If what's under our Christmas trees is any indicator, we are a kitchen gadget nation. Fads have come and gone, enjoying their moment before being relegated to gathering dust in the basement or bringing a few bucks at a garage sale. (Fondue pot, I'm looking at you.) Some stand the test of time; my Kitchen Aid stand mixer will always have a place in our kitchen, and judging from Amazon sales year after year, the Instant Pot looks like it's going to stick around. But with the flurry of one-task-wonders competing for our attention it took a while for the air fryer to really bubble up in my consciousness.
Then I talked with professional meal planner Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts, about her kitchen renovation. Having an air fryer was a game changer for her family during the several month period that she was cooking out of a makeshift kitchen in their garage. By the time her beautiful new kitchen was complete the gadget had become indispensable, she tells NBC News BETTER. “It's the most used appliance in our house now.”
And you won't believe the things you can make with one. Dang shares several of her favorites with NBC News BETTER, but first, what the heck even is an air fryer?
This is not your Fry Daddy 2.0. There's no bucket of grease. In fact, Dang says, it's more like a glorified oven, albeit a miniature one, that doesn't have to pre-heat. (In my mind it's like the best of the toaster oven and home fryer worlds, minus the gallon of oil.)
You get that crispy/crunchy outside and chewy inside perfect, sweet spot.
Air fryers come in various shapes and forms, but basically, Dang explains, "it's an appliance with a small space so you can circulate hot air. With deep frying you're able to get oil around the surface area and this is the same thinking, just with air.” And thanks to the air circulation, “there's much more evenness in cooking,” she says. “I compare it to a really good oven versus deep frying ... you get that crispy/crunchy on the outside and chewy inside perfect sweet spot.” Throw something — practically anything — in and you can heat it up really fast and evenly, she says.
If it sounds too good to be true, there is a drawback. Most air fryers are on the smaller side. You won't be making eight servings of anything for a dinner party like you do in your oven. But cooking for two or in a couple of batches? You're golden.
Before you dive right in, here are a few tips:
- Plan on about 20 minutes for all vegetables, Dang says. The first 10 minutes she doesn't use oil; at that point she tosses the veggies in oil and that helps them crisp without burning.
- Thicker items do better. My shoestring butternut squash spirals burned, whereas baby carrots, Dang says, are ideal.
- No recipe? No problem. “I think people get hung up on temperature but I keep everything at 375,” Dang says.
- And “especially the first couple times you use it, it's worth checking a few times toward the end.”
Ready to start air frying? Here are some of Dang's suggestions for air fryers (specifically for those with baskets) — most of which require no oil at all.
Pizza for 1!
Roll out mini pizzas that can fit into your air fryer. Place into basket and then top with sauce, cheese, and toppings, and air-fry for 10 to 12 minutes. (You can also heat up frozen individual pizzas much more quickly than waiting for an oven to pre-heat, and they're much crispier than if you microwave them!)
Any dessert that's baked in the oven — think brownies, crumbles, cupcakes — can also be done in the air fryer. You don't have to preheat the same way as an oven so just shrink it to a container that can fit in the air fryer and follow the same timing as the oven (but start checking the last two to three minutes).
Whisk egg with cheese and veggies in a container like a ramekin or small baking dish that will fit in the compartment. Air fry for 20 to 25 minutes. Bonus: these come out juicier than oven baking them.
Choose any type of meat (leftover pulled pork is a great bet). Spread cheese out onto a flour or corn tortilla, then layer with meat. Roll tightly and brush lightly with some oil. Place into air fryer basket and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until they're golden.
Poke some holes with a fork in Russet or sweet potatoes and and air fry for 30 to 40 minutes. They end up so much lighter and moist than baked potatoes in the oven.
Yes, you can do fries and chicken tenders, but air fryers are also great for healthy veggies like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, baby carrots, butternut squash and peppers. And yes, you can even start with frozen vegetables.
Forget tofu sticking to the pan and not crisping up. You don't even need breading — just cube extra-firm tofu and toss with some oil, salt and pepper. Air fry for 15 to 20 minutes, shaking once. Toss with your favorite sauce right after air frying.
And my favorite idea, shared by Margaret O'Malley, editor of BETTER: Just toss a drained can of chickpeas with a little oil and air fry, then season with flaky sea salt, herbs de Provence, curry or Japanese spice blend for a crunchy, savory snack.