Air Frying: An ancient art of making food healthy and tasty, and how you can ace the art

By Madhulika Dash

Circa 2012: The Air Fryer made its Indian debut, exactly three years after it did at the Tech Expo – and instantly became the answer to all the gluttony prayers of those who loved their fried stuff and wanted it minus the guilt. In theory, the innovation did seem wondrous. Here was a contraption that could make samosas, French fries, patties and others calorie-light yet tasty. Dream-like, right?!

But ever wondered where did the idea of air frying originate from? Contrary to popular belief, air frying finds its innovative roots in the ancient technique called frying – and quite possibly in India.

Simplest example of this is poori – a dish that easily dates 8,000 years. Yes, it precedes the roti and the tandoor as well.

The origin of poori was an ode to the brilliance of using the ‘chemistry’ of fat, water and air to give a dish its rich taste and lightness. In fact, it was the same principle at work that led to other innovations like the Andhra fried chicken (grandfather to Kentucky Fried Chicken) and pakoras.

What’s really air frying and how does it work? Simply stated, air frying is a technique where you use the heat of the oil to cook food rapidly. Interestingly, it was one of the discoveries that led to preservation style of cooking as well. Example fritters. Pakoras or fritters were developed for delicate produce that have very low nutrition preserving shelf life. How did fritters help preserve the flavours and nutrients? By creating an air bubble. Essentially when a batter coated spinach is thrown in tub of hot oil, it immediately rises to form a pocket that captures steam. It is the process indicated by the rise of the fritter from the base of the pan to the surface of oil. In which time the coating preserves enough steam for the food to cook within while the coating cooks from outside. The blistering of oil and water around the fritter is what essentially cooks the fritter as well. Once the spluttering stops, the fritters are ready to be removed from the oil.

Air frying is one of the methods that used minimum fat to create taste and made food lighter to digest. This is one of the reasons that poori despite being deep fried is calorie wise lighter to parathas and yet has a rich taste. The trick to great air frying is the exact boiling point – a degree where the oil is hot enough to sizzle up anything that is dropped into the vat. This little food gymnastic ensures that the food starts cooking immediately and the rest of the finishing happens on the surface with oxygen playing the role of curing it further – in other words adding the taste element.

The instant throw-up also ensures that there is little oil coating on the food – only enough to palate coat the tongue so your relish the food and it eventually digests faster. This perhaps explains why the benchmark of a good poori or pakora is that they have cooked evenly, are light as air pockets and leave a sliver of oil if you swipe your finger across.

Fascinatingly, this is the version that has been used to design air fryers these days. Does it make food healthier to conventional cooking in a kadai? Absolutely not. The reason is in fryers oil is coated on the food instead of using as a pool and thus they stay on it. And two, since they have no cocooning the food takes more time to cook evenly and that means a loss of nutrients as well.

Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) on how to ace the art of frying:
“Frying can be intimating for several reasons: first, you have to deal with a lot of hot oil and grease, and the going can be really hot. But the good news is one need not be afraid of this ancient technique of making food flavourful. Here are a few tips that can make frying, one of your favourite go-to style of cooking – without adding the unnecessary guilt of calories. Here is the bible every good chef (and restaurant) follows to give their dishes that punch of great flavours.

#1 Choose oil wisely: “An easy answer to this would be refined oil. But the use of oil depends on several factors starting with the food you are cooking, the time it would take to cook it and of course if you want a certain aroma to be added or smell to be masked. So begin with choosing one with a high smoking point: mustard, rice bran and peanut oil are all good, since they are able to retain heat well and hence fry better. If you cannot figure out, ghee or clarified butter is your best bet.

#2 Temperature check: A key feature to good frying is hot oil – not smoke burning neither insipidly lukewarm. And the best way to check it is using a kitchen thermometer or even the old way of dunking a batter. If it rises to the top instantly then your oil is ready to fry. If it takes time, then wait another few minutes.

#3 Keeping the temperature consistent: Yet another facet of good frying is keeping the temperature of the oil consistent once you reached the right heat. A good way to do is to keep the gas at medium. This eliminates the chance of burning the food later. Also, the oil doesn’t stick to the food, which makes it a better eat, especially if you want to keep the inside moist. Remember, in frying, food cooks from outside to inside.

#4 The 60 Ratio: One of the mistakes that most cooks make is trying to fry one piece at a time. If the vessel used is small then it is fine but cooking one piece at a time in an average size pan means there is more fat to food, which means either the food is overcooked or undercooked with more fat in it. A good idea is to get at least 60 percent of the pan’s real estate filled. This would ensure that the food cooks more evenly. In fact, it is one of the tricks that most halwais employ to make evenly cooked, crisp samosa.

#5 Storage and Reuse: The best practice employed by many to know whether the frying oil can be reused is the appearance. A darker shade signifies the oil has already lived its life of goodness. In a way that is true. But when done well, oil can be reused for tempering because frying infuses them with better flavours. If not using, one can cool the oil, strain and keep it in a tight container for being used for lighter cooking. This however isn’t the case with highly perishable cooking like fish, which takes on the odour as well, and is often reusing it is not advised.