Why America Still Can’t Quit the Air Fryer

It was hailed as the next Instant Pot. It has become something more.

It helps that “Ninja” is a cool-sounding name. Photo-Illustration: Grub Street
It helps that “Ninja” is a cool-sounding name. Photo-Illustration: Grub Street
It helps that “Ninja” is a cool-sounding name. Photo-Illustration: Grub Street

There is a seasonal crisp in the air, atop a base note of potatoes. If you haven’t seen it yourself, in a store or online, you have at least smelled it. It is, once again, Air Fryer Season. Wherever you go, between Veterans Day and Christmas, there is an air fryer on sale. Hundreds of thousands of them, from NuWave and CuisineArt and Ninja and Dash, some of them squat, and others rotund, all of them promising futures far crispier than this one.

Perhaps you already have one; air fryers, after all, were the It-Christmas gift of 2018, according to both the Today show and Amazon sales data. Nearly 10 million air fryers were sold in the U.S. between late May 2017 and mid-March 2019, according to the market-research firm NPD Group. Since then, demand has only continued to grow. This year, the 13-week period ending June 27 — a period that did not include a single Black Friday — saw the sale of nearly 2 million more air fryers than the same time last year, NPD Group reports, while noting that “the majority of food items consumers cook in their air fryers are potatoes.”

On Twitter, everyone wants an air fryer, unless they already have and love their air fryers. They post memes. They post photographs of air-fried chicken wings. “I bought a $20 air fryer for cyber Monday and I’m so fucking excited!!!!!!!!!!!” reflected one air-fryer enthusiast, recently. “You can make anything in that hoe!!!!!!!!” Even Susan Orlean could not resist the siren call of the machine, though she was somewhat more reserved in her enthusiasm: “Yeah well I just ordered an Air Fryer and I feel like a patriot since it is, after all, Order An Air Fryer Day,” she tweeted on Friday. “Of course, now I have to ask: What the FUCK is an Air Fryer?”

The answer to Ms. Orlean’s question — as online air-fryer evangelists were only too happy to explain — is that an air fryer is a small (relatively), free-standing appliance that “fries” food by circulating very hot air. If this sounds like a miniature convection oven, that is because it is. But, as the New York Times explained patiently, back in the earliest days of the air-frying craze, it is not exactly the same, because air fryers blow air “more forcefully and at hotter temperatures than regular convection, in an attempt to mimic the browning of deep-frying, using teaspoons of oil rather than cups.” This, of course, is the fundamental allure of the air fryer — fried food without frying! A nonstop cascade of oil-free French fries and health-conscious wings! It is more than a convenience; it is, for a current list price of $86, a critical part of the American Dream.

And much like the history of America itself, the history of the air fryer is short and dramatic. Never mind that it first debuted in 2010 for the fry-loving, small-kitchen-having European market; it is made for us. We are a country founded on a passion for frying and pension for guilt. And anyway, as the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner observed, patriotically, in 2018, “America is the true kingdom of the novelty appliance.” (Although it was Japan that perfected the slushy-beer machine.)

Still, the air fryer was not an overnight success, not until the celebrity-chef endorsements rolled in from Emeril and Gordon Ramsay and eventually Oprah, who, in 2016, declared the humble air fryer among her annual “Favorite Things.” You might think, in the intervening four years, that air-fryer mania might have burned itself out.

It has not.

This is despite persistent grumblings of high-profile air-fryer detractors, who have repeatedly argued that air fryers are a waste of hot counter real estate. The Wirecutter, an authority in well-researched consumption, famously placed air fryers on their “Worst Things for Most People” list, alongside antivirus software and automatic litter boxes. Even if it is on sale, it is nothing but an overhyped convection oven. And it is, again, on sale. If you are worried you perhaps missed it, rest assured: You did not. “There’s still an excellent selection of Cyber Monday deals to choose from as the sales continue through Cyber Week,” promised Digital Trends. “Specifically on air fryers.”

We have been here before, most recently with the Instant Pot, a wunderappliance, a must-have for the busy would-be gourmand, and the most-gifted item on Amazon wedding registries of 2017. In the year 2020, however, the air fryer has reached a momentous milestone: It has, for the first time, overtaken the Instant Pot as a search term, per Google Trends. It happened the week of May 3rd, 2020. The air fryer edged out the Instant Pot all summer, and, while the Instant Pot regained some ground briefly this fall, the air fryer was back on top by November, never more clearly than the week encompassing Black Friday. Is this definitive data? Of course not. But it is suggestive of what I believe to be true: The shine is off the Instant Pot. We are a society of air fryers now.

It is possible this is only the gears of history grinding: Only a coveted few gadgets (KitchenAid mixers, salad spinners, Chemex carafes) stay revolutionary forever. Most either fade, or become unremarkable. Nobody, these days, is raving about the time-saving, multi-function game-changer that is the microwave. The Instant Pot peaked, and after a backlash it settled, and now we’ve moved on to the air fryer, which is, after all, a better fit for the times.

The promise of the Instant Pot was that you could set it and forget it, dump in a bunch of ingredients in the morning and come home, after a busy day at the office, to a nice hearty meal, made in your absence, without burning your house down. But these days, there is nowhere to go. If you’re lucky, you’re home, and you’ve been home for months. The manager of one homewares store in Portland, Maine, reported that rather than Instant Pots, people were scooping up classic Dutch ovens. When you’re stuck at home anyway, why not supervise your own braise?

The air fryer, too, requires ongoing participation, because it is fast! That is the convenience: “fried” food, in a fraction of the time! With a fraction of the oil! It is easier than deep-frying and faster than baking, but you do have to be there. Which, now, you are. Because there is a pandemic.

Reporting on this year’s Black Friday hits, NPR retail correspondent Alina Selyukh could not help but be charmed by the air-fryer boom. “My favorite hot seller for the COVID time is — apparently air fryers are big for, you know, all that comfort food,” she said, underscoring their other big draw.

It may be true, as food writer and air-fryer expert Ben Mims told Rosner, that it really is best to think of the air fryer less as fryer, and more as “a machine to cook food, period.” The emphasis on “frying,” he says, is misleading and limiting and may cause us to miss what the appliance does best. (Vegetables, Rosner writes.) “Frying,” the Times’ Melissa Clark concluded after testing, is in fact the thing that an air fryer “does worst of all.” For air fryers to assume a permanent place in American kitchens, staples rather than novelties, we might need to see them as a specific kind of oven alternative, rather than a source of popcorn shrimp on demand.

But this is also true: We love popcorn shrimp. We love mozzarella sticks. In all forms, we love apps. We didn’t need a plague to help us appreciate the comfort of crispy meal snacks, but it hasn’t hurt their appeal, either, and now you mostly have to eat them at home. You cannot make mozzarella sticks in an Instant Pot, but you can in an air fryer (even if technically, that’s not the best use of an air fryer).

It is possible, even likely, that the air fryer is, as it were, a flash in the pan, one more in a long list of devices promising to fix a daunting list of societal problems at the level of your kitchen. In that way, they are just a more complex garlic press: a device that promises to do something you can already do, but slightly more easily. Often, these gadgets disappear as soon as the novelty wears off. These are the Ronco Food Dehydrators and George Foreman Grills of the world. Gone, and also largely forgotten.

But for air fryers, the market just keeps growing and for as long as we are stuck at home, and desperate for anything, that seems unlikely to change. I do not know if an air fryer will alter the course of your life, but that is one reason that you buy it: because the possibility exists that it might. Perhaps now more than ever, it is a beacon of hope. By this metric, it will disappoint, surely. But even if it doesn’t improve your existence, it will, at the very least, keep you happy with a steady supply of popcorn shrimp until something better comes along.

Why America Still Can’t Quit the Air Fryer