Air Frying Basics

Neon air fried chicken logo

So What Exactly is an Air Fryer?

Air fryers – magic or science? Everyone has heard of them, but few really understand how they work and what they do to your food.

Whether you are a keen home cook who likes to keep up with the latest kitchen trends, a time-poor parent looking for a quick and comparatively healthy way to prep hot chips for hungry kids, or even a gadget addict who is yet to meet a piece of kitchen kit they haven’t fallen in love with, the chances are that you’re increasingly noticing air fryers. They are suddenly everywhere. 

Personally, I’ve always been slightly sceptical about the claims made by many air fryer manufacturers. 

For me, a home cook who is always looking for a new way to keep her family of four fed and happy, the phrase ‘air fry’ in itself is a problem. You surely need fat to fry things, right? It’s what makes fried things crispy and golden and, frankly, delicious. 

So how on earth can you manage that with just air?  What magic is this?

Being of a curious nature (and a slight control freak…), I needed to check out exactly what culinary voodoo went into transforming raw food into appetising air fried delights.

Here’s what I discovered (and please bear in mind that this is a fair few years ago, when air fryers did not have the popularity or cachet that they do now):

Yes, quite simply, an air fryer is a benchtop kitchen appliance which can make a wide range of fried foods and more. Quite a lot more actually, but I’ll follow up on that later.

An air fryer works in a similar way to the convection oven. The appliance has a heating element which makes very hot air. The heated air is then circulated around the raw food by a fan. The end result is food with a crunchy, bronzed outside and a cooked inside. 

Most manufacturers advise adding a small amount of oil to their air fryer at the start of the cooking process to enhance the ‘fried’ texture and flavour of the food you’re preparing, but it’s not always necessary.

Open air fryer revealing cooked green beans
Air fryers can cook vegetables too!

Is Air Frying Healthy?

To get a great crunch and an irresistible golden colour on a potato chip, the traditional method is to drop cut potato pieces into a big pot of hot oil and cook them until they are fluffy in the middle and tanned on the outside. Yummy, right?

Well sadly, doctors the world over have been telling us for some time now that fried foods, especially deep-fried foods like hot chips, are not good for us, so some very smart appliance manufacturers came up with the air fry method as a healthier alternative. (Philips, take a bow…)

The beauty of the air fry method is that it uses a fraction of the amount of oil that a regular deep fat fryer needs. Or even no oil at all, for some models. 

If you choose to add oil or butter to your air fryer – and most manufacturers recommend that you at least spray your potatoes in a little oil before you toss them in to your machine – the food gets coated in a thin layer of fat and the hot air circulated by the fan crisps, colours and cooks it.

Obviously, any cooking appliance that reduces the amount of fat that we put into our bodies, but still gives us tasty food with the perfect texture and colour is going to be hugely popular with home cooks.

And this is what transpired and has led to the current explosion in popularity of the air fryer, both here in Australia and around the world. There are currently dozens of different brands and models of air fryer on the market, up from only a handful just a few years ago.

Air Fryers Come in Different Styles

In general, there are 3 main types of air fryer:

  1. The pull-out drawer design
  2. The self-stirring model
  3. The convection oven style

The pull-out drawer fryer is similar to a conventional deep fat fryer and features a mesh basket to hold the food. This basket fits into a drawer which then slides into the body of the appliance.

The main disadvantage with this kind of air fryer is that the basket is stationary within the body of the fryer. This means that if you are preparing hot chips, the sliced potatoes sit motionless within the container with the blisteringly hot air moving around them. Often this can result in uneven cooking, with the potatoes towards the edges of the bucket coming out crisp and golden whilst those in the middle under-cooked and not so appetising. 

To remedy this shortcoming, many manufacturers recommend intervening in the cooking process at least a few times to manually shake the food around in the basket. 

This is effective, but not exactly ideal – especially when the makers of these machines are so keen to emphasise how easy and convenient they are to use. Even so, these models of air fryers are currently the most popular choice.

Air fryer with pullout drawer showing chicken wings
The pull-out drawer model is the most popular type of air fryer

The next option is the self-stirring model. These look similar looking to the pull-out drawer air fryers, but instead open from the top. This type of air fryer includes a paddle which moves the raw food around inside the basket. 

Obviously, this means that you don’t have to keep returning to the kitchen to shake the food around every five minutes and can simply ‘set and forget’ once you turn the air fryer on.

However, some models stir the contents of the fryer very successfully. And others, unfortunately, not so well. Some buyers have also complained that the paddle can damage the food in the stirring.

air fryer with uncooked chicken legs

The final choice is the benchtop convection oven. This model of air fryer usually comes with racks that you can sit larger items of food on and a mesh basket for chips, etc., which attaches to a rotisserie. This means that the basket rotates, tumbling its contents around and cooking them more evenly.

Convection oven-style air fryer with plates of air fried food
Breville’s new convection-style air fryer has proved a popular buy