Air Fryers: A Must-Have Appliance or Just a Bunch of Hot Air?

Sweet potato friesHow do air fryers work? Is air frying foods healthier than deep frying?

From smoothie blenders to state-of-the-art pressure cookers, it seems every few years a new kitchen contraption trend causes a culinary storm. This year the appliance en vogue is the air fryer, a countertop device that promises to fry foods perfectly using a small fraction of the amount of oil that deep frying does, meaning you get the texture of a fried food without the unhealthy side effects. Sounds too good to be true, right?

In this case, no! With some caveats.

Air fryers are mini convection ovens that cook by circulating heat around food with a powerful fan. The movement of very hot air around pieces of food that are lightly coated in a breading or oil achieves a crispy fried-food mouthfeel without submerging in deeply penetrating hot oil. Air fryers can also be used to roast or bake foods, because the hot air flow also simulates that of a traditional convection oven. Since they are smaller than ovens, they do heat up faster and thus can cook food faster.

How does food that is air fried obtain a crispy mouthfeel? It’s science! Air frying foods until deliciously crisp still requires a small amount of oil to facilitate the maillard reaction, the browning of natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits, and grains and other plant-based foods. To achieve a crispy fried food taste with protein-based foods such as chicken or fish, a light coating of breading, egg, or oil is required. Typically one tray of food in a large air fryer (about 30 ounces, or about 10 small chicken breasts) requires about one tablespoon of oil coating, or 120 calories. That’s significantly less oil than if the same food is deep fried: the oil required for 10 small chicken breasts deep fried would add nearly 600 calories, but about the same oil needed for roasting in a traditional oven.

OK so air-fried foods may be healthier than deep frying, but how do they taste? While some air-frying aficionados claim the crispy taste is just as pleasing as traditionally deep-fried foods, others disagree. Many liken the air-fried taste to that of crisping in the oven, but with a more even crunchiness that comes from the flow of convection heat. However, because of the hot flow of air over all sides of food, it is also easier for foods to become dehydrated and taste crunchy but dry. So air frying foods will be healthier than those that are deep fried, but the air fryer will not replicate the taste exactly.

If you deep-fry foods regularly and are looking for a healthier way to achieve that desired texture, then an air fryer may be a great cooking tool for you. But roasting foods may be just as tasty (and healthy), saving you valuable kitchen space and, of course, a good number of pretty pennies.

At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].