While we were all imprisoned at home in 2020, we turned to eating food, and preparing food to eat in order to occupy and comfort ourselves. People baked bread for the first time in their lives. When yeast in the stores ran out, the internet was alive with tips on how to get sourdough cultures started. And a lot of air fryers were marketed and bought.
The premise of air fryers seems unassailable: quickly circulate very hot air (up to 450 F/230 C) to get that delicious fried crispiness with minimal oil, and get it in minutes with minimal fuss and cleanup. Since we had an offer of getting an air fryer at a discount, I consulted my wise friend, the internet. I wanted to love air fryers, but it seems they don’t cook much differently than a modern countertop convection toaster/oven (“turbo broiler”). There are some space-age-looking air fryers with a more slender, curvaceous profile which has a somewhat smaller footprint than a rectangular turbo broiler, but the capacity is typically only enough for one person or a couple with modest appetites.
There was a time, back before the Beatles broke up, when a kitchen was considered complete with just a stove (with range-top burners and an oven) and a toaster. Oh, and a waffle iron.
But people kept having weddings, and that meant wedding presents, and that, increasingly, meant countertop appliances. Blenders for making smoothies crept in among the health-conscious, and microwave ovens poured in starting in the late 1970s, after people lost their fear of cooking with “radiation” (yes, that was an initial barrier). Electric crock pots allowed stewing food overnight without fiddling with stovetop burners that could not be turned down low enough to just simmer. Food processors, with their more robust capabilities, supplanted tall/skinnier blenders, and small but still simple toaster ovens often replaced toasters. Unlike toasters, the toaster oven now sat permanently on the counter, rather than being put away in a cabinet when not in use.
Large electric skillets were found useful in making large portions, Asians brought in their rice cookers, and Indians and Mexicans could use a convenient electric tortilla/flatbread cooker with upper and lower cooking surfaces. The InstaPot reintroduced the pressure cooker to a new generation. A plug-in, pushbutton pyrex tea kettle gives us boiling water while sparing us the arduous bother of turning off a stovetop burner. Our countertops are filling up…
But back to air fryers. The concept of cooking with circulating very hot air can be implemented in various configurations. For prepping small portions, putting the food in an air fryer basket, setting a time/temperature, pushing a button, and walking away and coming back in a few minutes to find the food cooked is certainly attractive. When I did some searches on relative virtues of these appliances, the comparison was nearly always to another pushbutton countertop device, the rectangular broiler/convection oven. As noted, the consensus seemed to be that the latter is more versatile. For instance, the Ninja SP101 Foodi Counter-top Convection Oven (around $200, thanks to low-cost Chinese supply chain) gets rave reviews, and has the added virtue that it can flip up against the wall when not in use to free up some counter space.
What surprised me most, however, in all my searching was that there were essentially no comparisons between the air fryer (or its countertop cousin, the turbo broiler) versus the humble broiler in a conventional oven. Has the collective memory of the oven broiler been lost? Nearly every first world kitchen still has a conventional stove. In that stove is an oven, and in that oven is a broiling element (open the oven door and look in/up, seriously, it is there…). Nearly all of the vaunted roast vegetables or French fries or crispy chicken pieces that can be made in an air fryer can also be made under a broiler in a conventional oven. Just turn the oven broiler on to do a little preheat while you finish arranging the food pieces on a roasting tray or old cookie sheet, and have the oven rack positioned high up in the oven, close to the broiling element. Cleanup of the oven broiling tray is probably no harder than the cleanup of an electric fryer basket and tray. We use our oven broiler routinely for making roast brussels sprouts, with a higher capacity than in most air fryers.
I suppose there are two main disadvantages of the oven broiler. First, it may be necessary in some cases to pull the tray out midstream and turn the food pieces over (but this is true for some air fryer dishes as well). The other is that you need to set a timer and then check your food frequently with an oven broiler. If you lose focus, you will quickly burn your food to a char and set off the smoke alarm (how do I know this?).
With the countertop devices, I think they are a little more forgiving on cooking times. And if you are willing to spend a somewhat more, you can get a downright smart countertop cooker, such as the “June Oven”. Featuring a 2.3-GHz quad-core NVIDIA processor, lots of sensors and a dose of artificial intelligence, it reportedly “boasts an internal camera, a built-in probe thermometer that estimates when your food will be cooked through, and a number of preprogrammed cooking functions. Its HD camera can recognize certain ingredients, automatically prompting the interface to recommend corresponding cooking programs. Plus, a Wi-Fi connection allows you to use an app to monitor your food with the camera and control the oven from anywhere in your home or even while you are out.” Anyone got a wedding coming up?