Air fryers: handy kitchen gadget or waste of bench space? We put one through its paces

An air fryer brings the pub meal experience a step closer.
An air fryer brings the pub meal experience a step closer. Photo: iStock

Air fryers: yeah or noooooooo? This was a question put to me last week by a radio station which, thanks to my belief that many kitchen gadgets replicate the function of something you already own, I couldn't answer.

Despite succumbing to every pandemic fad from breadmaking to kombucha, I had proudly avoided buying what I thought was an electric oven that hogged precious benchtop real estate.

Still, for better, for worse, and for journalism, I bought one to fact-check my stance. I have terrible news. My air fryer proved not only good at crisping a chip but was also the secret weapon I didn't know I needed in the take-out game.

First, some background. An air fryer is a benchtop gadget that you might consider the love child of an oven and a deep-fryer. Thanks to its modest size, metal interior and rapid air circulation, it heats in a flash, combining convection and conduction cooking qualities.

Here is why that matters so much in lockdown. Much as I've tried to support my local boozer, the hallowed parma and chips just hasn't translated to the home setting. No matter how hot the oven, or how speedy the journey from pub to plate, the lack of crispness in both crumb and fries served as a depressing metaphor for the sogginess of lockdown life.

Could I have done a DIY-from-frozen job in a domestic deep-fryer? Maybe. But who wants to coat themselves in the stench of hot cooking oil in the space in which we currently live, work and play?

To my mind, if an oven couldn't revive a parma, how could a bench oven do better? Witchcraft? Magic? No, as is so often the answer these days: science.

The air fryer only needs to heat a small chamber, which it can do very rapidly. Thanks to the very hot air swirling around your ingredient of choice, it can crisp it very efficiently, almost like a deep-fryer, and as it's so much faster than a regular oven, you aren't sacrificing too much moisture to the air. I'm not religious, but it was with misty eyes that I witnessed my chicken schnitzel, chips and all, raised from the dead.

But wait, there's more. I hoped for a decent chip, but what I wasn't expecting was for the air fryer to improve take-home feasts from some of the city's best restaurants by 200 per cent.

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Here's the thing. Restaurants that typically offer fine-dining experiences have worked tirelessly to retro-engineer their dishes for home cooks. It's been incredible, but not always perfect.

Potatoes have often met the same fate as pub chips – remaining hot yet clogged, or crisp but dehydrated. Par-grilled meats would become slightly overdone by the time they were reheated.

And for multi-course dinners, the constant need to check the oven has sometimes caught me out, or stressed me out (notably if cocktails are involved).

But cue a weekend where I happened to have ordered two all-out degustations to replace a twice-delayed-double-birthday-and-engagement-party (hurrah).

First up was Etta's retro Australiana feast by Rosheen Kaul. The instructions told me to start my oven to deal with the mini cob loaf destined for spinach dip, oysters Kilpatrick, the luxe Chiko roll and lamb chops with fried potatoes. But I wondered if I had a better tool for the job.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Etta (@etta_melbourne)

I did. First up, bread rolls went into the air fryer and out of caution I checked at half the recommended time to find them perfectly fluffy-crisp. The Chiko rolls were a fresh-out-of-a-fryer revelation, while oysters flashed in and out in a trice.

Here, suddenly, was a way to cut the annoying wait-times between courses in half, and with undoubtedly better results.

Par-cooked lamb chops? Crisp outside, blushing in the middle. Those golden, par-fried potatoes? Some of the best I've eaten, period.

Granted, this was a menu that fell in a fryer's favour. What of the far more delicate collaboration between O. My and the Recreation, a festival of flower-topped tarts, and fish fillets dressed in prawn farce? The motion stands.

From the vol au vent pastry casing (golden! fluffy-flaky!) to finely shaved aged duck breast that was rolled into a rosette with kohlrabi sheets, I had the same speedier and juicier results than if I'd used a standard oven.

I understand this sounds like a rave verging on advertorial. Please know that I have had to climb down from an almighty high horse to bring you news of this discovery.

And, here come the cons. Ethically, I'm worried that these beasts are so affordable. We grabbed one from a supermarket for $40. That speaks of short shelf-life and long landfill ramifications. There are things they cannot handle – wet batters such as tempura, say.

But in a lockdown life, this unexpected weapon made the precious pub and real restaurants feel one step closer. Take the wins wherever you find them.

The lowdown

I used a Mistral 3.5L model, independently purchased from Coles for $40. I hate myself for loving it.

Want to recreate a pub to go with a home-cooked parma?

Get a pub-in-a-box kit, including beers, bar nuts and mats, from Moon Dog World. moondogbrewing.com.au