I’ve had an air fryer for well over a year and even started a Facebook group, FatFree Vegan Air Fryers, to share cooking ideas. I’ve posted several air fryer recipes, but I’ve never taken the opportunity to write about the air fryer in depth, to review the different air fryers, describe how they work, give formulas for converting “regular” recipes for the air fryer, etc.
And there’s a reason for that:
I don’t think air fryers are really necessary. And if you don’t have one, you can still make this air fried tofu because I’ve included oven directions at the end of the recipe.
Let me back up a bit and say that an air fryer is basically a small, super-charged convection oven; a fan circulates heat through the perforated basket that the food sits in, browning it in all sides. I have two appliances which have air frying features: A small Phillips Viva (a model that has been discontinued) and a large Breville Smart Oven Air, which is a toaster oven on steroids with an air frying setting and basket. Both of these fryers are considered top of the line among air fryers and have the price tags to prove it. (I bought them both myself, and have no affiliation with either company.)
Let me also qualify my statement that they aren’t necessary by confessing that I mostly use mine for only two foods: potatoes and tofu. Every now and then I make burgers and air fry them in the Breville, but I use my Phillips mostly to make “French fries” and tofu. So I’m hardly an expert on air frying, though that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion.
There are a few advantages to air frying instead of baking. Before I get to them, I want to say something controversial: I don’t consider the Breville Smart Oven Air (BSOA) a real air fryer. Now, I love the thing and use it daily for baking and reheating (it will hold a full-sized pan of lasagna, I kid you not), but as an air fryer it is huge but lackluster. I consider the air frying setting a gimmick, a very successful one by the number of people who have bought it. It works okay, but most of the following advantages of air fryers do not apply to it.
Air Fryers are Fast
I find that my Phillips air fryer cooks food in about half the time that it would take in the oven. The BSOA takes a little more time but normally less than an conventional oven (if you increase the heat.)
Air Fryers Cook at a Lower Temperature
Something about having hot air whipping around at hurricane speeds means that you don’t have to use as high a temperature as oven cooking. I reduce the temperature of a conventional recipe by as much as 70 degrees F when I make it in an air fryer.
Note: This does not apply to the BSOA. I find that everything needs to be cooked at much higher temperatures with the Breville’s air frying setting. For instance, I make thin French fries with the Phillips at 360F but have to turn the BSOA up to 425F.
Air Fried Food Does Not Need To Be Turned as Often
Because air is circulating through the mesh basket, food doesn’t have to be turned as often and is less likely to stick badly. But I find that I do need to loosen and rearrange the food at least once halfway through cooking so that it cooks evenly. I do this with a thin spatula; even though instructions will often say to “shake the basket,” often food is too stuck to really shake loose.
All in all, I think air fryers have some benefits, especially in terms of energy efficiency and time savings. But there are a few downsides:
- They’re one-use appliances that take up space in the kitchen.
- The better ones can be expensive.
- The smallest ones are often too small, unless you are cooking for one. The Phillips I have, for instance, will hold only one burger unless I use the rack I purchased separately, for an extra $30. Then it holds two burgers. (Advice: Buy the biggest one you can afford.)
- The cheaper ones often have non-stick coatings that flake off. Read the reviews on Amazon before you buy.
- If you avoid non-stick coatings, it can be difficult to find a model without them (the Phillips’ basket is metal but the interior where the food drips is non-stick.)
- Unless you’re used to fat-free food, you won’t find air-fried food much like fried food. A lot of buyers have felt disappointed that the results didn’t match the hype. And yes, you can cook without any oil in an air fryer, despite what the user manual states, though I’m sure that using a little oil would give the food a more realistic fried texture.
- While the Phillips is easy to clean because you can soak the basket in the main compartment, the Breville’s air fryer basket may be too big to fit flat in the kitchen sink, so it’s hard to soak. It also is not meant for cooking food that drips because of the heating element at the bottom. Food can easily drip through the grill and burn onto the bottom.
If you’d like to buy an air fryer, I’m not trying to dissuade you, but I think it’s important to know these things going in.
There is one thing that the air fryer does very well, and it alone is almost enough reason to buy one:
The air fryer does something magical to tofu. It crisps the edges and makes it firmer and chewier, all without you having to freeze it or press it with fancy tofu presses. It’s absolutely addictive, and it’s oil-free.
I often make air fried tofu for stir-fries by marinating it in a mixture of soy sauce and sriracha, soy sauce and chili garlic sauce, soy sauce and a dash of sesame oil and garlic. The only essential is the soy sauce. I find tofu unappealingly bland if it’s not salted, and soy sauce adds the salt as well as the umami flavor.
What I do not add is starch. I tried just once adding starch to my tofu, and it was nowhere near as good as it is “naked.” It left a powdery residue in my mouth that I wish I could forget.
Last week I was trying to pull a last-minute lunch together from limited ingredients–not enough of anything to make a big salad but just enough salad vegetables to stuff a couple of wraps. I was tired of hummus and wanting something different, so I quickly marinated some tofu in Italian seasonings while the air fryer was preheating. Italian style air fried tofu was born.
I posted the photo of that lunch on Instagram, and so many people wanted the recipe that I knew I’d have to make it again and keep track of the amounts I used of each ingredient so that I could post it here. That was no hardship! I loved it so much that I’ve had it four times in the past week, and I hope you’ll love it, too.
Air Fried Tofu Italian Style
- 8 ounces extra-firm tofu
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
- 1 tablespoon aquafaba or broth (see notes)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
- black pepper to taste
- Drain the tofu and cut it into three slices lengthwise. Put down a double layer of tea towels or paper towels, place the tofu slices on top, and cover with more towels. Place your hands over the tofu slices and press down, gently increasing pressure, to press enough water out that the towels are noticeably wet. (You can also use a tofu press for this, of course.)
- Return the tofu to the cutting board and cut each piece into about 10 cubes (one cut down the length and then 5 across works well.) Place the tofu in a large ziplock bag or bowl.
- Mix the remaining ingredients well. Pour over the tofu and gently turn the bag or stir the tofu until all sides are coated. Let it marinate at least 10 minutes--the longer you marinate it, the more flavorful it will be.
- Preheat your air fryer at 390-400F for about 3 minutes. Place the tofu in a single layer in the basket (leaving any marinade behind) and immediately reduce the temperature to around 350F. Air fry for 6 minutes. Use a thin, flexible spatula to loosen the tofu and turn it. Return it to the air fryer and begin checking at 4 minutes to see if it is golden overall and slightly darker at the edges but not overcooked or it will be tough.
- Use any way you like--my preference is in wraps with plenty of veggies and balsamic vinaigrette--but it's also good in pasta.
Nutritional info is approximate.
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Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions that I didn’t answer about air frying.
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