When air fryers first emerged on the market several years ago, Fiona Weir, a kitchen expert with consumer organisation Choice, said she was baffled.
- Since Oprah mentioned the new-to-market air fryer back in 2016, a cult-like following has emerged around the globe
- Kitchen experts are baffled, though, as they say these devices are little more than a benchtop fan-forced oven
- Yet the level of their popularity can be measured by the hundreds of thousands of devotees who share recipes on social media
“When I first looked at them, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is ridiculous’. It’s a little oven that sits on your bench. And you’ve already got a big oven that you can use,” Ms Weir said.
But over the past five years, she’s watched air fryers explode in popularity, and even gain a cult following on social media with owners sharing everything they make.
While they have their advantages (their small size means they warm up quickly and can supply a snack swiftly without heating up the entire kitchen) there is a glaring misconception — it’s not frying.
You can’t ‘fry’ in air
Food cooked in an air fryer was “just baked food”, Ms Weir said.
“We did some tests with [cooking food in] ovens and air fryers, and we were getting the same results.”
While the appeal of air fryers for many people seems to be cooking things like chips and chicken nuggets without deep frying, they are only as healthy as the ingredients that have gone into them.
“When you say fried foods, you think of crumbed chicken and fried chicken and battered foods, but they don’t do that. It’s just baked,” she said.
“You can’t have battered fish, unless it’s pre-cooked.
“All those pre-packaged foods that you can get frozen work amazingly in air fryers because it’s already pre-cooked, and it’s already got the oil in it.
“You don’t have to add any oil, you just put it in — but you can do that in an oven as well.”
Power of a new name
The idea that people can be resold a product that they already have might seem strange, but Gary Mortimer from Queensland University of Technology’s business school said companies had simply identified a consumer desire and created a shrewd response.
“There are people who want to eat healthy fried food, which seems to be a contradiction in terms,” Professor Mortimer said.
“So, they developed a product that is operationally sound and does what it does but used terms like ‘air fryer’ to imply that the product was being fried with air.
“These two words, they’re quite operative: air and fryer.
Customers advertising for sellers
Air fryers got a huge boost when Oprah Winfrey praised them in 2016 and they have also achieved a lift on social media where there are numerous Facebook groups for fans to swap recipes.
Air Fryer Recipes Australia is one of those groups with 128,000 members, while another group — Share Kmart Air Fryer Recipes — has a staggering 468,000 members.
“You tend to sell more products if you’ve got your market promoting the product for you,” Professor Mortimer said.
“I imagine [sellers] would have started with some initiatives or incentives to get people to share stories about their favourite air fryer recipes.”
Joining and sharing in such groups can also give people a sense of community and validation.
“We like getting that recognition from others saying, ‘That’s a great idea, great recipe’, and you can feel good about sharing your opinions and ideas.”
Benchtop devices have their uses
Ms Weir said the fact that air fryers were small, fan-forced ovens with savvy marketing did not mean they were not functional and could not be very useful.
“Especially in lockdown, if you’ve got kids around and they’re hungry all the time, you can give them the option of just making some chips in there or some sort of convenient food,” she said.
“There are good things that you can cook in them. You can do some amazing air-fried vegetables [such as] roasted vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower [or] roasted pumpkin. And they’re great for roasting nuts.”
They could also be useful in a setting where it’s not realistic to install a full oven, such as in an office kitchen, for workers to reheat food.
Do you really need one?
Ms Weir said their small size meant, for many families — especially if they had a good oven already — there was no need to buy one.
“There’s not a lot you can do at one time. If you had a family of four, you’d be [struggling] to do one serve of cooking at a time. You’d need to probably do a batch of food a couple of times to get enough food on the table,” she said.
She said she had also noticed manufacturers of regular ovens were even beginning to leverage the air-fryer fascination, by selling them with ‘air-fryer’ functions.
“It’s just basically fan-forced mode. They may also have the basket-type trays,” Ms Weir said.
“[The basket trays] are the best for cooking chips and things like that because you get that airflow all around, and you can just get them from the shops.”
This decade’s bread-maker
Like many novelty appliances that once shone bright, both Professor Mortimer and Ms Weir thought the device’s popularity would eventually fade.
However, they said, it was likely something new would soon come out that claimed to revolutionise something we already did in the kitchen.
“There are just so many appliances out there that are unnecessary in the home,” Ms Weir said.
“We’re just here to try to convince people otherwise — it’s really not necessary to have these if you’ve got a perfectly good fan-forced oven.
“It’s just adding to landfill and another expense, and they take up bench space.”