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An ode to crispy food: How I became an air fryer convert and a leftovers guy

Salon 3/19/2023 Michael La Corte

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For years, an air fryer sat in its box in the corner of my dining room. It was covered with paper takeout bags and reusable grocery bags, chips and candies, random detritus and the like, often completely disappearing from my view and consciousness.

It was a random, likely never-to-be-used item that had been purchased in a particularly devastating time period after my dad passed away. My mom, brother and I learned that Bed Bath & Beyond was having a wild sale in which air fryers were being offered for an inexplicably cheap price. In a stupor, we bought one, trudging it home where it eventually came to rest in the dining room corner, never to be acknowledged.

Two years later, I have egg on my face. The air fryer is not only a functional, super-convenient surprise, but it also has single-handedly reversed my long-held opinion about leftovers.

Like Alton Brown, I'm generally a cooking minimalist. I don't use specialty items aka unitaskers. I don't like using the microwave to make poached eggs. I try to shy away from canned or frozen items, and I rarely buy or use anything pre-cooked. The air fryer previously fit on the list of superfluous countertop cooking vehicles that don't do anything for me and definitely don't have a place in my kitchen.

I thought the air fryer would be loud and spook my dog. (It hasn't.) I thought it would implode and destroy my cabinets. (It hasn't.) I thought the food wouldn't come out great. (It did.)

In every instance, I was sorely mistaken. The air fryer — which I initially discarded and rejected — has conclusively, decisively made a fan of me.

In a surprise to no one, my first foray with the air fryer involved chicken parmigiana. As I've waxed poetic about time and time again, chicken parm is essentially my bread and butter — an automatic go-to, an emblem of comfort food, a dish I've made so many times that I could truly do so blindfolded. In fact, I'm making it this week for Sunday supper.

So, when it came to trying out my previously untouched air fryer, what more perfect place was there to start than with air-fried chicken cutlets?

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I unboxed the unused appliance, read the instruction manual very carefully (but also in a dismissive manner because I was so sure this air fryer would be a waste of my time) and got started on my recipe by breading the chicken.

After an initial preheat, I added three breaded cutlets to the air fryer basket, gave them a quick spritz with some cooking spray, slid them into the fryer and opted for 12 minutes at 400 degrees. I left a fourth cutlet out so I could make it on the stovetop as usual and then do a compare and contrast.

Twelve minutes later, I opened the basket. The chicken wasn't as deeply browned as I normally prefer; it looked quite crispy, yet pale. When I cut into it, however, I was thrilled. The chicken was moist, tender and absolutely delicious; it was perfectly cooked. Something about the air fryer's cooking mechanism and the insulation properties of the breading ensured that the chicken itself was cooked in an absolutely fantastic manner.

The chicken was moist, tender and absolutely delicious; it was perfectly cooked.

While I still liked the crust on my stovetop chicken better, the air-fried chicken was an incredibly pleasant surprise. From there, I lathered up a sheet tray with the requisite sauce and cheese before topping it off with the cutlets and cooking everything in the oven (and broiler) until perfectly bronzed and crisped.

It should go without saying, but I had a superb meal that night. Thank you, air fryer!

With time, I've decided that the real highlight of the air fryer is its perfect handling of all things crispy. One of my favorite dishes on Earth is an iconic diner stalwart meal: a hot, open-faced turkey sandwich, complete with white bread, French friesheaping amounts of gravy and cole slaw. My parents would order this whenever we went out to a diner, and I spent 30 years making fun of them for eating such a bizarre hodgepodge. Over the past few years, it's inexplicably somehow entered my delivery repertoire. (You really do turn into your parents, as the saying goes.)

One of my issues with enjoying the leftovers of this turkey meal, though, is that I have a profound texture and consistency issue in all things food. A mushy French fry, for example, doesn't even pass the snuff test for me. What this appliance has also done is ensure that while I microwave the turkey, gravy and white bread, I can throw the fries in the air fryer for 5 minutes at 375 to 400 degrees, give the basket a good shake halfway through, sprinkle on a bit more salt and voilà! I have a perfect, hot meal, in which the soft items are soft and the crispy items are deeply crispy. It's beyond wonderful.

Also, while I've been a mozzarella stick stan forever and always, I would shy away from ever eating mozzarella stick leftovers. They're just not great in the oven, and I won't even acknowledge their microwave existence. But in an air fryer? I've engorged myself with mozzarella sticks since becoming an adherent. Leftover mozzarella sticks are one of the most terrific things I've enjoyed in the air fryer. Along with the chicken cutlets and the fries, they've made me stop and ask myself, "Wait, is the air fryer actually good?"

My air fryer has done its job — and then some. My stove and oven may be getting a bit jealous at this point.

I've also enjoyed leftover Chinese food appetizers (scallion pancakes, shrimp toast, spring rolls), plant-based "meat" options, chicken fingers, hot wingsonion rings and a host of other deliciously crispy, fried foods that would have, at one point, been relegated to the garbage as they began to soften and become unappetizing and soggy, all thanks to the air fryer. Is it the new frontier in combating food waste?

Beyond its ease and convenience, the air fryer is quiet, wildly fast and offers an immensely easy cleanup. I don't think I've cooked anything for more than 12 minutes, and all the leftover reheating can be done in 5 minutes or less. (It's also sort of fun because mine is strangely large and looks very similar to an alien spaceship, which my mom loves telling everyone she comes in contact with.)

Suffice it to say, my air fryer has done its job — and then some. My stove and oven may be getting a bit jealous at this point.

I'm now on the hunt for an air fryer doughnut recipe that isn't too wet or sticky for the air fryer basket. I'll report back with my findings.

In the meantime, if you also happen to have a years-old air fryer sitting in a dusty, forgotten box somewhere, lurking around a corner or perhaps acting as a makeshift desk, give it a try. (And if you happen to wind up ordering mozzarella sticks with every meal from here on out, I do apologize for this newfound indulgence.)

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