“Is something on fire?” my spouse asked, nose wrinkled.
I ducked down to peer inside a silvery box, deep as an old tube television, which took up a third of my kitchen counter.
Sure enough, the overhang of the parchment paper I’d used to line a baking pan for a quick morning frittata had ignited inside my Cuisinart air fryer.
The air fryer is a mammoth kitchen contraption that also serves as a convection oven large enough to roast a whole chicken. It’s a literal hot box that blasts food with scorching air warmed by glowing red coils, and quickly crisps food surfaces with little to no oil involved.
There are smaller versions, too, from brands like Ninja and Vremi, that don’t have the mini-oven window through which one could watch their breakfast set ablaze. But why miss out on such a good show?
I forced the timer dial to 0, heard it “ding,” and opened the door. Careful not to touch the burn-unit of a wire basket inside, I blew out the flame, turned down the heat and tried again. Fifteen minutes later, I had a tasty, fluffy egg bake (with only a hint of singed paper on one side), all before 8 a.m.
Air fryers are being touted as the next big thing in kitchen appliances. You’d think they were magic, with claims that they can make us the deep-fried foods Americans love, without any of the frying. Finally, a healthy way to eat a potato! Who knew?
They’re fast, too. Frozen Tater Tots cook in less than half the time suggested on the back of the bag. Leftover pizza comes back to life in the same amount of time it takes a microwave to ruin it. On hot summer days, there’s serious appeal to roasting salmon or baking biscuits without having to preheat the oven.
But should last year’s kitchen savior, the Instant Pot, really go down to the small appliance graveyard (aka my basement) and make room for a different space-sucking dream gadget?
Gina Homolka, creator of the Skinnytaste blog, was skeptical at first about the air fryer. She writes in her new “Skinnytaste Air Fryer Cookbook,” “My thought was, ‘What can the air fryer do that I can’t do with my oven?’ ” But after making a few crisp dishes, she was convinced of its purpose. “I even had my husband fooled that [the food] wasn’t fried,” she writes.
Could this husband-fooling, oversized blow-dryer of a machine be the appliance I’d been waiting for?
With the help of three cookbooks, I made a mélange of dishes that showed me the air fryer’s charms, even if it didn’t convince me I needed one long-term.
I began simply, or so I thought, with tortilla chips. The Cuisinart Air Fryer’s own handbook suggested quartering corn tortillas. I spritzed the quarters with avocado oil and sprinkled them with sea salt before turning the dials to the recommended 400 degrees, for 5 to 6 minutes.
But 6 minutes in, the tortillas were still limp. I put them back in, checking every couple of minutes until the chips had crisped on the edges. But by the time I got salsa in a bowl, the now-cooled chips’ crispness gave way to a chewiness that could pull out a dental crown.
The next day, I tried again using the recipe in the “Skinnytaste” book.
I used blue corn tortillas, this time cut into eighths, dashed with Tajin chili-lime seasoning and let them cook until crispy (a little longer than the recipe suggests), tossing them twice. The smaller chips crisped all the way through and didn’t wither after a few minutes; plus the Tajin made them delicious. Still, they were no better than a bag of my favorite lime-seasoned tortilla chips from the grocery store, and didn’t feel worth the effort since one basket yielded only about a dozen chips.
Next, I made that frittata modifying a recipe from “Every Day Easy Air Fryer,” by Urvashi Pitre. As directed, I lined a cake tin with parchment — too much parchment, apparently. But the eggs came out beautifully fluffy and custard-like, thanks to a good pour of half-and-half. And the raw veggies I’d thrown into the egg mixture — broccoli, green onions — cooked all the way through.
Sure, I could probably make a frittata in the oven in the same amount of time, but would I? Not on a weekday. But this I threw together before getting my toddler ready for his day. By the time he’d finished his own breakfast, mine was piping hot.
For dinner, I tried blackened salmon from the “Skinnytaste” book.
Salmon is difficult to mess up. I love cooking it on the grill, where even with the inexactitude of an open flame, it comes out flaky and moist.
Somehow, the air fryer made it harder. My spice-rubbed salmon wasn’t cooking through, even after tripling the cooking time to 15 minutes. Eventually, I gave up, deciding rare salmon would suit me just fine that night. Unfortunately, the thinnest edges had cooked beyond well-done. (The bright cucumber-avocado salsa that accompanied it, however, was a win.)
Other misses: Homolka’s mini churros, which — for all the spray oil you douse them with — don’t cook all the way through like they would in a real fryer, and vexingly had the spongy yet dense texture of eggplant. Pitre’s five-ingredient brownies burned on the edges almost instantly and tasted like a chocolate omelet. And buttermilk biscuits from “Air Fry Every Day,” by Ben Mims, spread out thin in the basket and blackened on top well before the 18-minute timer had gone off. They were dry, but at least had a comforting buttery taste.
Better were spiced sweet potato “fries,” (aka roasted sweet potatoes). Mims’ seasoning mix of chili powder, cumin, turmeric, mustard powder and cayenne was zippy, and I basically ate the whole potato straight out of the basket — even if the wedges weren’t crunchy.
And chicken wings, which I’d read in multiple sources crisp up if you toss them in baking powder. The method worked. But again, the crispiness quickly diminished, and the skins turned rubbery, this time when I’d added Pitre’s recipe for a vibrant gochujang-ginger sauce, or Mims’ hot sauce concoction.
With the air fryer, crispiness — the thing that makes fried food so incredibly alluring — was tenuous and fleeting. While it could be achieved, it never seemed to last. With one major exception.
I rarely shop for frozen food, but hearing that was the air fryer’s forte, I had to try it. I bought a bag of Tater Tots, and figured that if they were a mushy failure, they could at least be turned into hot dish.
Instead, the high-powered fan blasted the frozen bites so they were nice and warm inside, and super-crisp and browned on the outside, in about 5 minutes. It’s a lovable food rendered perfect in minutes by this giant, fancy microwave. Which, despite its quirks, I had begun to appreciate.
But all the air fryer had really done was help me perfect frozen potatoes and leftover pizza. There had also been a fire, burned brownies, dense churros and unevenly cooked salmon. Was it the machine’s fault, or just my own shortcomings in the kitchen?
For all its promise, my time with the air fryer made one thing abundantly clear: No gadget can make you a good cook.
Note: Some air fryers require preheating; the Cuisinart model does not. From “The Skinnytaste Air Fryer Cookbook,” by Gina Homolka.
• 1/4 small onion
• 2 small garlic cloves
• 1/2 jalapeño, seeds and membranes removed
• 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes, undrained
• Handful of fresh cilantro
• Juice of 1 lime
• 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
• 6 corn tortillas
• Olive oil spray
• 3/4 tsp. chile-lime seasoning salt (such as Tajin or Trader Joe’s)
For the salsa: In a food processor, combine the onion, garlic, jalapeño, tomatoes (including the juices), cilantro, lime juice and salt. Pulse a few times until combined and chunky (don’t overprocess). Transfer to a serving bowl.
For the chips: Spray both sides of the tortillas with oil. Stack the tortillas on top of each other so they line up. Using a large sharp knife, cut them in half, then in quarters, and once more so they are divided into 8 equal wedges each (48 total). Spread out on a work surface and season both sides with chile-lime salt.
Preheat the air fryer to 400 degrees, if necessary.
Working in batches, arrange a single layer of the tortilla wedges in the air fryer basket. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, shaking the basket halfway, until golden and crisp (be careful not to burn them). (For a toaster oven-style air fryer, cook at 350 degrees for 4 to 5 minutes.) Let cool a few minutes before serving with the salsa.
Spiced SPF (Sweet Potato Fries) with Garlic Sour Cream Dip
Note: From “Air Fry Every Day,” by Ben Mims.
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
• 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
• 1 tsp. chili powder
• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
• 1/2 tsp. mustard powder
• 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
• 2 medium sweet potatoes (about 10 ounces each), cut into wedges ½-inch thick and 3 inches long
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2/3 c. sour cream
• 1 garlic clove, grated
In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, paprika, salt, chili powder, cumin, turmeric, mustard powder and cayenne. Add the sweet potatoes, season with black pepper, and toss evenly to coat.
Transfer the sweet potatoes to the air fryer (save the bowl with the leftover oil and spices) and cook at 400 degrees, shaking the basket halfway through, until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Return the potato wedges to the reserved bowl and toss again while they are hot out of the fryer.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream and garlic. Season with salt and black pepper and transfer to a serving dish.
Serve the potato wedges hot with the garlic sour cream.
Fresh Herb and Cheddar Frittata
Note: From “Every Day Easy Air Fryer” by Urvashi Pitre.
Vegetable oil, for greasing
• 4 large eggs
• 1/2 c. half-and-half
• 1/2 c. shredded Cheddar cheese
• 2 tbsp. chopped greens from green onions
• 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp. black pepper
Generously grease a 7-inch round baking pan. Alternatively, line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper cut to fit and spray the parchment and sides of the pan generously with vegetable oil spray.
In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and half-and-half. Stir in the cheese, green onions, parsley, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Place the pan in the air-fryer basket. Set the air fryer to 300 degrees for 20 minutes, or until the eggs are set and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Serve the frittata warm or at room temperature.