How my air fryer got me excited about pandemic cooking

I groused — as author and Food Network personality Alton Brown did on Twitter in early October — that these miniature convection ovens aren’t fryers at all. Instead, they surround food in an El Niño of hot air, cooking with little or no oil. Baking and roasting, yes; frying, no. Plus, chances were high that any new countertop appliance would soon join my junk-cabinet graveyard of George Foreman grills, bullet juicers, electric griddles and Tupperware.

But then a friend mentioned the magic words: “egg rolls.” The last time I’d bitten into one that snapped, crackled and popped, I was dining at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in the Before Times. I had tired of sad, soggy takeout egg rolls that needed broiler time to reach their full crunch potential.

Armed with my air fryer and anticipation, I fired up chicken wings, roasted carrots and broccoli, citrus salmon and moist banana bread. Trying to recapture the spontaneity the pandemic has drained from everyday life, I tossed fruit into the air fryer. An unpeeled plantain yielded steamed — but not appropriately caramelized — maduros. I rescued one of summer’s last peaches from incipient mealiness with a single pat of butter and brown sugar. The infamous mushiness of a whole Red Delicious apple became a delightful no-added-sugar applesauce.

Fred van der Weij, the 58-year-old “father of the air fryer” as we know it, understands that compulsion to try new things as both an entrepreneur and eater. A product designer and engineer based in the Netherlands, he had heard of Chinese-made, smaller convection ovens. But they couldn’t quite produce what he craved: the perfect fries with little hassle (it’s not just the Belgians and their frites).

Those appliances “couldn’t make french fries of very good quality. They were dry and not very crispy at all. They needed a long time for preparation. French fries were the first thing we tried, because they’re very sensitive to heating: too much, too long, too short,” he said. Then came Dutch kroketten, meats and other snacks.

On a recent Zoom call, van der Weij walked me through his workshop and pointed out early prototypes. The first attempt was rustic, nothing more than a box of pale wood with a metal cooking bowl that he handcrafted himself around 2006. He pitched a short, squat crimson machine using the air-cooking method he had patented to the multinational electronics maker Philips. And then finally, a sleeker black model produced by Philips’ global design team and introduced at a consumer electronics fair in Berlin in 2010. Three years later, Philips began selling its air fryer in the United States. Estimates vary, but the worldwide air fryer business market in 2018 might have been worth as much as $900 million.

That mass proliferation is the result of the concept’s legs — easier, healthier cooking with less oil and time — and the power of global business. But it may have to do with the way appliances, particularly the air fryer, can make people feel.

All I do is buy and load ingredients in the basket with a minimum of planning. But I feel like I am doing something. Listening to the automated heavy breathing of my air fryer at work, I puff out my chest in confidence in a task well done — what a psychologist might call self-efficacy.

Perhaps it seems odd to think of sentiment and appliances. But it shouldn’t in this moment when going to the grocery store feels like an exhausting feat. Nor is it surprising in the broad sweep of U.S. history, where identity and household technology have always merged.

Advertisers have long tried to tell us that the right appliance might make us happier. A 1970 Frigidaire advertisement shows a svelte model wearing a minidress, an astronaut’s helmet, and silver pumps while casually leaning on a refrigerator in three fashion colors, including a hideous rouge and a cobalt blue. “What these buoyant colors can do for your kitchen, for your spirits is just short of unbelievable!” Marketing is rarely subtle, but it is the art of creating or channeling desire into transactions.

Appliances have long been indicators of socioeconomic class, belonging and aspiration. In 1886, the U.S. Patent Office recognized the first automated dishwasher, the invention of an upper-class housewife who thought her servants weren’t churning out clean dishes fast enough to keep pace with her entertaining. Early 20th-century social commentators and appliance-makers crowed that advancements such as washing machines and refrigerators would lighten women’s work and make families lucky enough to afford them “modern.” For many women, new appliances accelerated their move to outside-the-household labor — but the ironing and the cooking still awaited when they got home from “real” work.

While I don’t expect my appliances to double as mechanized mood elevators — or see myself as particularly suggestible to advertising influences — part of my affection for the air fryer comes from wanting to be a low-effort “early adopter” of new technology, if only in the confines of my kitchen. And pandemic-weary as I am, and cooking-impatient even in the best of times, I also want to make meals without complications or kitchen marathons.

The air fryer is a modest investment and scant risk (no oil splatters!), the margins for error typically generous. I can pop out the basket and lay eyes on my fries, see if they’re browning or burning. I don’t worry about interrupted cooking and letting the heat out of my full-size oven. If I make a mistake, I reload and start over. Yes, you can do that with any oven, but not in such quick-quick time. The trial-and-error that is cooking never felt so adventurous yet low-stakes. This is a risk I can take.

Air frying is accessible enough that Tanya Harris, a self-confessed former non-cook and ex-public defender, has become a professional food blogger and recipe developer. About half the recipes on her website, My Forking Life, were designed for an air fryer.

She wasn’t exactly a candidate for “Worst Cooks in America,” but the Raleigh, N.C., mother of two now laughs about serving a disastrous mess of a lemon meringue pie to her mother-in-law and pasty, unseasoned chicken-breast slabs to her now-husband during their courtship.

“I’d cook, and he’d eat it, but then say, ‘Let’s go out to eat,’ ” she said.

Now she makes spatchcocked chicken, snackable roasted chickpeas and applesauce muffins (yes, you can bake!) in her air fryers. She tests recipes on the trio of popular models that her readers are likely to have, but she has eight air fryers and won’t rule out buying more.

Among her common-sense tips: Don’t go too small when buying an air fryer. Harris recommends 5-quart machines for families and adjusting serving sizes as needed (as a singleton, I opted for a smaller one). She avoids batters — most air fryers can’t handle wet ingredients dropped directly in the cooking chamber — and is realistic about what an air fryer can do.

“I’m never going to do hush puppies in the air fryer,” she added. My personal no-go dish is fried chicken.

But when Harris does try something battered, she breaks out cupcake foils, a flexible silicone muffin pan, and parchment paper to lie under pizza dough. Small pans, as sometimes recommended, just don’t do the trick.

Harris is not afraid to adapt other rules. While many manufacturers encourage shaking the basket contents for even cooking, Harris advises judiciousness when cooking breaded items. Shake too hard, too much or too early, and there goes the breading. Sometimes, she allows cooking to go undisturbed for the first half of the required time. But at the halfway mark, she’ll hit pause and then spray the kids’ chicken tenders with a light coating of oil for optimal crispiness, popping the basket back in for the remaining minutes. And for people trying to convert a standard oven recipe, she urges lowering the conventional oven temperature by at least 10 to 15 percent because the food in an air fryer is ideally getting more direct heat from every angle. (Like any appliance, an air fryer can run hot or cold. Harris uses a thermometer with hers, especially when cooking meat.)

Harris’s advice boils down to this: Know your fryer, and you can make more than junk food in it. I hear what she’s saying on that latter point, although I unabashedly use mine for those egg rolls I had been craving, mozzarella sticks and the delightfully less-greasy-but-still-satisfying versions of restaurant appetizers I won’t get now. I use it exactly because I miss those things, the sociability of collective meals, the impromptu “let’s go have a drink.”

One day, maybe soonish, the thrice-daily act of feeding myself won’t push me to wonder about and commiserate with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They chased, trapped, killed, picked and prepared their food without 21st-century conveniences — but, as scientists increasingly say about modern hunting-gathering societies, probably worked less than the average American does. As baking sourdough bread and intricate meals didn’t bring me any succor, as meal planning became melancholic, I wondered anachronistically if rates of prehistoric depression were high.

Maybe not: They probably got a mood-boosting endorphin high from all the running.

Greenlee is a historian, James Beard Foundation Award-winning writer and senior editor at the Counter. She’s based in North Carolina.

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