We firmly believe that you don’t need scads of gadgets and gizmos to prepare nutritious meals – basic kitchen tools like a knife and a pot will yield a delicious dinner. Our philosophy is first and foremost to use what you have and save the budget for getting the best quality ingredients you can. Our Academy founder, Meghan, is a minimalist when it comes to kitchen gear and can’t jump on the bandwagon of single application appliances. In recent years, we have received a number of questions from culinary nutrition expert students and alumni about air fryers, and whether or not this appliance is something we’d recommend using. What’s the deal with air fryers and is air-frying a healthy choice?
What Are Air Fryers?
An air fryer is an appliance that replicates the texture of fried foods without the actual immersive deep frying in a pot of oil. It’s essentially a mini convection oven. Hot air circulates around the food and because the device is small, it allows for crisp and crunchy exteriors on whatever you are ‘frying’. You also only need to use a small amount of oil to achieve a ‘fried’ texture.
Benefits Of An Air Fryer
The main draw of air fryers is they allow you to enjoy foods that are typically deep-fried without the deep frying. The high temperatures in which foods are deep-fried can cause the oil to go rancid and create a harmful compound called acrylamide, which may lead to cancer and may affect reproduction and the nervous system. Fried foods are also often cooked in oils that contain trans fats, which contribute to free radical damage in the body. You can read more about how to choose oils for cooking here.
People also enjoy air fryers because they perceive the foods as healthier and that they may be lower in calories from fat than their regular fried counterparts. From a food prep standpoint, we can offer air fryers points for heating up more quickly than your oven.
Drawbacks of Air Fryers
We are not huge fans of air fryers. While it’s nice to have a fried food simulation, there are different cooking methods you can use to create crispness without having to purchase an additional appliance.
Some things to consider about air frying and air fryers include:
Air fryers are mostly made of plastic, with a metal basket inside. Plastics contain chemicals that disrupt our endocrine system (and plastics are destroying the environment, too). When we cook food in plastic, those chemicals leach into our food. While some air-fryers use plastic that is free of bisphenol A (BPA), one of the main hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastic, unfortunately, evidence is emerging that the BPA-free alternatives are just as damaging.
Type of Fat/Oil Used
The marketing appeal of air fryers is that you can use less oil to cook low-fat items, but as we know the right type of non-oxidized fats in an optimal quantity are good for us. Instead of encouraging the use of nutritious sources of fats, many air fryer recipes call for aerosol non-stick cooking sprays, which include propellants such as propane and butane which can be damaging to our health, plus their flammability may cause burns and injuries. Many cooking oils are not high-quality and can contain trans fats and GMOs, too.
Air fryers aren’t cheap, especially if you bought one when they first came on the market. As air fryers have become popular, more options are now available at different price points but you’ll still be paying around $100 for the least expensive models. Pricier versions can be anywhere from $200-$300.
Air fryers are large (often bigger than an Instant Pot or slow cooker) and take up a chunk of counter space, leading to overcrowding and overall counter clutter. And if you don’t have large cupboards, it can be difficult to store it away.
Serving Sizes + Inefficiency
Even though the air fryer itself is large, the basket inside is quite small so you can really only cook something that makes 1-2 servings. The crispy, fried effect occurs when air can circulate throughout – if you overcrowd you’ll end up steaming food rather than air frying it. Unless you want to spend half your evening making multiple batches of fries or chicken nuggets, the air fryer doesn’t make sense for families or batch cooking.
Also, since the appeal of air frying is the crispiness, it tastes better when foods are served immediately. Air fried foods aren’t the type of meals you can make in advance to help you get dinner on the table quickly.
Single Use Appliance
While air fryer manufacturers claim you can use their product to bake a batch of cookies or cook eggs, realistically most people aren’t going to use them that way. The appeal of air fryers is the crispy food and there is a limited category of recipes people will make in them, compared to other appliances that offer more versatility. We like to teach our students how to maximize efficiency in the kitchen and opt for appliances that they can use regularly for a variety of dishes. Some single-use gadgets like avocado slicers or butter dispensers take up space and aren’t used often enough in cooking, and we consider the air fryer to be a single-use appliance.
“Healthier” Doesn’t Always make it a Healthy Choice
Since air fryers require little oil, people may have the impression that air frying is a healthy choice. Aside from the type of oil you choose to air-fry, the food itself may not be as nutritious – people are drawn to air fryers so they can make typically deep-fried items like French fries, chicken wings, fried chicken, fish sticks, pickles, egg rolls and more.
We’re not saying French fries can’t be nutritious – we love our homemade French fries, which go perfectly with this healthified recipe for baked fish. Air fried foods have a health halo because they are not deep fried – yet the lack of deep-frying doesn’t automatically mean a food is nutritious or can be eaten with abandon on a regular basis. Air-fried foods can include ingredients that aren’t health supportive to many of us such as gluten, dairy or other allergens. When considering what foods or meals you might use in air fryers, think about culinary nutrition and if each ingredient used is going to contribute to your overall health and wellness.
How to Air-Fry Without an Air Fryer
You already have an appliance that works like an air fryer: your oven! Yes, your oven is larger than an air fryer but there are ways to replicate the 360-degree air circulation to achieve crispy foods.
Place a metal cooling rack atop a baking sheet and then add the fries, chicken fingers or whatever you are making onto the rack so the air can circulate all around. This will help with crisping.
Other crisp-inducing tips include:
- Soaking potatoes or other starchy vegetables in water to release the starch, then dry them well before seasoning and baking
- Pat meat very well or press tofu to reduce moisture
- Toss vegetables, meat or fish in arrowroot flour or tapioca starch
- Use your oven broiler in the last few minutes of cooking to get items golden brown
Air fryers are a kitchen darling at the moment, but in the long run, we don’t think this is an appliance that you will use regularly and consistently for home cooking.
Do you agree, or disagree? Let us know in the comments!
Image: iStock – PhanuwatNandee