For my money, there are few kitchen gadgets more versatile than an air fryer, especially if you like crispy foods but without the added fat of deep-frying.
By using only a small amount of oil circulated in an enclosed space with controlled heat, you can turn your favorite foods — from frozen samosas or french fries to bacon or Korean barbecue — into crispy golden treats, without the mess or excessive grease associated with immersing them in oil.
Air fryers are compact, so they won’t heat up your house as much as a full-size oven, which is important on scorching-hot, 105-degree days, but even though I don’t eat all fried foods all the time, I put my air fryer to use almost every day, no matter the season. I’ve grown to love the little gadget because it makes cooking many foods simple and yields consistent results, time after time.
How does an air fryer work?
Like many countertop appliances, cooking with an air fryer is mostly “set it and forget it.” You pop in your favorite food, select a temperature and time, then come back when it’s done.
I use a GoWise 3.7-quart model, which is great for cooking for my wife and me, but there is a wide variety of air fryers available in various sizes. Air fryers have the size and outward appearance of tall, futuristic rice cookers. Inside, they’re like modified convection ovens: A heating element regulates the temperature, and a large fan blows hot air around the cooking chamber and through a permeable, nonstick fryer basket, its many holes helping to ensure uniform browning from all sides. Below, a pot catches crumbs and excess grease.
Air fryers circulate hot air more efficiently than an oven, so you can typically reduce the published cook times by a couple of minutes. Alternatively, you can keep the same cook time but lower the temperature by about 25 degrees. If you’re cooking larger batches of food that won’t fit nicely in a single layer (like a bag of frozen fries), you’ll want to periodically redistribute everything to ensure even heating. Luckily, it’s easy to pull out the fryer basket, give its contents a quick flip and then slide everything back in to resume cooking.
What can you make in an air fryer?
Almost anything that can be baked can be air-fried too, the main difference being that air fryers can crisp foods more evenly and quickly than traditional ovens. It is easy to open the air fryer halfway through cooking to check on or turn whatever is cooking inside, and the nonstick basket makes cleanup is a breeze.
If you like cooking frozen french fries or Tater Tots, an air fryer is worth it for that task alone. The convection heat makes fries that have a quality that’s hard to replicate in an oven. Earlier this year, I used my air fryer to whip up some frozen, seasoned fries at a friend’s Super Bowl party, where they were a huge hit.
Other frozen foods that heat up very well in the appliance include fish sticks, egg rolls, samosas and even breads, such as Central Market’s excellent mini baguettes.
Cooking meats in an air fryer is also convenient, especially for greasy items like pork belly, bacon or bratwurst, whose excess fat can drip into the collection pot, preventing splatter and smoke. It’s so nice to fry bacon without smelling up the house or setting off the fire alarm.
Because excess grease drains away and the meat does not sit in its own oil, there’s much less fat in the food, and the difference is noticeable, especially with pork belly. You can cook lean meats, such as fish, in the air fryer, but you have to watch them closely so they don’t dry out.
I even cook steak in the air fryer. While it’s not the absolute best way to cook a big piece of meat, it might be the easiest. (I cook mine for eight minutes at 400 degrees to get a medium-rare cook on a 2-inch-thick steak.) The appliance does a good job at browning all sides of a steak evenly without the hassle of firing up and cleaning the grill or a cast-iron skillet.
To get excellent results time after time, you’ll want to make small adjustments to the baking directions on the packaging or recipe. If a recipe calls for 425 degrees for 15 minutes in the oven, you’ll get similar results at 400 degrees for 15 minutes in an air fryer. For most meats, you’ll set the temperature at 400 degrees to cook for eight to 10 minutes.
Most vegetables cook really well in the air fryer, too; I simply toss them in a light coating of olive oil and seasoning before I heat them up. For example, I’ll air-fry broccoli for 12 minutes at 400 degrees. As with baking, cook times are a function of how thick the food is. There isn’t a glass window to peek through, but it’s very easy to pull out the basket to take a look.
The vegetables I cook the most are sweet potato fries and kale chips, both excellent side dishes that have quickly become favorites. (See recipes for more info on the technique.)
What can’t you make in an air fryer?
The main catch with an air fryer is that it isn’t a true replacement for a deep fryer. Don’t expect to be able to fry up large batches of anything or a food that uses a wet batter, such as a funnel cake, which truly needs to be immersed in oil.
And while I’ve made a decent version of air-fried chicken, don’t expect your results to compete with the likes of Austin favorites, such as Tumble 22 or Lucy’s. While an air fryer can help you make many foods crispy in a healthy manner, as anyone who has ever been to the Texas State Fair or Austin Rodeo can tell you, some things just taste better deep-fried.
As with all devices, it might take a little trial and error to get used to them, but air fryers are a convenient, low-fuss way to cook healthier versions of foods you love.
Air-fried sweet potato fries
Sweet potato fries are a guilty pleasure of mine, so I order them instead of regular fries whenever they’re on the menu. What’s so great about them? When done right, they deliver just the right amount of savory, salty and subtly sweet flavors to your taste buds at once. And if they’ve got a little bit of a crunch to them, that just puts everything over the top.
Since buying an air fryer, I haven’t had to make special trips to Kerbey Lane Cafe or Black Sheep Lodge, which serve some of the best restaurant sweet potato fries you can find in Austin. Instead, I’ve been cooking them up from the comfort of my own home.
After much experimentation, I’ve figured out how to consistently air-fry sweet potato fries that taste much like the ones I get at restaurants, but these healthy treats are far less greasy than their deep-fried counterparts. They require about as much oil as you’d use in a traditional oven.
Cooking times and the crispiness of your fries can vary greatly depending on how thick you cut them. Thinner pieces will come out darker and crispier than the thicker ones. If you want to be extra cautious, check on your fries after 15 minutes and pull out smaller fries you think might burn.
One medium-size sweet potato (approximately 10 ounces)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Wash and peel the sweet potato. Cut the peeled sweet potato into uniform strips, approximately 1/3-inch wide and tall and 3 to 4 inches long.
In a large bowl, toss the fries in olive oil and seasonings until evenly coated. Place the fries in the air fryer, then toss the basket a few times to create gaps between them to allow for optimal air flow. Cook for 18 minutes at 400 degrees, redistributing the fries by flipping the basket halfway through. For extra-crispy fries, you can go a few minutes longer, making sure not to burn the smaller pieces.
Remove the basket from the air fryer. Let sit for 1 minute before enjoying them. Serves 4.
— Peter Tsai
Air-Fried Korean Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps
Korean-style barbecue makes for a delicious communal meal, perfect for enjoying with a group of friends, and one of my favorite Korean barbecue dishes is grilled pork belly, known as samgyeopsal.
In a restaurant, Korean barbecue involves cooking meat right in the middle of the table with everyone gathered around a grill heated by hot coals or a portable gas burner. After you cook the meat to your liking, you can pull it off the grill, garnish it, then wrap it in lettuce before popping it in your mouth. And if you assemble just the right ratio of sauces, rice and garlic, you’ll enjoy a decadently rich, slightly sweet and spicy bite of heaven.
In Austin, I used to frequent Korean restaurants such as Together, Korea House or Chosun Galbi to get my samgyeopsal fix, because grilling meat at Korean barbecue restaurants, with their superior ventilation systems, is often preferable to trying to grill at home. The few times my wife and I tried to cook Korean-style pork belly at home, our house filled with smoke and ended up smelling like meat for days. And on several occasions, I was forced to frantically fan the smoke detector to stop piercing, ear-numbing fire alarms.
But now that I have an air fryer, it’s very convenient to cook pork belly at home. The appliance automatically drains grease before it has a chance to smolder and stink up the house, and the device browns all meats very evenly, making it an excellent if unconventional tool for cooking Korean barbecue. Also, instead of having to hover over the grill constantly during the meal — sometimes dodging grease splatter — everyone is free to relax and socialize while the air fryer does all the hard work.
As soon as one batch of pork belly is done, start another one in the air fryer. If you time everything right, you’ll always have hot and crispy pork with no interruption in service. Samgyeopsal pairs nicely light Korean beers such as Hite or Cass. If these aren’t available, Lone Star will do.
For the full experience, you’ll want ssamjang, the soybean-based Korean dipping sauce that’s sold in green plastic tubs in Korean and Asian markets. The pork belly is even more widely available at many H-E-Bs, as well as the popular H-Mart and 99 Ranch Market.
1 cup of dried, glutinous rice
1 head of red or green lettuce
1 1/2 pounds pork belly
5 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Ssamjang, for serving
Salt and pepper
Rinse the rice thoroughly and drain. Repeat at least three times, until the runoff water is no longer cloudy. Cook the rice according to your preferred method. (If using a stove-top, bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil in a pot. Add the rice, then reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes until the rice is fluffy and soft.)
While the rice cooks, cut the lettuce leaves off of the stalk, then wash and rinse three times. Shake off excess water and set in a colander to dry.
Slice the pork belly into uniform pieces, approximately 1/2 inch thick and 1 inch wide. Arrange half of the pork belly in a single layer in the air fryer basket so that the meat does not overlap. Cook in the air fryer at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes depending on how crispy you like your meat.
While the meat cooks, slice the garlic thinly. In small bowls (one for each person), add half a tablespoon of sesame oil. Liberally add salt and pepper to the oil.
When the pork is done, it should be golden-brown on the outside and still juicy on the inside. Remove meat from the air fryer, then drain off the excess fat.
To create a pork belly wrap, tear off a piece of lettuce the size of the palm of your hand. Place a small ball of rice in the center. Dip one piece of cooked pork belly in the ssamjang dipping sauce, then dip the meat in your personal bowl of salted sesame oil. Place the seasoned meat on the lettuce and add garlic to your taste. Roll up the lettuce wrap and enjoy. Serves 4.
— Peter Tsai
Air-Fried Kale Chips
Eating kale chips is a delicious and healthy way to get more greens into your diet. I used to make them all the time in the oven, but the time-consuming and often messy process eventually proved to be too much of a hassle.
Air-frying kale chips offers a couple of important benefits over baking, including speed and ease of cleanup. With an air fryer, the whole cooking process only takes five minutes instead of 20, thanks to the device’s fan, which helps circulate hot air to dry out kale leaves quickly. And there’s no preheating or flipping required, which cuts down on cook times significantly.
Also, cleaning my air fryer’s basket after cooking kale chips is a breeze, thanks to the device’s nonstick surface. To remove leftover bits of kale, I just blast them using the sink sprayer, then sponge the basket down with a little soap. Then after a quick rinse, all I have to do is dry everything off with a paper towel.
If using whole kale leaves, remove the thick parts of the stem. (The thinner pieces are fine to leave in.) Cut or tear the kale leaves into pieces approximately 2 to 3 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. Alternatively, you can buy cut, washed and packaged kale at the store.
5 cups of cut, lightly packed kale leaves (approximately 3 ounces)
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl, toss the kale in olive oil until all of the leaves are coated evenly. Add salt and pepper to your preference. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way.
Cook the kale chips in the air fryer for 5 to 6 minutes at 350 degrees, depending on how crispy you want them to be. Remove them from the air fryer and serve immediately. Serves 2.
— Peter Tsai
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Whether he’s traveling the world or at home in Austin, Peter Tsai is constantly seeking out delicious foods to put in his belly. And in the kitchen, he’s exploring new technologies that can take his cooking game to the next level and writing about his adventures at thetastingbuds.com.