Collage: VICE / Images: Koh Ewe
Fried food is a fixture in most people’s diets and, admit it, that probably includes you. It has earned itself a solid reputation as an artery-clogging but oh-so-comforting binge-eating staple. And now that being health-conscious is more than a passing trend, people are finding ways to have French fries without getting caught with grease on their hands. Enter the air fryer: the Jetsonian kitchen tool that promises deep-fried crispiness with a fraction of the fat.
Air fryers are not exactly the latest kitchen invention but with more people exploring their culinary skills during the pandemic, the spaceship-like gadget has skyrocketed to popularity. They’re convenient, oil-free, and super versatile. People are now sharing recipes for air-fried chicken, Brussels sprouts, and even blueberry muffins. But can you air-fry everything? And is it even really healthy? That’s what I wanted to find out.
But first, why exactly are fried foods so bad? Naras Lapsys, a consultant dietitian at the Wellness Clinic in Singapore, told VICE that there are two main issues surrounding deep-fried food. The first is that the frying process, which involves immersing food items in oil, contributes significant excess calories to the food. The second issue concerns the quality of the oil used to fry food. According to Lapsys, using “cheap quality vegetable oil” can produce negative health consequences, most notably inflammation. Health conditions that are linked to inflammation include Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Despite these health warnings, the allure of a fried treat can remain irresistible to even the most health-conscious of us.
“Many people’s taste buds like fatty and salty [foods], so fried food has lots of components that offer pleasure to people,” explained Lapsys. “People like the taste, and the mouthfeel, and the satisfaction…of eating these foods.”
That’s where the air fryer comes in. True to its name, the air fryer operates by circulating hot air around a basket of food, basically heating up the food so that it tastes fried, but without using any oil. Hailed as a game changer among kitchen appliances, it has won the hearts of everyone from kitchen klutzes to professional chefs, and — as I discovered during my interview with Lapsys — even dieticians. According to Lapsys, the air fryer roasts faster than an oven and reheats drier than a microwave.
So I decided to put everyone’s favorite kitchen appliance to the test, set out to air-fry a bunch of food, and answered the question: Should you air-fry this?
Preparation: 200°C for 8 minutes
Where my family saw horrifically burnt broccoli heads I chose to see a delicious char. But I’ll admit, I might have left the vegetables sizzling for a little too long. I didn’t season the broccoli, but drizzled a little olive oil for a bit of flavor before popping it into the air fryer. The result was an added smokiness on the dried florets, all while retaining that distinctive earthy broccoli taste. If you’re looking for more savory flavors, though, your air-fried broccoli could probably benefit from a dash of salt and pepper.
Should you air-fry this?: Yes. It’s pretty much roasted broccoli, except you can achieve that same crispy texture in less than 8 minutes.
Preparation: 180°C for 15 minutes
This actually turned out way better than I had expected, as the tofu pieces crackled delightfully without a single drop of oil. Leave it in for the full 15 minutes to get that dreamy golden shell, but remember to spread the tofu slices out evenly and flip them after about 10 minutes — some of my overlapping tofu slices ended up with regrettable tan lines.
Should you air-fry this?: Yes. Air-fried tofu may taste a little less decadent than its deep-fried cousin, but it’s a pretty damn good oil-free alternative.
Preparation: 180°C for 8 minutes
I might have pinned unrealistic expectations on this healthy snack, hoping the thinly sliced apple would magically emerge from the air fryer looking like supermarket-quality dried apple chips. But the end product was less than satisfactory — limp pieces of oxidized fruit, some with badly burnt edges. After tentatively nibbling on the soggy fruit and trying not to cringe at the semi-crunchy mouthfeel, I concluded that it tasted like sweet disappointment.
Should you air-fry this?: No…unless you’re into warm soggy apples.
Preparation: 200°C for 13 minutes
Moving on to meats, the most obvious candidate for the air fryer was fried chicken. Feeling slightly lazy to make my own frying batter, I set out to make an adequately crispy chicken drumstick instead. This thick chicken drumstick was marinated in soy sauce and chili powder for about an hour before entering the air fryer. Minutes later, it was sizzling and glistening with its own oil, and tasted as tender as it looked. Overall, it was pretty kick-ass chicken, if I do say so myself.
You can try dipping it in batter for the crunchy KFC-style fried chicken. But be warned, wet batter is kryptonite for the mighty air fryer. Still, there are ways you can get around this tricky situation — try breading, thick coating, or freezing the battered chicken before sticking it into the air fryer.
Should you air-fry this?: Yes. The air fryer works its magic in getting that crispy exterior and juicy interior.
Preparation: 180°C for 7 minutes
While the dumplings looked appetizingly golden, their skin had hardened into a dry crust. Instead of the crisp chewiness that is typically associated with potstickers, these possessed more of a cracker-like crunch.
Should you air-fry this?: You can, but just know that the texture of the dumpling skin will be compromised.
Frozen fish nuggets
Preparation: 200°C for 10 minutes
These fish nuggets tasted identical — and I mean identical — to their deep-fried counterparts, only without the disturbing amount of oil needed to fry the breaded exterior to a hearty crunch. ‘Nuff said.
Should you air-fry this?: Yes!!!
Frozen cuttlefish balls
Preparation: 180°C for 7 minutes
These cuttlefish balls tasted just like if they were deep-fried, except the wrinkly skin was a tad drier without that oily coating. But hey, that means no oily fingers when eating this finger food. The flavor and mouthfeel was still great though, since, like all store-bought frozen fried food, it had already been pre-fried.
Should you air-fry this?: Heck yeah.
After finding out which foods actually taste good air-fried, I tried to answer my next question: is air-frying healthy?
Turns out, air-frying your food — as opposed to deep-frying them — certainly goes a long way in reducing your calorie and fat intake.
“I think it’s a much healthier offering, because you’re using vastly less amounts of oil,” said Lapsys of the air fryer.
Instead of letting your food absorb oil like a sponge in a deep fryer, the air fryer allows you to achieve that crispy texture with no oil at all. Besides concerns about the quality of oil, the absence of oil also means less calories from fat consumption. Fat is a calorie-dense food, containing about 9 calories per gram. In comparison, a gram of carbohydrates and protein each contains 4 calories.
“You deep-fry and…so much fat is now absorbed into the food, that your food has now taken on board all these extra calories. When you air-fry, those extra fat calories aren’t there, because the oil is not there and it’s not getting trapped and caught amongst the food to anywhere near the same extent. So the calorie of that food is far, far less,” explained Lapsys.
In my little experiment, air fryers seem to work best with frozen fried foods — they taste impressively similar to their deep-fried versions (read: just as satisfying), only less sinful. Meats that already contain some fat on their own also emerged from the air fryer as delightfully crispy treats. Tofu was a total breakout star — no oil needed for that glorious golden shell! For fruits and vegetables, the air fryer basically works like an oven, but much faster, so if you would oven bake it, then go ahead and air-fry it. That being said, you can probably live without air-frying apples.
Lapsys, who had recently bought an air fryer himself, agreed that the it is truly a health nut’s godsend.
“I honestly think it’s quite astounding,” he said. “The food tastes fantastic. Things are still crispy and have a really good texture.”
But Lapsys also warned against mistaking the air fryer as an antidote to the health risks typically associated with fried foods. Air-fried or not, the fried foods that we often crave — like fries or chicken nuggets — are already impregnated with fat, salt, and calories.
“Remember, a lot of the things that you’re going to buy are already going to be high-fat and high-salt,” said Lapsys, when I told him about my plan to air-fry a bunch of frozen food. “If you’re just going to be heating up chicken nuggets, you’re taking something that’s high-fat, high-salt, poor quality. And [after air-frying] it’s still gonna be high-fat, high-salt, poor quality.”
However, Lapsys also noted that when the alternative is to deep-fry it in a pool of oil, “it’s just gonna be higher fat and even more calories.”
So here’s the big takeaway: no matter the miracles that the air fryer cooks up in your kitchen, moderation is still key.