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

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

For years, the deep fryer sat in a box in the corner of my dining room. It was covered in paper takeout and reusable bags, crisps and candies, random detritus and the like, often completely disappearing from my view and consciousness.

It was a random, probably never-used item that was purchased during a particularly devastating period of time after my dad passed away. My mom, brother, and I found out that Bed Bath & Beyond is having a wild sale where deep fryers are being offered at an inexplicably low price. In a daze, we bought one, dragging it home where it ended up in the corner of the dining room, unacknowledged.

Two years later, I have egg on my face. The fryer is not only a functional, super practical surprise, but it has also turned my long-standing opinion about leftovers upside down.

Like Alton Brown, I’m generally a culinary minimalist. I don’t use special items called unitaskers. I don’t like using the microwave to make poached eggs. I try to stay away from canned or frozen products, and I rarely buy or use anything pre-cooked. The deep fryer previously fit the list of redundant counter cooking vehicles that do nothing for me and definitely have no place in my kitchen.

I thought the fryer would be loud and scare my dog. (It didn’t.) I thought it was going to implode and destroy my closets. (It didn’t.) I thought the food wouldn’t turn out great. (It is.)

Anyway, I was sorely mistaken. The deep fryer – which I initially rejected and dismissed – has finally, decisively made me a fan.

To the surprise of no one, my first foray with the deep fryer involved chicken parmigiana. As I’ve waxed poetic over and over again, chicken parm is basically my bread and butter — an automatic go-to, an emblem of comfort food, a dish I’ve made so many times I could actually do it blindfolded. In fact, I’m making it this week for Sunday dinner.

So when it comes to trying out my previously untouched air fryer, what better place to start than fried chicken cutlets?

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I unpacked the unused appliance, read the instruction manual very carefully (but also disdainfully because I was so sure this fryer would be a waste of my time) and began my recipe by breading the chicken.

After the initial heat, I added three fried chops to the fryer basket, gave them a quick spray with cooking spray, slid them into the fryer, and dialed 12 minutes at 400 degrees. I left the fourth cutlet out so I could cook it on the stovetop as usual and then do a compare and contrast.

Twelve minutes later, I opened the basket. The chicken was not as deep-fried as I normally prefer; it looked quite crispy and yet pale. However, when I carved it, I was blown away. The chicken was moist, tender and absolutely delicious; it was perfectly cooked. Something about the fryer’s cooking mechanism and the insulating properties of the breading ensured that the chicken itself was cooked in an absolutely fantastic way.

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

While I still preferred the crust on the stovetop chicken, the air fried chicken was an incredibly pleasant surprise. From there, I lathered the casserole with the requisite sauce and cheese before topping it with the chops and roasting everything in the oven (and broiler) until perfectly bronzed and crispy.

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

Over time, I decided that the real highlight of the fryer was the perfect handling of all the crispy things. One of my favorite meals on Earth is the iconic diner meal: a warm, open-faced turkey sandwich, complete with white bread, fries, loads of gravy, and coleslaw. My parents would order this whenever we went out to a restaurant, and I spent 30 years making fun of them for eating such a bizarre dish. Over the past few years, it has somehow inexplicably entered my repertoire. (You really are turning into your parents, as the saying goes.)

However, one of my problems with enjoying the leftovers from this turkey meal is that I have a deep texture and consistency in all things food. The mushy fries, for example, don’t even pass the snuff test for me. What this machine also did was that while I’m microwaving turkey, gravy, and white bread, I can throw fries in the deep fryer for 5 minutes at 375 to 400 degrees, give the basket a good shake halfway through, sprinkle a little more salt on it, and voilà ! I have a perfect, warm meal, in which the soft products are soft and the crisps are deeply crunchy. That’s extraordinary.

Also, while I’ve been a fan of mozzarella sticks forever and always, I would shy away from ever eating leftover mozzarella sticks. They’re just not great in the oven, and I won’t even acknowledge their existence in the microwave. But in the deep fryer? I’ve gotten drunk on mozzarella sticks since becoming a supporter. Leftover mozzarella sticks are one of the most delicious things I’ve enjoyed in the deep fryer. Along with the chicken cutlets and fries, they made me stop and ask myself, “Wait, is the deep fryer really good?”

My deep fryer did its job — and then some. My stove and oven may be getting a little jealous at this point.

I’ve also enjoyed Chinese food appetizers (scallion pancakes, shrimp toast, spring rolls), plant-based “meat” options, chicken fingers, hot wings, onion rings, and a variety of other deliciously crunchy, fried foods that, at one point, would were thrown in the trash because they started to soften and become tasteless and soggy, all thanks to the deep fryer. Is this a new frontier in the fight against food waste?

In addition to its lightness and practicality, the fryer is quiet, incredibly fast and offers extremely easy cleaning. I don’t think I’ve cooked anything longer than 12 minutes, and all the rest of the heating can be done in 5 minutes or less. (It’s also fun because mine is freakishly big and looks a lot like an alien spaceship, which my mom likes to tell everyone to come in contact with.)

Suffice to say, my fryer did its job — and then some. My stove and oven may be getting a little jealous at this point.

Now I’m on the hunt for a deep fryer donut recipe that isn’t too wet or sticky for the fryer basket. I will report back with my findings.

In the meantime, if you happen to have a year-old deep fryer sitting somewhere in a dusty, forgotten box, lurking around the corner or perhaps serving as a makeshift table, give it a try. (And if you happen to order mozzarella sticks with every meal from here on out, I apologize for this newfound indulgence.)

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