You dream about fried chicken and French fries make you swoon. Alas, what your heart wants isn’t so good for your heart health. What’s a fried-food lover to do?
An air fryer might be the next best kitchen gadget for you. “Air-frying is a healthier option because it essentially eliminates added oils completely,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD.
An oil-free fryer
Despite the name, air fryers don’t technically fry food. Think of them as mini convection ovens. These countertop appliances use a fan to blow hot air around a basket that contains your food. The result: fries, veggies and other foods that crisp up quickly on the outside while staying moist in the middle.
To be fair, an air fryer won’t perfectly simulate the texture of French fries cooked in a vat of hot grease. But it will get you closer to that crispy outcome than baking or steaming your foods will. “Air-frying creates that great crispy texture you’re looking for, without any oil,” Zumpano says.
What’s wrong with oil? Even healthier oils, including olive oil and avocado oil, contain a lot of calories. Gram for gram, fats (such as cooking oil) contain more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates.
When you’re frying food, those calories can add up quickly. “Deep-frying uses a tremendous amount of oil, and even pan-frying meat or vegetables requires a fair amount,” Zumpano says.
Deep-fried foods can also be high in trans fats. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils (liquid fats made solid, like vegetable shortening) that can raise LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Fried foods from restaurants are especially likely to have been bubbled in oils containing trans fats.
How to use an air fryer
Air fryers are a popular alternative to frying foods. But a new kitchen gadget can be daunting. Where to begin?
“You can cook almost anything in an air fryer,” Zumpano says. She shares what to do (and avoid) to turn out tasty foods without the oil.
Read the manual
Some air fryers look like toaster ovens with a tray for the food. Others look more like deep fryers with a hanging basket inside. They work similarly, but you use them differently. Flip through the instructions before you start.
Heat some meat
For a healthy alternative to a fried chicken bucket or basket of wings, try air-frying lightly breaded chicken breast pieces instead. Fish is also great in the air fryer, Zumpano says. “Lightly bread a filet with whole-grain flour, whole-grain cereal or ground flax seeds. You’ll end up with fish that’s perfectly crispy outside and not overdone in the middle.”
Jazz up veggies
Steamed vegetables are a bit of a yawn. Air-fried veggies? “They’re phenomenal,” Zumpano says. You can use the appliance to cook fresh veggies as well as frozen. Zumpano uses hers to turn chopped kale into crunchy kale chips — a nutrient-packed snack that satisfies your hankering for chips. And one extra tip: Toss the veggies in a small amount of olive oil or avocado oil to keep them from being overly dry.
Un-fry your fries
Oven-baked fries can take a long time to cook, and they’re hard to get perfectly crispy. The air fryer is great for whipping up fries that satisfy your craving for crunch. It’s also ideal for sweet potato fries, which can end up mushy in the oven. Keep the skin on to maximize your fiber and nutrients intake.
Skip the liquid
Adding liquid to an air fryer can result in soggy food — and a mess burned onto the bottom of the appliance. “Skip marinades and dressings that will drip,” Zumpano says. “It’s OK to lightly coat something in oil, though you don’t have to. And it should never be sopping wet.”
If the meat has already been marinated, be sure to remove any excess liquid and cover the bottom pan with aluminum foil to avoid a mess.
Keep an eye on your food
Air fryers cook quickly. That’s a good thing when you need to get dinner on the table. But foods can go from baked to black in the blink of an eye. Charred food may contain cancer-causing compounds, so keep an eye on your entrée to avoid burning.
Air fryers may be better for you than deep fryers, but they’re only as healthy as the food you put inside. They won’t magically remove the saturated fat from bacon or the trans fats from a bag of processed chicken wings. To reap the benefits, reach for better-for-you options like vegetables and lean proteins.
“Think of the air fryer as a way to enhance healthier foods, so they’re even more tempting,” Zumpano says.