In the beginning, there was just a toaster. Then came a KitchenAid stand mixer and its suite of narwhalian attachments: the pasta roller, the meat grinder, the citrus juicer. (Why on earth did I think I’d be calling upon a 1.3-horsepower motor to juice citrus?) Now there’s a Cuisinart food processor (the huge one) with a Cuisinart Mini-Prep (the tiny one) stored in its bowl. There’s an electric kettle. There was an ordinary blender, but it got swapped out for a Vitamix, which is a fancier blender, whose motor, at top speed, whirrs with enough force to heat that it can actually heat and cook whatever is in it, so that a person can rationalize her obscene purchase by thinking of it as not only a blender but a cream-of-vegetable-soup machine. There was a slow cooker, and then there was a second slow cooker (I’d somehow forgotten about the first slow cooker), and then there was an Instant Pot, because every American is now obligated to own an Instant Pot. But then the Instant Pot got swapped out for a Breville Fast Slow Pro, which is to the Instant Pot what the Vitamix is to the quotidian blender, which is to say more ferocious looking, and slightly better at making soup, but also vastly more expensive. The disused Instant Pot sat, for a few months, on top of an induction hot plate, but it turns out that the hot plate fits in a drawer, so now it’s tucked in next to the disassembled parts of a popcorn maker. For awhile, there was a commercial meat slicer, which is now gone, though in its place is a mid-century Danish bread slicer, which is a whole other story. Somewhere along the way, the toaster disappeared, which I regret. There’s a coffee machine, tucked way off in a corner, even though it’s the only thing in the entire kitchen that I reliably use every day.
And now, there is also an air fryer. It sits on my counter, ovoid and glossy black, like the galea of a lightly villainous robot, with a touch-screen interface on its forehead and a protruding handle for a nose. That handle tugs out to reveal a fryer basket, which is designed to maximize airflow around whatever’s placed inside to cook. Per the device’s name, this is where the wizardry comes in: by using a little bit of oil and a lot of hot air, an air fryer replicates the effects of deep frying, rendering foods crisp and golden brown. As anyone who’s stared into the sad, soggy face of oven fries knows, plain hot air doesn’t get the job done. The air must be moving very quickly, blowing across the food rapidly enough to wick away any steam given off during cooking, so that the surface of the food remains dry enough to become crisp. (This is the same principle behind a convection oven, the air fryer’s close cousin.)
Air fryers are a hot Christmas present of 2018, according to those in the business of declaring gift trends and thus creating gift trends. “Remember last year, the Instant Pot was all the rage?” the style director of Good Housekeeping asked host Hoda Kotb on a recent episode of the “Today” show, stroking her manicured hands across a glossy white air fryer. “This is this year’s Instant Pot.” The comparison is no accident: the Instant Pot, in its ascendance from oddball gadget to utter ubiquity, has been a windfall for not only the makers of the Instant Pot but also for cookbook publishers, recipe Web sites, and anyone involved in the supply chains of chicken thighs and pork shoulders. Now the culinary world wants its next superstar appliance. Like an Instant Pot, an air fryer diverts kitchen work from the oven (or stovetop) to the countertop, and puts it in a shiny casing that beeps and chirps and looks at once dorky and ominous. Retailers tout it as a replacement for both your oven and your deep fryer; I don’t have a deep fryer (who does?), and I’m not about to remove the oven from my rental apartment. But when my air fryer arrived, I was cautiously excited. The few people I know who have one all seem to adore it. My friend Ben Mims, a cook, writer, and gadget skeptic, fell so deeply in love with his that he ended up writing a whole book of air-fryer recipes. (I ended up buying the model he recommends, a 2.2-quart Crux machine that, at $188, is more expensive than many air fryers, but still less than half the price of the really top-of-the-line ones.) I’d scoffed at the Instant Pot when it first started taking over home kitchens, figuring that there was nothing it could do that my stove-top pressure cooker couldn’t handle just as well. Now I can’t imagine life without it. (Well, without my Fast Slow Pro.) Maybe an air fryer would spell the same kind of awakening.
Pressure cookers, in their non-electronic form, have a few hundred years of history behind them. (The first pressure cooker, grandly named the Digester, was demonstrated to the Royal Society, in London, in 1679.) Air fryers, by contrast, are newcomers, having only entered the gadget market within the past decade. (Convection ovens were invented in 1945.) Mims writes in the introduction to his book, “Air Fry Every Day,” that it was developed in response to a desire among European consumers to make French fries in their tiny home kitchens, without burning the whole place down. But America is the true kingdom of the novelty appliance, and once air fryers reached our shores they took off—aided, in large part, by celebrity boosters like Emeril Lagasse, who went on QVC, in 2015, to hawk a version emblazoned with his name, and Oprah Winfrey, who included a top-of-the-line Phillips model in her 2016 list of “favorite things.” “Fried food minus the fat?” she marvelled. “I’m in.”
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Mims would prefer that Oprah didn’t put it quite like that. “What most people get wrong about the air fryer is this belief that you have to make fried food in it,” he told me. The machine is better than a conventional oven at replicating the taste and texture of deep-frying, but it isn’t capable of creating perfect, oil-free clones of foods like battered onion rings, fairground-style zeppoles, or actually-fried fried chicken. Some high-end manufacturers, trying to move away from what Mims describes as the “infomercial kitsch” of the egg-shaped devices, are starting to call the machines “air fryer ovens” and “air fryer toasters.” This, he hopes, will help correct the misconception, and also help the cast-iron snobs and anti-carb health nuts get over their reservations. “If people looked at it more as a machine to cook food, period, it would be easier to wrap our minds around,” he said. “Like how an Instant Pot”—which can also serve as a rice cooker, a yogurt maker, a slow-cooker, and more—“isn’t just a pressure cooker.” He told me that air fryers are best for cooking vegetables. Cut into bite-size pieces, seasoned and tossed with oil, and left for a few minutes inside the shiny black robot head, they turn soft and sweet inside with a crisp exterior, a perfect hybrid between frying and roasting.
He’s not wrong. After my air fryer arrived, I spent a wild week using it to make dozens of recipes—pork schnitzel, baked potatoes, dinner rolls, chocolate-chip cookies, hot wings, spiced nuts, croutons, frozen spanakopita—with varying levels of success. I discovered that air frying requires more oil than I’d expected—a real hose-down of cooking spray, not just a light mist—or else the dehydrating effects of convection take over, and foods end up sad and dry rather than thrillingly crisp, like the frozen siu mai whose delicate wrappers came out rubbery-leathery, or the coconut shrimp that emerged looking, not in a good way, like campfire marshmallows. But, as Mims promised, simple air-fried vegetables came out singing every time: blistery fried peppers, meltingly tender roasted tomatoes, jacket potatoes with sizzling skins, broccoli florets with just the right shadow of bittersweet char. Even French fries, dumped straight from the store-bought freezer bag into a lightly oiled fryer basket, emerged golden and crisp.
When I first took my air fryer out of the box, I promised myself that I’d just try it out, and then I’d give it a good scrub and package it back up and give it, wrapped prettily, to a friend or a loved one. (Maybe with a bushel of vegetables and a copy of Mims’s book, to make up for the indignity of giving a hand-me-down appliance.) But now that I’ve started relying on it—it heats up instantly! It does such magical things to okra!—I’m afraid that I might end up keeping it. I’ll have to get rid of the stupid citrus juicer to make room.
Crispy Air-Fryer Okra with Black Pepper and Coriander
Crispy Air-Fryer Okra with Black Pepper and Coriander
½ cup neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed
1 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 lb. fresh okra
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
3 tbsp. cilantro, roughly chopped
1. In a small pot or skillet, heat the oil until warm (about 150-160 degrees, or about the temperature where a drop of water will pop and splatter). Meanwhile, gently crack the coriander seeds and peppercorns using a mortar and pestle or the bottom of a heavy skillet. Add the coriander, peppercorns, and garlic clove to the warm oil, remove pot from heat, and cover. Let the oil infuse until it cools to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Strain out the solids, reserving the fragrant infused oil. (Oil can be made up to a week in advance; keep it stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If making the oil in advance, only remove the garlic clove; the coriander and black pepper will continue to strengthen the flavor.)
2. With a sharp knife, slice each okra pod in quarters lengthwise. Toss the strips of okra with 2-3 tablespoons of the infused oil, and a large pinch of salt. Set air fryer to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and cook okra for 15-20 minutes, shaking the basket every 5 minutes, until the okra strips are crisp all over and charred in places. (The air-fryer basket should be filled no more than halfway; if you have too much okra to air-fry all at once, do it in two batches.)
3. Transfer the air-fried okra to a serving platter and toss with lemon juice and an additional 1-2 tablespoons of infused oil, adding more salt if needed. (Save the unused oil, in an airtight container, for another use.) Generously grind black pepper over the okra, and garnish with cilantro.