Australians love a new-fangled kitchen appliance, from electric crepe-makers in 1970s, to crockpots, spiralisers, fondue sets and fancy smoothie-blender the Thermomix. However, over the past few years one appliance has grown in popularity like few benchtop cookers before it. It's the air fryer and its fans are obsessed.
"My air fryer doesn't leave the kitchen bench," says 38-year-old Grazilella Oborn, a digital marketing specialist in Sydney's Northern Beaches. "The time-saving benefit is huge, and I use to cook potatoes, pancakes, roast cauliflower, fried chicken, just about anything."
Is the air-fryer another bridal registry breadmaker destined to collect dust in the cupboard, though, or the fan-forced oven of the future? And why is the gadget so popular anyway?
Broadly, air fryers are espresso machine-sized contraptions that cook by circulating hot air around food that might otherwise be fried in oil. In that sense, air fryers are baking not frying, but the appliance will cook a kilogram of chips in half the time it takes a standard oven.
"Air fryer sales have been steadily growing over the past three years and spiked when COVID hit and we all started cooking more at home," says Gary Brown, senior brand manager for home appliances at Harvey Norman.
"They're part of a larger trend of growth in multifunctional benchtop cooking appliances, led by people wanting to cook food quicker, easier and potentially healthier."
Air fryers have developed a cult following rivalled only by Kmart's $29 pie maker, which fans use to make pastries and pinwheels and share recipe "hacks" online.
Nielsen BookScan data shows The Epic Air Fryer Cookbook by US-based author Emily Paster is 2020's fourth highest-selling title to date in Australia in the food and drink category. It's only slightly trumped by The Australian Women's Weekly pie maker cookbook in third position. (Flavour and Simple by Israeli-English chef Yotam Ottlenghi take out the top spots.)
Geelong-based cook George Georgievski is set to release his own air fryer cookbook – Air Fryer Express – through Pan Macmillan Australia in January. The 47-year-old father of two (known on social media as the School Lunchbox Dad) has 137,000 Instagram followers and 37,000 TikTok fans for his school lunch recipes and air fryer tips.
"People's appetite for air fryer recipes is insatiable," he says. "If I don't have a new post up by 7:30am each day, followers start messaging me to ask where the video is. This morning I used frozen pastry to make air fryer cheese scrolls for the kids because I was out of fresh bread. They took a minute to assemble and seven minutes in the fryer."
Georgievski views his built-in oven "like an old landline phone" compared to the "iPhone efficiency" of an air fryer. "I also work in construction as a project manager and I've noticed air-fryers replacing the sandwich grill on job sites. It'll cook a meat pie in 12 minutes."
Kate Browne is the managing editor of product and services comparison website Finder. She says the social media amplification of people praising their favourite appliances is powerful. "10 years ago, that communication would have been mainly word-mouth. Now it's everywhere."
The air-fryer's relatively low price point is also key to its sales success, says Browne. "You're not going to be castigating yourself too much if you buy a $60 air fryer and only use it once or twice."
According to market research firm Mintel, there was a five fold rise in launches of food products globally with the description of "air fryer" between June 2017 and May 2020.
"I see the trend of air-frying staying around for quite some time," says Heng Hong Tan, Mintel food and drink analyst for Asia Pacific. "It's not overly expensive or too bulky, especially for people in small apartments. It also appeals to an increasingly health-conscious market."
Browne agrees air-fryers will be popular for another year at least, but suggests their time in the sun may have an end date.
"Kitchen fads come and go, and there's definitely an element of fad with the air fryer. It makes me laugh that ultimately we all revert to pots and pans, a flame to cook on, and an oven. It's what we've been using for hundreds of years and I can't see that changing."
A quick buyer's guide to air fryers
Compact, black and capable of hitting 200 degrees, Kmart's entry level air fryer has attracted widespread acclaim for its benchtop nugget cooking prowess. "Our recent Finder Retail Awards surveyed 3000 Australians and 94 per cent of respondents who owned a Kmart air fryer said they would recommend the brand," says Browne.
"We sell a lot of Philips air fryers, the brand has sort of dominated the market," says Harvey Norman's Gary Brown. "People like them for their appearance, digital display and functionality. Capacity is an issue with all benchtop air fryers, however. What happens if you have more than two kids or the whole footy team comes round? That kilo-and-a-half of chicken wings will need to be done in batches."
"Westinghouse was the first brand to put air fryer technology into full size ovens when they launched their new cooking range earlier this year," says Brown. "An entry level Westinghouse is around $800, so it's worth considering replacing your oven to get the benefits of air-frying in bulk without losing bench space."