Whether you’re a minimalist determined to keep your counters clutter free or a gadget-hound whose kitchen is jam-packed with All The Appliances, you've probably heard of the most popular item on the butcher block: Air fryers.
Promising to cook your favorite deep-fried foods with little to no oil, air fryers have been hot since they first hit the stores. But do they live up to all the hype? To find out, we talked with Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte.
Anderson discussed how air fryers work, what foods work best in them, and whether or not she thinks air fryers are worthy of your most precious real estate: the kitchen counter. She even offered some recipes. Fish-n-chips, anyone?
What is an air fryer?
Air fryers are small countertop appliances that can roast, grill, bake or fry a variety of foods. Like convection ovens, they circulate very hot air throughout the cooking chamber with a high-powered fan, cooking food from all sides at once.
Combined with their compact size, this results in crispy foods that take less time to cook. Best of all, they accomplish this with little-to-no oil. And that’s good news, because research shows eating fried food regularly significantly raises the risk of obesity and life-threatening chronic illnesses like Type-2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.
How are they different from traditional deep fryers?
While air fryers cook and crisp food with hot air, deep fryers require you to submerge it in a vat of heated oil. The oil causes water in the food to evaporate, which then allows oil to soak in, resulting in foods with crunchy coatings, and moist, oily insides.
“An air fryer will also give you that crispy exterior and juicy internal texture,” Anderson said. “But, you’re not getting all the oil you would be consuming if you ate traditionally deep-fried foods.”
For example, a single chicken breast cooked in a traditional deep fryer delivers about 364 calories and 18.5 grams of artery-clogging fat. The same piece of chicken cooked in an air fryer clocks in at only 188 calories and 6 grams of fat. Depending on the recipe and ingredients you choose, an air fryer can trim calories by as much as 70% to 80%.
Registered dietitians help us make good choices
How do air-fried foods taste?
With their varying textures, deep-friend foods appeal to several senses at once. Also, their high fat content stimulates the brain's reward system. With an air fryer you get that crispy exterior and tender interior, and far less fat and calories.
“Many of my clients who are following a healthy diet say they prefer foods made in the air fryer,” Anderson said. “Without all that fat masking the flavor, you can actually taste the ingredients.”
What types of food are best suited for air fryers?
Typical deep-fried foods like chicken, fish and fries are a great match for the air fryer. Then there are the less obvious choices, like hearty vegetables — Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and butternut squash.
You can also make baked goods, like oatmeal cookies and mini frittatas in an air fryer. Some of Anderson’s clients have even made delicious fried ravioli. And don’t forget toasted pumpkin seeds for a healthy, high-fiber snack that’s perfect for fall.
Is there anything you shouldn’t cook in an air fryer?
Anything coated with a wet batter could drip through the basket before it actually has time to cook, Anderson explained. Breaded coatings are more successful.
She advises avoiding loose seasonings, such as seeds and whole peppercorns, because the high-speed fan will blow them off before their flavor infuses the food. Also, delicate vegetables and leafy greens often don’t work well, with one exception: kale.
“Kale is a hardier, high fiber green,” Anderson said. “Kale chips prepared in an air fryer have a really great crunch.”
What are the least healthy air-fried foods?
Watch out for frozen foods like French fries, onion rings and chicken wings. Preparing them in an air fryer may sound like a healthy option, but many of those foods are pre-fried before they’re frozen. So, even if you cook them in the air fryer, those foods will still be loaded with calories and unhealthy fats.
Don’t I need to use a little oil? Won’t foods stick without it?
Most air fryer manufacturers — and many recipes — recommend adding one to 3 teaspoons of oil. However, it’s not necessary to use any oil at all, according to Anderson.
“Instead, all you have to do is remove the basket or grill and shake or turn the food midway through cooking,” she said. “That will prevent food from sticking and allow the air to circulate and crisp up all sides, so you get a more even texture.”
The bottom line: Are they worth the time and space?
“I definitely think that an air fryer is a very useful and healthy kitchen tool,” Anderson said. “Personally, I like the combination air fryer/pressure cookers, which offer more versatility and take up less counter space than two separate appliances.”
Note: Anderson has cooked with an air fryer, though she does not currently own one. She has made the Brussels sprout recipe below, and a slightly different version of the potato wedges, and reports both were great. One of her clients made (and enjoyed) the chickpea fritter recipe. The highly-rated fish and pizza recipes were sourced online.
Garlic-rosemary Brussels sprouts (makes 4 servings)
“This is one of my favorite recipes. Growing up, I was served boiled, plain Brussels sprouts, and they were not my favorite vegetable,” Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian.. “But this oven-roasted recipe is a popular vegetable in my household. It’s faster to make in an air fryer and has an even crispier texture.”
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic (minced)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 pound Brussels sprouts (trimmed and halved)
1/2 cup whole wheat panko bread crumbs
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary (minced)
Heat air fryer to 350° F.
Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a bowl and mix in the garlic, salt and pepper. Toss in the Brussels sprouts making sure to coat them well. Place the Brussels sprouts in the air-fryer basket; cook for 15 minutes (stirring every 4 to 5 minutes). Toss bread crumbs with rosemary and 1 tablespoon of olive oil; sprinkle over sprouts. Continue cooking until bread crumbs are browned and sprouts are tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
Nutrition Facts: 185 calories, 11g fat (2g saturated), 198 mg sodium, 20g total carbohydrate; 5g fiber, 5g protein.
Chickpea fritters (makes 2 dozen; serving size 6 fritters)
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas or garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Heat air-fryer to 400° F.
In a small bowl, combine the first six ingredients; refrigerate until serving. Place chickpeas, cumin, garlic powder, ginger, and a pinch of salt in a food processor; process until finely ground. Add egg and baking soda; pulse until blended. Transfer to a bowl; stir in cilantro and scallions.
In batches, drop rounded tablespoons of bean mixture onto greased tray in air-fryer basket. Cook until lightly browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve with sauce.
Nutrition Facts: 322 calories, 6g fat (1g saturated), 161 mg sodium, 47g total carbohydrate; 12g fiber, 9g added sugar, 16g protein.
Compare to Amnon's Falafel Balls (7 balls): 380 calories, 19g fat (3g saturated), 700 mg sodium, 39g total carbohydrate; 13g fiber, 12g protein.
Crispy fish (Makes 4 servings)
“The crisp, flavorful texture on this fish is reminiscent of the Friday dinners we ate when I was a kid: fried fish and French fries.” Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian.
4 (6-oz.) skinless cod fillets (can substitute another white fish)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
lemon and parsley for garnish
Heat air-fryer to 400° F.
Whisk the eggs in a shallow pan. In a second shallow pan, combine the cornmeal, paprika, garlic powder, black pepper and salt. Pat the fish completely dry. Dip the fish thoroughly in the egg and then press into the cornmeal mixture until well coated on both sides.
Place the coated fish into the preheated air fryer basket and spritz lightly with oil. Cook for 10 minutes – stopping midway to flip the fish. If you notice dry spots, this is the time to spritz with a bit more oil. Return the basket to the air fryer and cook 5 to 7 minutes or until the fish is cooked through.
Once done, squeeze lightly with lemon and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.
Nutrition Facts: 268 calories, 4g fat (1g saturated), 327 mg sodium, 15g total carbohydrate; 2g fiber, 43g protein.
Compare to Captain D's Southern Style White Fish (1 piece): 560 calories, 37g fat (20g saturated), 1390 mg sodium, 26g total carbohydrate; 0g fiber, 27g protein.
Air-fried whole wheat pizza (makes 2 servings)
1/4 cup lower-sodium marinara sauce
2 whole-wheat pita rounds
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1 small plum tomato (cut into 8 slices)
1 small garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 ounce pre-shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Heat air fryer to 350°F.
Spread marinara sauce evenly over one side of each pita bread. Top with half each of the spinach leaves, tomato slices, garlic and cheeses.
Place one pita in air fryer basket, and cook until cheese is melted and pita is crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat with remaining pita.
Nutrition Facts: 167 calories, 5g fat (2g saturated), 206 mg sodium, 23g total carbohydrate; 5g fiber, 11g protein.
Compare to Jet's Small Thin Crust Pizza (with tomatoes, spinach, and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses): 490 calories, 22g fat (9g saturated), 860 mg sodium, 47g total carbohydrate; 5g fiber, 28g protein.
Crunchy oil-free potato wedges (Serves 2)
“Instead of the French-fried potatoes we all know, these crispy potato wedges have become a favorite in my household — and they’re oil free.”
2 medium russet potatoes (cut into wedges)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Heat air-fryer to 400°.
Place all of the spices in a large bowl and mix. Add in potato wedges and toss until evenly coated.
Place the potato wedges in the air fryer basket and cook for 15 minutes (flipping wedges with tongs halfway through to cook evenly and prevent sticking). You may need additional cooking time (5 to 10 minutes) depending on the thickness of the wedges.
Nutrition Facts: 114 calories, 0g fat, 306 mg sodium, 27g total carbohydrate; 2g fiber, 3g protein.
Compare to Captain D's French fries: 330 calories, 22g fat (10g saturated), 400 mg sodium, 28g total carbohydrate; 3g fiber, 3g protein.