Food snobs look down on the air fryer. But it’s a boon for accessibility – and joy – in the kitchen

Food media personalities sometimes have an overblown idea of ​​how much influence we have as tastemakers. Case in point: The success of the air fryer has very little to do with us.

Until now, The Chronicle’s food section has never even acknowledged the existence of the machine, a tabletop appliance advertised as an easy way to fry foods with just a smidgen of oil. Few legacy food media publications have engaged with air fryer cooking in any substantive way beyond a handful of incredulous product reviews. But Americans seem to have a voracious appetite for what is essentially a small convection oven.

For years, those who considered themselves to be serious about food eschewed cooking gadgets, diminishing them as terrible substitutes for “real” cooking skills. On his long-running cooking show, “Good Eats,” Alton Brown popularized the idea that “unitaskers,” or trendy gadgets with just one function, might as well be useless.

Meredith Laurence, a cooking instructor and kitchen product developer who’s authored two air frying cookbooks, sees that sentiment as an extension of the elitism she experienced in her time in traditional restaurant kitchens. “I believe that if there’s a unitasking item in your kitchen that you use everyday, go for it. Why wouldn’t you? My shower only showers me, ”she pointed out. She says that most of the home cooks she encounters through her work aren’t afflicted with that sense of absolutism and are instead open to using tools that simply make cooking easier.

Dismissing the adaptations that home cooks have embraced – with or without tastemakers’ approval – is to ignore the many reasons why people adopt technology like the air fryer and “unitaskers” like handheld flour dusters and egg cutters. In addition to making cooking more accessible for more people, these tools also just make cooking more fun.

According to market analysts the NPD Group, Americans bought 25.6 million air fryers from January 2020 to December 2021, and sales of appliance-specific cookbooks outpaced sales of cookbooks in general.

Mandolin, egg cutter and air fryer, all single-use appliances.

Mandolin, egg cutter and air fryer, all single-use appliances.

Heami Lee / Special to The Chronicle

It’s not hard to grasp why. When pandemic lockdowns kept most from leaving their homes, interest in home cooking increased. On top of that, anyone who’s tried to order fried food for delivery can attest to the inherent flaws of the practice, manifested in flabby potatoes and lukewarm chicken. Why not get an appliance that makes frying easier, while being infinitely less terrifying and resource-intensive than a tabletop deep fryer?

There are now numerous Facebook groups devoted to swapping air fryer tips and tricks, some with memberships that rival the populations of small cities. While you could certainly stick to fried potatoes and fish sticks, these groups are braintrusts that have teased out the appliance’s versatility through experimentation. A quick browse in one of the biggest groups will reveal a myriad of experiments, from Maharashtrian chaat dishes to homemade Taco Bell Mexican pizzas and even eggs Benedict.

Laurence has also done a lot of ground work to prove that the air fryer isn’t like any other gimmicky appliance. She’s developed recipes for surprising air-fried dishes like cheesecake, for instance, and wrote in her newsletter that she often uses her machine multiple times in a single day.

Robin Wilson-Beattie, a disability and sexuality educator who lives in North Oakland, sees kitchen appliances as essential tools for connecting her culinary ambitions with reality. She uses her combination air fryer-pressure cooker to whip up cakes, fresh bread and extravagant seafood stews. The lightweight parts are easier for her to pick up and clean, too. “Disability-wise, it has saved me a lot of energy and made the whole process a lot less labor-intensive,” she said.

There have been many innovations in kitchen design and food processing that make home cooking more feasible for disabled people, though it’s common among abled people to pooh-pooh things like pre-cut produces and plastic straws as inherently wasteful or inferior. And adaptive technologies like height-adjustable cabinets and ovens with side-open doors are too costly for most and outright impossible for renters.

It’s easier, then, to make up the difference in smaller ways. Rosemary McDonnell-Horita, a disability inclusion consultant who lives in Berkeley, rents an apartment where the counters are too tall for her to reach from her wheelchair. So she slices vegetables for dishes like homemade gyoza with a mandolin that she balances over a mixing bowl on her lap. Her crockpot also sees a ton of use: Simple, one-pot “dump” recipes are especially helpful for low-energy days.

“A lot of the skills and hacks that I’ve learned have either come from necessity or from other disabled elders,” McDonnell-Horita said. “I know disabled people want to eat better and cook and experiment with food, but it takes a lot of time and energy.” For her part, she’s working on a cookbook for disabled people that will include energy-level ratings for recipes and recommendations for gadgets to use.

One of her favorites is a garlic wheel cutter, specifically made to roll over and mince cloves of garlic on a cutting board. It’s a must-have that she often gifts to friends for housewarmings and other occasions.

When we spoke via FaceTime, Wilson-Beattie’s eyes clearly lit up as she went through all of the things she has made or plans to make with her air fryer-pressure cooker combo. “I’m always telling people,‘ Guess what? I made this in the Ninja Foodi – and under 30 minutes! ‘ I sound like I’m in a commercial and they’re paying me, ”she joked.

There’s a special kind of joy that comes from people who have found a gadget that they love. Last month, Los Angeles stand-up comedian Jenny Yang posted a photo of her new egg cooker (complete with egg cup and top cutter) on Twitter, calling it a “wonder.” The basic model of the machine, which generally retails for less than $ 20, cooks up to six eggs at a time using steam and plays a tinny little song when it’s done.

“I’ve only had it for a month but I think about it all the time,” she said.

Yang actually grew up with a strong prejudice against specialized kitchen tools – for her frugal immigrant father, chopsticks were the ultimate multitaskers and one of the only things you needed in a kitchen.

“When I first started to break away from the way my parents taught me to consume or live my life, it included paying full price for clothing and maybe venturing into single function tools,” she said. “In a half joking but kind of real way, to me it’s the height of luxury to just buy a single-function appliance like an egg cooker.”

The pandemic has also loosened Yang’s mindset away from her previous sense of absolutism. She’s learned to lean into the things that give her pleasure, even if there’s no real justification for doing so. Life is too short for all that.

Within two days of that tweet, “conservatively 10 to 20” people reached out to her to say they bought one. Not enough numbers for Yang to call herself an egg influencer, but nevertheless a testament to the power of word of mouth.

Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: soleil@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hooleil

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