Rayna Cooper Family Living Focus

Hitting the market in 2010, air fryers have seen tremendous growth. Do you need one? What will it do differently from appliances you already have? Comparing the differences can help you make a clear decision on the best use of your kitchen space.

The air fryer works by forcefully circulating very hot air within the enclosed “cooker” body, which has a drip pan. The hot air seals and browns the food, resulting in a crisp exterior. Air fryers are countertop appliances with either small or large capacity, holding 1-2 pounds of food. Small cookers may require several batches. If cooking processed frozen items (fish sticks, French fries), air fryers may not require any oil, or only a light spraying. Other items, such as raw potatoes or vegetables, require a spoonful or more of oil. Foods with natural fat (steaks, burgers, hotdogs and chicken with skin) will not need added fat. Many brands and options are available and there are a number of websites to compare features. Air fryers can cook pre-made packaged food in about half the time and at a slightly lower temperature than conventional baking. Air frying may require shaking, stirring or re-distributing the placement of the food during cooking, as any areas of food touching other food will not brown unless exposed to the forced air. Foods that are normally baked, roasted or grilled can be prepared in the fryer. Clean-up is easy, wiping out the basket or sending it through a dishwasher.

Convection ovens (gas or electric) can be a separate appliance, or they can be ovens or microwaves that have convection settings. A conventional gas or electric range cooks mainly by conduction (heat radiates outward from the heating elements to gradually warm the air and cook the food). Convection ovens also use conduction, as well as forced convection, which makes use of a fan to circulate air inside the oven to speed cooking. Excess air is exhausted, as needed, keeping a constant temperature for even baking. Roasting in a convection oven takes about 25 percent less time than in a conventional oven. If your microwave oven has a convection feature, you can cook by convection or by combination microwave-convection cooking for even faster cooking. Anything that is cooked in an air fryer can also be cooked in a convection oven, including oven-fried, baked, roasted and broiled food (some models).

Which is best?

Manufacturers claim that air fryers will reduce fat and saturated fat by 70 to 80 percent over deep fat fryers, but the real question is how much fat are you starting with? The food coming out of the appliance is only as good as the food going in. If the foods are highly processed, with a relatively high fat content to start with (in the range of 10 or more grams of fat per serving), then the air frying, even without added fat, is going to give you a food with a relatively high fat content. The same goes for saturated fat: 3 or 4 grams per serving is a reasonable amount. When adding oils or fat to foods for air-frying or convection cooking, steer clear of palm oil, coconut oil, lard and other saturated fats. Olive oil, canola and peanut oils are good choices. Higher-fat meats, such as steaks and ground meat, will not come out healthier in terms of saturated fat after air frying.

The air fryer is typically faster than the convection oven; however the convection oven may handle larger quantities at one time, and you can cook foods on more than one rack. Some report greater quality or juiciness in one type of cooking over the other, depending on the food cooked.

According to a study that compared deep-fat-fried versus air-fried French fries, published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Food Science, the color and browning of the products were similar, but the texture was harder, with a dryer mouth feel and appearance, in the air-fried food — similar to baked products. You will have to be the judge. If you already have a convection oven, give it a good test to see how it performs when oven-frying or roasting meats and vegetables before you opt for another counter appliance. Use a meat thermometer to determine doneness instead of time. Your existing appliance may be preferable, if cooking for four or more people.

If you do a lot of cooking for one or two people, you may enjoy the convenience of an air fryer. It is also easily portable, and works well for appetizers. In any case, be sure and check into all the options available for any new appliance as well as safety features.

Rayna Cooper is a registered dietitian and family and consumer sciences/nutrition educator serving Penn State Extension in Adams County.