Gadget Lust: Is 'Fat-Free Fryer' an Oxymoron?

AirFryer Marissa Rothkopf Bates

Nothing says Super Bowl to me like a pile of crispy chicken wings and a couple of hours of the Puppy Bowl. (Although this year I also have the option of the FishBowl, the Kitten Bowl and, from what others tell me, football.)

So midway through January, when my healthier-eating resolve was still intact, I spied a Philips Airfryer on a table at a Williams-Sonoma and caved. The display made tantalizing promises: The Airfryer would cook with 80 percent less fat than conventional frying, making food that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and possibly solve this whole Israel-Palestine thing while it is at it. I would make healthier wings for my Super Bowl party. Oh yes, I would.

I quickly got my hands on an Airfryer and put it through its paces. I made soy-marinated chicken wings, then bacon-wrapped shrimp and cheese-filled risotto balls. I crumb-coated cubes of cheese and cooked them until they were, yes, crispy on the outside and melty on the inside. I turned portobello mushrooms into pepperoni pizzas with a recipe straight from the Airfryer cookbook (genius, and oh-so gluten-free). I even made a grilled cheese sandwich - but I won't do it again. I roasted cauliflower, but only so you'd think I was eating healthfully. All of these turned out delicious and were simple and quick to cook.

But they weren't fried foods.

Edna Lewis, the doyenne of Southern cooking, believed chicken should be fried as it was in her youth: "[in] sweet, home-rendered lard, churned butter and a slice of smoked ham for added flavor." There was no better way to "recapture those good flavors of the past," she told The New York Times.

What she would make of the Philips Airfryer, which promises all the crunch and flavor of frying with only one tablespoon of cooking fat? I suspect her response would be something along the lines of, "Now how can it be frying if you don't use any fat?"

And indeed, Lewis would be right. In fact, the Airfryer is a very effective, very small convection oven that can turn out some crispy, delicious food. It's just not fried food. The Airfryer sets out to re-create what we like about frying: a crispy exterior and a juicy interior. And in almost all cases, this is what it does, very successfully.

Strangely enough, what my machine didn't do well is what I think a lot of people would buy it for: french fries. I carefully soaked the potatoes to remove excess starch and used the chef-approved double-cook method. Unfortunately, the fries were limp in parts and crispy in others. They browned unevenly with a pattern that looked rather like leopard skin, which is nice on a leopard, but not on a french fry. My children leapt away from them. My chip-loving British husband thought they were fine, but he is an indiscriminate lover of all things potato.

Want great french fries out of this machine? Buy frozen ones. In fact, an all-American dinner I made for my children of fresh-from-the-freezer chicken nuggets and waffle fries (organic waffle fries, I hasten to add) produced the best chicken nuggets I've cooked at home. And having made what must be close to 12,000 chicken nuggets for my children, this statement counts for something. These golden-brown nuggets seductively glistened with fat. Inside, they were so juicy that my son said he could eat his with a straw. I think he was joking.

Once I figured out the strengths of the Airfryer, I used it to my chicken-winging advantage. After a few days of experimentation, with wet and dry marinades, I tried a simple dry rub of curry powder, kosher salt, garlic powder, cumin, coriander and chili powder. After 15 minutes in the Airfryer the skin on the wings crackled and popped. Most of the chicken fat had rendered out, leaving behind crisp skin worthy of a deep fryer.

The Airfryer is a nifty little machine for two people - or more if you don't mind cooking in batches - just as with a real home deep fryer. Its footprint is small, and it will sit there on your counter, looking rather like Darth Vader's helmet, all black and sleek and ready for battle. We not only cook our dinners in it, but we have started using it as a mini toaster oven, reheating leftovers, such as pizza, that benefit from a quick, dry heat. And while I'm sure it's against campus regulation, this thing would make yours the most popular dorm room on campus. And it sure beats cooking in your coffeemaker.