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A batch of French fries in an air fryer in New York.David Malosh/The New York Times News Service

Air fryers have become the current must-have kitchen gadget – in such demand they were sold out in stores across the country over the holiday season. A friend recently bragged that her sister nabbed one by scoping out the return line at Costco and buying it directly from a shopper bringing one back.

An air fryer is actually a countertop convection oven – a unit that uses fans to circulate hot air around whatever it is you’re cooking. As the definition of frying is to cook food in hot oil, it’s more accurate to call an air fryer a mini convection oven or air baker (baking and roasting utilize dry heat – i.e., air) – but as the Instant Pot proved with its epic rebranding of the pressure cooker, marketing is everything.

The convection setting of any oven helps food brown both by circulating the heat and drying the surface of whatever it is you’re cooking. (Browning can’t occur in the presence of moisture, as the complex Maillard reaction – which is responsible for the distinctive golden colour and flavour when heat is applied to amino acids and reducing sugars – occurs at temperatures higher than boiling water.) So why not call it a small-scale convection oven, and tout its ability to cook your food crisply and evenly without having to preheat your regular oven? When it comes down to it, what the air fryer is really selling is the belief that you’re getting away with something.

Typical air fryer marketing leverages that very 1990s fear of fat – perpetuating a negative association between frying and highly processed foods with a focus on items like fries, chicken wings, tater tots and gooey, cheesy things. In reality, people around the world have been cooking their food in oil – an inexpensive, accessible and effective heat conduit – for millennia. We all need some fat in our diets, and cooking food in oil does not inherently make it bad for you. But making that association is the crux of the air-fryer messaging: “Buying this machine allows you to eat fried foods without guilt” – versus “buying this machine allows you to bake small quantities of food and make them crispy and delicious.”

Some manufacturers go even further, claiming to “remove” or “extract” the fat from your food. To be clear, animal fats melt at around 100 F – so whether you’re baking, grilling, roasting or cooking on the stovetop, fat will render from a chicken as it roasts, salmon as it poaches or bacon as it sizzles. The implication that a company’s unique technology is what allows for this to happen is incredibly misleading.

Of course, fats are more calorie-dense than proteins or carbohydrates, but the actual fat content of food that has been baked instead of fried is not as dramatically different as is commonly believed. I put this to the test, cooking a batch of raw potato, sliced into sticks and tossed with a tablespoon of oil, in the air fryer – and also fried the same quantity on the stovetop, submerged in precisely measured oil. Once cooked (the stovetop was faster, surprisingly, even starting from room-temperature oil), I cooled and returned the oil to the measuring cup, and found about the same quantity had been absorbed by the fries – a bit less than a tablespoon.

There are, of course, benefits to a small countertop appliance beyond the questionable nutritional promises their marketing campaigns lean on: Most models don’t need to be preheated, and are great for reheating leftovers if you want them crispy – unlike the microwave, which can leave them soggy. And they’re great for baking, particularly those models shaped like little toaster ovens – if you want one or two big, freshly baked cookies or a few biscuits, you don’t have to waste energy using your full-sized oven.

And of course there are many who love the simplicity of push-button cooking, or feel safer having their kids reheat their meals or make snacks this way. It’s also a great unit for university dorm rooms and other small residences, and ideal if you’re cooking for one or only a few – though their small size can be limiting for families of four or more. There are plenty of good reasons to own one – just don’t buy into all the hot air.

Air Fryer Biscuits

Makes 6 biscuits

Biscuits are typically baked at a higher heat, making them perfect for the air fryer, and being able to bake just one or two is ideal for when you don’t need an entire batch. This is a very simple recipe – it calls for heavier cream, negating the need for butter – and you could turn it into cheese biscuits (toss ½ to 1 cup of grated aged cheddar with the dry ingredients) or add a handful of fresh or frozen berries and/or chopped chocolate along with the cream. Keep any unbaked dough in the fridge for up to three days.

  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream, plus extra for brushing

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. (If you’re making sweet biscuits, you could stir in a tablespoon or two of sugar here, too. And if you’re making cheese biscuits, toss in ½-1 cup grated aged cheddar or other flavourful cheese.)

Add the cream and stir until the dough comes together. If you like, pat it out about half an inch thick, and fold the dough over itself in thirds, as if you’re folding a letter. Pat the dough out about an inch thick, into a circle or square or rectangle, and cut it into wedges or squares with a bench scraper or a knife. If you like, brush a little more cream or milk on top of each biscuit right before you bake them.

Cook two or three at a time, or as many as your air fryer will accommodate, lining the bottom of the basket or rack with a square of parchment. Cook at 375-400 F for 18-20 minutes, or until risen and golden. Store extra dough in the fridge for up to a few days (the dough will be fine, but the baking powder will gradually lose its punch) and bake as you need them.

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