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Air fryers: How good are they, really, and what can you cook in them?

Sales are surging, but are the must-have appliances culinary revolution or foodie fad?

Is this the kitchen gadget that will change your cooking life forever or is it just another overhyped fad? The air fryer, a countertop electrical appliance perhaps best known for its ability to “fry” chips in just a teaspoon of oil, has been selling in record numbers during the pandemic. Purchasers have been using them to roast whole chickens with crisp skin and juicy flesh, bake perfectly risen bread and cakes, and even make yogurt.

Lidl Ireland saw a 20 per cent increase in sales of the appliance in 2020, on foot of growing consumer interest.

"In 2019 we experienced a surge in customer demand for our affordable air fryers and increased our sales quantities by approximately 200 per cent for 2020," a spokesperson says. Aldi, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu have also brought the gadget into the mainstream, stocking it in grocery aisles.

But the air fryer is not a new concept: slimming clubs have been flagging its weight-loss potential for years. So why is it suddenly so popular? The chef Kevin Dundon, who recently had 100 students sign up for his first online air-fryer cooking class, puts it down to two things.

“A lot of people are saying they want change in their diet. They’re not eating out and they just want new things. They’re also conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies. They are trying to get healthier, they’re walking a lot more and they’re afraid of the ‘Covid stone’.”

There have also been improvements in the design and technology used in air fryers. Dundon, who promotes a range of kitchen equipment on the QVC television network in the United States, was asked by the shopping channel to sell an air fryer several years ago, but refused.

“They sent me a couple of them, and they were absolutely disastrous.”

More recently, however, he was intrigued by good reviews for the Ninja brand of air fryers. “Suddenly they were sold out worldwide. So I said I’m going to buy one and try it again, and it’s unbelievably good now.”

“The key thing to understand is it is essentially a small, powerful fan oven. It heats up really quickly, circulates hot air brilliantly and uses minimal oil. I love it,” says the Celebrity MasterChef finalist Colm O’Gorman, who writes a popular recipe column for the Irish Examiner.

“It’s amazing for chicken wings, for roasting vegetables, for cooking small batches. It’s like an extra mini-oven in ways,” says O’Gorman, who uses a Tefal 4.2 litre model.

The food writer, photographer and stylist Imen McDonnell says she “reluctantly purchased one last year and now cannot live without it”. She uses the air fryer to replicate food that a low-fat diet, necessitated by minor health issues, prevents her making by conventional methods.

“I still desperately crave fried things, such as good buttermilk-fried chicken or falafel, and I needed to find a way to eat those without deep frying. I have also made the most amazing teriyaki salmon in it, buffalo cauliflower, hot Tennessee-fried chicken burgers, falafel, and of course fresh chips. I am planning to try General Tso’s chicken and tofu in it too,” she says.

“If my house was on fire I’d grab the air fryer,” says Clodagh Olden, who uses hers to cook an impressive range of dishes. “I use it for spatchcock chicken, chocolate molten lava cake, baked cheesecake, butterflied gambas, baked potatoes and pizza slices.”

Milie Mathew, who runs 3 Leaves restaurant in Blackrock with her chef husband, Santosh, uses an air fryer to cook Indian food at home. “We dry-cook diced marinated pork belly in it and make a spicy pork pickle and pork vindaloo. It is a healthier way to cook any pork recipes. Traditionally, the pork is fried in oil before being added to the curry. It is tasty but calorific. When cooked in the air fryer, most of the fat drips away from the pork belly, which brings the calorie count down without compromising the taste,” she says.

AIR FRYER OPTIONS

You can pick up a basic air fryer with your weekly food shop for between €50 and €100. But you can also spend a lot more, and electrical-appliance shops now stock a bewildering range of options. So what’s the difference, and what should you look out for when buying an air fryer?

The main things to consider are capacity, wattage and whether you want a multifunction model or one that is purely an air fryer. In general, the cheaper models will only be capable of making enough for food for one or two people at a time, so go for a bigger one if you’re cooking for a family, and the higher the wattage the more powerful the oven will be.

Multifunction models have been developed that can also pressure cook, slow cook, dehydrate, roast, grill and bake, as well as air fry. These are more expensive, but if kitchen space is at a premium you’ll be able to retire the pressure cooker and slow cooker, at least. The Sage brand has a sleek model that combines the functions of a countertop oven, air fryer and microwave.

Dundon uses a Ninja Foodi Max that has a 7.5-litre capacity and can perform nine functions, including pressure cooking, air frying, slow cooking, dehydrating and steaming. It costs about €250 and, weighing 11.3kg, is definitely something that would live permanently on a countertop, rather than being stored after use.

McDonnell uses a Weight Watchers model “because it was the largest one that could be bought at the time, 3.2 litre. I keep it on my worktop, which I would normally hate, but I use it so often I need to.”

Whichever model you decide on, a bit of research (and trial and error) will pay off. Dundon and his team at Dunbrody House and Cookery School spent a month working with the appliance before launching their online course, with tutorials on how to make the most efficient use of the gadget, live cook-along sessions and 29 new recipes written specifically for the air fryer. A second course, with more new recipes, starts next Monday, March 8th, and can be booked on Dundon's Facebook page.

Recipe: Kevin Dundon's air fryer chicken tenders
Recipe: Imen McDonnell's air fryer falafel
Recipe: Milie Mathew's air fryer pork vindaloo

THREE AIR FRYERS TO TRY

The 2.5-litre digital air fryer going on sale at Lidl Ireland on Monday, April 5th (€49.99)

The Ninja Foodi Max, widely available (price varies, currently on special offer at €249.50 at DID Electrical and Joyces of Wexford).

The Sage Combi Wave 3-in-1, an oven, microwave and air fryer (€499, stockists include Harvey Norman, DID Electrical, Joyces of Wexford and Currys)

WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT AIR FRYERS

Karen Coakley: I started out with a small one to satisfy my curiosity and after a few weeks invested in a 5ltr model. Salmon parcels, roast veg, chicken drumsticks, par-baked bread, frozen croissants: all go in ours. It's so much more than just a healthy way to cook. I use it as a mini-oven, so it's on the go every day, as it's quicker and more economical. This morning's baked eggs were done in eight minutes, no waiting for oven to heat.

Breda Hogan: Family of six including three young men 20, 18 and 16, cook everything in it: sausages, rashers, pudd, chicken, chips, salmon, fish cakes, new potatoes... Needs to be a big one, though

Simon Maher: Love my air fryer. Had a cardiac adventure in December 2019, so I'm even more of a fan now. Chicken is the big one for mine. Even better than oven roast, without the oil.

Gillian Molloy: I didn't like mine: the smell of it throughout the house; was not nice! I gave it to my mum... She loves it.

Elaine de Roiste: I used it twice. The food was dehydrated; total waste of money.

Catherine Halloran: I love mine. Perfect for cooking for one. Regularly cook chicken breasts, rashers and even omelettes. Rarely use my large oven any more. There is also a great sense of control over an air fryer: you don't have to be watching it all the time.

Linda Collins: I am contemplating getting a 9-in-1 Ninja at the moment. I love my air fryer, using one for 11 years. I had a really small kitchen and young kids, so a deep-fryer was out of the question.

Gary O'Hanlon: Used once and threw it in the attic.

Dipti Pandiya: We got one in January, mainly as we didn't like kids using hot oil on the hob, as our daughter made beignets and churros. Mainly made chips, which are perfect, like my mum used to make. Tried chicken wings, which were moist, and will use it for escalope milanese.

Michelle Walsh: I have a 6ltr one and use it for everything. I rarely use my oven at all now. I cook chicken, duck, roast potatoes, breakfast, everything. I'd advise investing in a really good one.

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