasant smells the next time. When washing the machine by hand, use soft sponges only.

Remember not to overdo the oil because too much will fall to the bottom and cause smoke, and do not put wet foods in because they will drip and end up cooking in steam. If you want a fried effect for moist foods, it's best to preheat the machine first.

Although everyone uses an air fryer to suit their own needs, there are dozens of recipe books, websites and blogs available.

In an interesting article in the New York Times, journalist Christina Morales wrote that the air fryer reached the heart of Americans during the pandemic, when many families started to cook at home for the first time. She said that Americans buy more kitchen gadgets than any other nation, but it looks as if the air fryer is going to be on a par with the liquidiser and the microwaves of the 1970s.

Who knows whether new uses will be found for the underused microwave in the context of rising electricity prices? But at the moment, it is giving jealous looks and is not too happy about the arrival of the new darling of the kitchen.

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