Fried food. Crisp chips, hot and fluffy inside; crunchy-coated chicken; churros dunked in choco-late, or the fatty, sugary joy of doughnuts: it’s hard to think of anything that’s not better deep-fried. You could probably make my old slippers delicious by dipping them in batter and chucking them in a deep fat fryer.
But, for most of us, deep-fried food is off the menu except for occasional treats. High-calorie, high-fat, potentially laced with carcinogens – we try to ignore the siren call of the chip shop.
Negotiating pans of hot oil at home isn’t an appealing prospect either, even beyond the health issues. As a child, I watched too many public safety films about the danger of unattended-chip-pan fires. And then there’s the smell.
But there’s a gadget in town that says we can have our chip butty and eat it – and it’s growing in popularity very quickly. The air fryer, the latest kitchen trend, is to the 2020s what the microwave was to the 1970s, or the bullet blender to the 2010s.
These wonders promise to ‘fry’ your food – without the fat. ‘Air-fried foods have the traditional crunch and classic texture of perfectly fried foods but you can enjoy them without the guilt,’ gushes one recipe book. It’s a seductive thought…
In fact, air fryers aren’t new. The first domestic ones were introduced to the UK in 2007, but early models had a knack of self-combusting, and there was the humiliation of a call-out on the BBC’s Watchdog. It has taken them more than a decade to rehabilitate themselves, but they are back with a vengeance, and they want a piece of your counter space.
To understand how air fryers work, it helps to know that food, when it goes in an oven, creates a sort of insulating blanket of air around itself. This makes it harder for the heat in a conventional oven to reach it and cook it. An air fryer blasts hot air at food, a bit like a fan oven but more powerfully and in a smaller space; it penetrates that layer of air more quickly, so it can brown food faster.
It’s a similar principle to a hairdryer, which will dry your hair more quickly than sitting in front of a hot radiator. In fact, frying works essentially by drying food: the oil forces the water out of the outer layers, leaving it dehydrated and crisp. Blowing the heat all around the food, manufacturers say, replicates the effect of hot oil swirling around food, but without that naughty fat.
Could this really be true? I decided to test it out with a battery of air fryers. The results were… quite good. But we need to manage expectations here. You won’t be making anything runny like fish in batter, and chips will have a thin, crisp shell that softens fairly quickly as they cool.
The fat levels are lower than deep frying, which is a big part of the appeal, but you will need that counter space. The machines themselves are big – at least the size of a food processor, and the larger, double-drawer ones take up the space of a small microwave.
Yet I do find myself turning to mine most days – just not for chips. Like many of us, I’m in love with roasting-tin dinners: a tray of vegetables, perhaps a bit of meat or fish, baked until the edges are caramelised and the flavours jostling together.
Healthy, savoury and involving minimal effort, such meals are a lifesaver at the end of a long day. But with fuel prices surging and climate concerns niggling, heating up an oven for a single tray seems like something Nero might do before picking up his fiddle.
Air fryer to the rescue: it might not fry perfectly, but it roasts to a T, quickly and using far less power, crisping up carrots and cauliflower to perfection. I won’t risk my slippers though.
Air fryers: what really works?
Cut floury potatoes into chunks and parboil then shake them; allow to dry and drizzle with a little oil. Air-fry for about 25 minutes on the highest setting, turning twice, until golden and crisp.
As long as they don’t have lots of sauce, leftovers are often better reheated in the air fryer than the microwave. They’ll regain their crisp edges rather than going soggy.
If you have an air fryer with a paddle, like the Tefal ActiFry or the De’Longhi MultiFry, it will have a solid base rather than a rack, meaning you can cook more liquid food, including a proper stirred risotto.
The small space means it won’t dry out and smells are limited. Rub lightly with oil or pané with breadcrumbs and air-fry until crisp and golden.
Gets crisp and stays juicy, though it’s worth checking with a digital thermometer that it has reached 74C before eating. Rub with the seasoning of your choice and bake for nine or 10 minutes per side.
Roasted root vegetables
Cut into chunks, toss in oil, salt and smoked paprika, and roast for 20 to 25 minutes. Add chunks of onion or leek after 10 minutes, as these darken quickly.
Spray trimmed leaves with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Lay in a single layer and cook for four or five minutes at 190C, shaking the pan after two minutes. Cool and crisp on a rack as you cook another batch.
And what doesn’t work…
You can make good ‘oven-baked’ versions, but don’t expect dishes to have the thick crust or unctuous quality of food dunked in hot oil.
Wet batters will drip off before they have a chance to set.
Fresh cheese will slide around, so even within a toastie you need to weigh it down, hold in place with a toothpick or use frozen slices.
Doughnuts and churros
You can bake a bready dough in some air fryers, but runny doughs and churros are a non-starter.
Spinach and chard tend to turn to mush.
Four gadgets put to the test
Foodi 7-in-1 Multi-Cooker, £199.99, Ninja
To transform this efficient slow cooker-cum-pressure cooker into an air fryer, a little basket on a trivet goes in the pot. There’s no way to see what is going on inside during cooking, and the chips needed turning with tongs every five minutes or so during a 20- to 25-minute cycle. Still, they crisped up nicely. The Bake/Roast option is less impressive – fine for pot roasting small pieces of meat, but my homemade bread didn’t fare well.
The basket air fryer
Vortex Plus Dual Drawer 8-in-1 Air Fryer, £199.99-£219.99, Instant
This has large capacity: its two drawers function independently, so you can cook different dishes at the same time, or double up on one. There’s a rack at the bottom of each pan to raise the food and allow the air to circulate, and you can pull out and shake each ‘basket’ – far more efficient than fiddling around with lids, oven gloves and tongs – plus there’s an alarm to remind you. There are grill, reheat and dehydrate functions, too.
The Combi Wave 3-in-1, £399.99, Sage
The Combi Wave’s main jobs are as (an efficient) microwave and convection oven, and using the air fryer involves putting a raised tray on the turntable for the food to sit on, rather than a basket. The capacity is fairly limited for such a large machine but it does a decent job, alerting you to turn the food halfway through, though you’ll need tongs and oven gloves.
The paddle air fryer
ActiFry Genius XL 2-in-1, £214, Tefal
Rather than a basket, this is a circular pan with a central paddle, meaning it can stir the food as it cooks, so there’s no need to stir manually. It’s gentle, with large capacity, but delicate food can get damaged. A window in the lid means you can see what’s going on. There’s a tray to put on top of the pan, so you can cook burgers or steak while air-frying underneath.
For more brilliant brands see: The best air fryers for healthier home cooking in 2022, tried and tested