Swetha Sivakumar spills the secrets of the air-fryer

Updated on Sep 30, 2022 10:56 PM IST

In this week’s Sound Bites: See how an air-fryer works, the foods you can’t air-fry (there are a few) and how a little oil, a lot of hot air can go a long way

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BySwetha Sivakumar

Is an air-fryer better than an oven? I get asked this a lot, so let’s break it down.

First, a bit on how the air-fryer works. A conventional oven has a heating element on the top (broil mode) and another on the bottom (bake mode). A convection oven additionally uses hot air, circulated by a fan to ensure that food cooks faster and more uniformly. (For cakes or souffles, the fan is always turned off so that it doesn’t disturb the batter or cause it to dry out.)

An air-fryer has a large, powerful fan and heating element on the top. As the food gets hotter, the hot air rises and a cycle begins. Because it is a small, rounded space, the air circulates better, reaching every corner. The air is typically hotter and moves faster than in a domestic oven. The extreme heat of the fast-circulating air acts on the food. Additionally, fats from within the foods or traces of added oil become superheated, which serve to brown and crisp the outsides.

The air-fryer, then, operates on what is called Rapid Air Technology, patented by Philips in 2010. The first air-fryer was also launched that year, at a consumer electronics fair in Berlin. The aim of the design is to offer an appliance that recreates the effects of a vat of boiling oil. The food is typically placed in a perforated basket or tray to ensure the hot air can hit it on all sides. Because of this design, one can just shake to rearrange the food halfway through a cook, and get fairly uniform results.

The big upside with an air-fryer is that one can easily fry a range of foods, from vegetables to meats, paneer and tofu, using little to no oil. Air-fryers also do a fantastic job of reheating fried foods. The air-fryer is smaller, needs less energy and is easy to clean (most air-fryer trays can go into a dishwasher). It’s quick to preheat. Most ovens take 10 to 15 minutes to reach 200 degrees Celsius, while air-fryers can achieve that temperature in two to five minutes.

Overall, I would venture that the air-fryer is far superior to a convection oven. (Incidentally, in an effort to position itself as a multi-functional device — oven, air-fryer, toaster, etc — many air-fryers now have a heating element in the bottom too. But in air-frying mode, only the top heating element is used.)

Now to the downsides. One disadvantage of the air-fryer is that it can only accommodate small batches. This can be a problem when feeding a family.

There are also some foods that are not suited to an air-fryer. Liquid batters, such as those used for bhajiyas, bondas and vadas, drip through the slots in the tray. Cakes can be tricky and tend to dry out. Pan-seared foods such as burgers and cutlets will cook, but won’t get the rich crust they’d get in a pan or oven.

Now for the million-dollar question: When all is done and dusted with salt, does air-fried food taste like fried food? The truth is that the taste can come very close, in some cases. The reason fried foods taste so good is that when food is dropped in hot oil, water bubbles out and steam and hot oil take its place, making it richer in fat and crunch, all the things we crave in a snack. Admittedly, this adds plenty of calories too.

The air-fryer is like a giant hair dryer. There’s no injecting of oil. The richness of the eventual dish depends on the fat content that the food started out with. That’s why chicken wings and salmon, when air-fried, taste similar to the same foods pan-fried. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as potatoes need to be coated with at least a little oil to get a comparable flavour.

Is the air-fryer healthier? My short answer is yes. Are the results as tasty? If you leave enough room for the hot, oily air to get at everything, they can be. To my mind, the device is a step forward. I think of it as the oven of tomorrow.

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