The ever-popular air fryer has worked its way into many homes. Perhaps you have one sitting on your kitchen counter. It’s the healthy cooking alternative to deep frying. But is this popularity shared in commercial foodservice applications? What is an air fryer and why should you care what type of fryer your favorite restaurant uses? Would you notice the difference in the preparation method or the taste of your favorite treats?
Air fryers for home use are advertised to use dramatically less fat or no fat at all to produce our favorite deep-fried foods with a similar taste and mouthfeel to what we eat at our local restaurants. An air fryer is a good idea when cooking at home because not only will it prepare meals with less calories than traditionally fried foods, but also it is safe to operate. The chance of burning yourself with splatters of hot oil is practically eliminated due to the low amount of oil used.
Let’s Look at the Basics – How do Air Fryers Work?
Technically, an air fryer does not fry food in the traditional sense. The dictionary describes frying as “to undergo cooking in fat or oil”. Air fryers use very little oil, if any at all, and circulate hot air at 400 degrees Fahrenheit or above. So, air frying is actually closer to cooking in a convection oven than frying. The difference between air frying and convection cooking is provided by the fryer’s smaller oven cavity, facilitating the air to spin around much faster. This produces a crispy outside of the food while locking moisture inside.
What about Deep Fat Fryers?
Traditional deep fat fryers create a very similar result with food being dropped and submerged in very hot oil, creating a crispy outside surface in a short amount of time. The method is considered a dry-heat cooking process even though oil is used. The temperature of the oil is very important as the food will absorb more of it, the cooler it is. A temperature range of 375 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit is typically best. These high temperatures make deep frying a rather dangerous cooking method. Hot oil can splatter and spit, especially when frozen foods are dropped into it and the water reacts with the oil. Water and hot oil are not friends!
It seems that commercial kitchens should all use air fryers, if only to reduce liability, given its safety advantage. Unfortunately, though, air fryers are not feasible for all kitchens. The big disadvantage is the huge shortfall in food production volume. Industrial air fryers can only produce a very limited amount of food at one time. We are talking in the 2-pound range per load or 10 – 30 pounds per hour, depending on the product being cooked. In comparison, deep fryers are available in a variety of sizes and can cook from 40 – 160 pounds of food per hour, depending on fryer and oil capacity. So, when you picture your favorite restaurant on a typical Friday night, it is unlikely that they could keep up with demand utilizing air fryers only.
Deep frying allows the temperature of the food item to rise much quicker than when exposed to hot air, so not only is the quantity of the food that can be cooked in a traditional fryer much greater, but also the cooking times are reduced. And unless your air fryer is fitted with a window (and most available on the market are not), the food and cooking process cannot be monitored as easily as with a traditional fryer.
Quality of the Food
All sides of the food need to be exposed to the hot circulating air, so the placement of the food inside the air fryer is important or crispiness cannot be achieved. This can be a challenge during busy times in any kitchen when cooks are multi-tasking. It is simply easier and faster to drop a couple of handfuls of food into the deep fryer and give the basket a few vigorous shakes to separate each item.
Also, battered items don’t always do so well in air fryers because the fast-spinning air can pick up loose bits of the batter and whip them around, reducing the quality of the food, causing food waste (small, but everything counts when you are running a successful food service business), and creating more clean-up. High moisture foods, such as vegetables also don’t fare well because the high-water content evaporates during the cooking process, making it more difficult to achieve the crispy outside. This moisture evaporates more quickly in a traditional deep fryer where moisture is locked in as soon as the outside is sealed by the hot temperature.
On a positive note, delicate and unbattered foods, such as flaky fish fare better in the air fryer because they don’t move around as much and might fall apart in a deep fryer basket. Some foods, such as freshly cut french fries have a more authentic potato flavor when prepared in an air fryer. However, pre-cut fries lose some of the potato taste in the air fryer because they are often flash fried in a traditional fryer before packaged.
There is also the cost of equipment purchase and maintenance that the foodservice operator must consider. A commercial grade air fryer ranges in price from $10,000 for a single unit to $26,000 for a double-stacked unit. Traditional deep fryers range in price from $16,000 to $55,000, depending on oil capacity and accessories.* Air fryers do not require placement under an exhaust hood due to their ventless cooking capabilities, so the additional hood expense for the deep fryer needs to be considered. However, is the up-front cost saving worth the dramatic reduction in food production volume over time?
Another piece of equipment that can provide air frying is the combi oven which has the ability to cook larger quantities of food in a mode similar to air fryers. However, a combi oven should not be considered for the sole purpose of air frying since the initial cost of purchase far outweighs the benefits of offering air fried menu items only.
Traditionally deep-fried foods are a big part of the eating culture in the US, and even around the globe. Chicken wings and onion rings come to mind for the US, while other countries offer fish & chips and Scotch eggs (British Isles), apple fritters (Germany) or katsu (Japan). While air fried foods are undoubtedly better for our health, the taste of deep-fried foods cannot be authentically replicated in an air fryer. The oil used in deep fryers carries and adds a lot of flavor. So as with everything when it comes to food and eating, deep fried foods are best enjoyed in moderation. This author will continue to order the occasional portion of deep-fried chicken wings when eating out but will use a residential model air fryer for a similar, but not quite original taste experience when cooking at home.
By Katja Beck, FCSI | Fort Lauderdale
* all prices are approximate list price