MOORHEAD, Minn. — If you've read my former weekly column "Friday 5," you can surmise a couple things about me, Emma Vatnsdal — I am obsessed with my dog, I own a house (with black stairs), I use humor to combat things that go wrong in my life and I. LOVE. TO. EAT.
Recently, though, I have made a whole-hearted attempt to transform my 5-foot-3-inch, 200-plus pound physique into the stuff of supermodels. Or, you know, just healthier. Either one, really.
Since the new year, I have become a bit more adventurous in the kitchen — creating meals that will fill me up but not cause me to weigh more than I already do — but I do miss my chicken nugs, french fries and nachos when I am stuck on what to make, and regardless of my sad attempts at bursting into the health and fitness world (ha!), I am and always will be a fried-food fanatic.
But supposedly there's a way for me to get that sweet, sweet greasy goodness into my system in a way that is 1: faster, and 2: maybe a TAD less greazy. It's called an air fryer, and it's become, as the kids would say, "all the rage" since the holiday season.
And it just might be the perfect way to feed the crowd this Super Bowl Sunday.
What is it?
What exactly is an air fryer? How can one fry with air? Don't you need gobs of oil to attain that perfectly crispy, crunchy texture we all know and love?
A 2017 article written for Kitchen Weapon gives a fairly good overview of the small appliance, including what it is and how it works. The article explains, "An air fryer is a machine that is said to fry delicious dishes without having to use cooking oil that could make you fat or unhealthy."
Fried foods? WITHOUT making me fat or unhealthy? Hot diggity. Sign me up!
It works by cooking food using circulating heated air that helps to create the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food (like french fries, bread, steaks and more) its distinct color, flavor and smell.
The air fryer was first patented by Philips Electronics Co. in 2010 and was promised to cook dishes that would contain 80 percent less fat. It's basically a souped-up countertop convection oven, and because it has dishwasher-safe parts, cleaning up is easy.
What can you air fry?
Ah, the genesis of this entire piece. What exactly can you air fry?
Well, lady people and gentle dudes, a better question would be what can't you air fry? (Hint: wet batters. They just don't work.)
Like I said before, I really like cooking. And I really, really like cooking when there are other people who want to eat the foods that I cooked. These two things combined mean I love to host people at my house for various events — it's a win-win for me, because I don't have to leave my house but I still get to socialize.
From football Sunday with my favorite boys to game nights with friends, if there's a gathering, there's going to be food. Next on my agenda? Super Bowl Sunday.
It's my first time hosting a Super Bowl party since I've moved into my little home in north Moorhead, so what better time than now to bust out the ol' air fryer? And by "bust out," I mean ask boyfriend John Miller really nicely to bring the air fryer he got for Christmas from his wonderful parents to my house so I can use it.
To prepare myself for the big day, I enlisted the help of two of my closest friends, Hannah Foss and Sam McFarlane, to help test out some food, which really wasn't too hard. It was "The Bachelor" night and what goes better with crying girls and drama than some deliciously brown food? (How fun must it be to have one of your best friends work at the newspaper!)
Miller was there, too. I told him if I could borrow the air fryer he could stay and eat, but he had to watch "The Bachelor" with us.
I picked four popular Super Bowl foods to test out — nachos, pigs in a blanket, french fries and chicken strips — to pit the air fryer against the oven to see which stood up the best.
Pigs in a blanket
First up was the classic pigs in a blanket. They aren't hard to make — just roll half of a crescent-dough triangle around a cocktail weenie and you're good to go.
For the oven version, I cooked them on a round pizza pan for 12 minutes at 375 degrees. Easy-peasy. They came out a light golden-brown with a fully-cooked weenie and a touch of crispiness.
The air fryer version was a bit different. I wrapped the weenie up the same way and arranged them on the grates in the air fryer basket. Popped them in the chamber and cooked them at 330 degrees for just eight minutes.
The verdict? "I thought the air fryer pigs in a blanket were better," says Foss, a pigs in a blanket novice. "More crispiness on the croissant, but more flavor on the hot dog. Even though it was crispy on the croissant, it was still fluffy on the inside."
McFarlane and Miller agreed.
"It had more flavor, the air fryer one did," McFarlane says.
"I would say the air fryer had the advantage," Miller says. "It was a nice crunch on the outside, but still fluffy in the center with the croissant. Then the hot dog flavor really popped in the air fryer."
Chicken strips and fries
Chicken strips and fries. What a classic combo.
I walked into my local Hornbacher's and grabbed a bag of each, the store brand Essential Everyday chicken tenders and crinkle-cut fries. They're tasty, they're cheap and they're exactly what you'd feed to people on Super Bowl Sunday.
In the oven, the fries take a really long time. Like, 16 to 18 minutes long. You toss them on a cookie sheet and pop them in the 450-degree oven and let'er buck. The tendies also took their sweet-as-honey time. They cooked for 12 minutes in a 425-degree oven. It's a lot of waiting, and it creates kind of a mess — two pans at once plus two different temperatures of oven equals an unhappy Emma.
But these babies are where I think the air fryer really shines. Just toss them into the basket, slide the basket into the chamber, set it to 390 and cook for eight or so minutes. BOOM. Done.
My dear friends and guinea pigs thought so, too. They couldn't really tell the difference on the tendies — McFarlane says they were juicier in the oven — but the fries stood out.
"I always think when you bake a french fry you can taste the freezer burn, even if they aren't freezer-burnt," McFarlane says. "But the air fryer ones, I didn't taste that. I tasted all potato."
Miller thought the air fryer fries tasted more like what you'd get at a restaurant, with fluffy insides and a good, solid crisp on the outside.
Nachos were a bit trickier. A perfect bite has to have all the elements on one chip, while the pre-cooking layering needs to be just-so to ensure even distribution.
My nachos went like this: a layer of tortilla chips on the bottom, followed by pre-cooked chicken pieces, a little bit of shredded cheddar, corn, black beans, queso dip and more cheddar to top it off. Usually I add some salsa, but I've been cooking with a lot of salsa lately and was out of it. The testers were just going to have to survive.
Oven nachos are great, you layer them up and pop them in the oven at 350 degrees for 12 minutes and you're done. They're easy to grab off the pan and ingredients are all evenly distributed.
Air fryer nachos were a bit of a conundrum. I had to layer them just right to be able to spread the love (aka ingredients) while allowing everything to crisp up during cooking, which is done at 390 degrees for eight minutes. Then comes the task of getting them out of the basket to eat. It was a whole thing that could have resulted in burnt hands, but thankfully my friends are smarter and less clumsy.
"(I preferred) the ones in the air fryer," Foss says. "The cheese was more gooey."
"I liked the air fryer ones," McFarlane agrees. "I definitely noticed the cheese flavor and the gooeyness more in the air fryer versus the oven. It gave the chips a little more crisp as well."
Both McFarlane and Foss agreed the chicken pieces on the nachos were better in the air fryer. McFarlane even admitted to picking the poultry out of her serving of oven nachos.
Is it worth it?
After all these trials, one question remains: Is the air fryer worth it?
Well, that answer comes down to what you use it for. In a college house, it's perfect for the late-night study snacks and drunchies that are sure to follow a night out in downtown Fargo. Supposedly you can use an air fryer to make healthy foods, too, and heating up leftovers is way better.
They're dishwasher-safe, but a bit pricey. A small 3.4-quart model will run around $30, while a more deluxe version can run upwards of $80. They also can cook only so much at a time. In order to make the foods crisp evenly, single layers work best — meaning cooking a few batches are needed to make enough for more than a couple people.
But for small get-togethers like Super Bowl Sunday or "Bachelor" night, it's the perfectly healthy way to get your daily allotment of grease and fried food.