We have entered the season of gift giving and receiving.
Think back to an earlier time when you were hoping for a particular gift. What was it? How did you know about it? Did you receive it?
I really, really wanted an Easy Bake Oven. I saw it in the thick catalog that arrived every fall. As I gazed at the photo, I almost could taste the tiny cake that came out of a slot on the side of the oven. The little girl on the package beamed with pride.
I showed the catalog picture to my mom. She thought that baking a two-bite cake with a lightbulb was kind of silly.
"I'll show you how to use the real oven," Mom said.
Obviously, I wasn't going to get the toy oven. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was mixing and baking piles of holiday cookies, and I was becoming fascinated by the chemistry of food.
I suppose not getting the little oven helped lead me toward my career path.
Through the years, I have collected almost every kind of kitchen appliance and gadget. My available storage space in our cupboards and shelving units is growing smaller. Last year, I added an electric pressure cooker to the mix. It has been a good investment. It occupies premium kitchen counter space.
"I need to know how these appliances work in case someone asks me," I tell my patient husband. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Air fryers seem to be the appliance of the year. Air fryers are among the few items that I don't have in my appliance warehouse. I don't have anything against them; I just have to guard my available storage "real estate."
Air fryers were introduced in about 2010, and now multiple models from different companies are available. They are designed to replace deep-fat fryers to produce "fried" foods such as french fries and chicken wings that are lower in fat and calories.
Air fryers are more like convection ovens than deep-fat fryers. Instead of immersing your food in boiling oil, you toss the food in about a tablespoon of oil and place it in the appliance. The device circulates very hot air in a small space.
This heating process usually results in crunchy food with a browned exterior due to a chemical reaction called the Maillard effect. However, the food won't have the same mouthfeel as deep-fried foods.
Many people love their air fryers and use them frequently, according to anecdotes from my colleagues. If you prepare deep-fried foods fairly often at home, an air fryer may be something for you to consider.
An air fryer could trim your fat and calorie intake, and theoretically, these appliances could help with weight management. Compared with equal weights of pure protein or carbohydrate, fat has 2½ times the calories.
In a study performed in Egypt, food scientists compared traditional deep-fat frying and air frying in the creation of french fries. Their taste testers preferred the air-fried potatoes instead of the conventionally fried potatoes.
Another study showed that air frying could reduce the amount of acrylamides formed during deep-fat frying high-carbohydrate foods by 90 percent. Acrylamide compounds are considered "probable carcinogens."
Considering these potential health-promoting effects, I contemplated buying an air fryer. I borrowed one and took it for a spin in my home.
I air-fried frozen french fries and chicken nuggets. While the end product was edible, I thought the food was dry. I dunked the cardboard-like fries in a pool of ketchup. I think I overdid the cooking.
Yes, I cut down on fat, but I added extra salt and sugar from the sauces.
If you are tempted by air fryers, do your homework and read the appliance reviews from reputable sources external to the company selling the product. Check out the sometimes amusing blog posts from people who describe using their air fryers for the first time.
At any rate, keep your intake of deep-fried foods to a once-in-a-while special treat. Stick with roasting, baking, steaming, slow cooking, grilling and, potentially, air frying.
Here's a recipe for homemade chicken nuggets that you can bake in your oven. Actually, I wonder if they still sell Easy Bake Ovens so I can make a little dessert for myself.
Homestyle Chicken Nuggets
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
Water (to moisten chicken)
1 c. cornflakes or other ready-to-eat cereal crumbs
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. Italian herb seasoning or seasoning of your choice
¼ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. onion powder
Honey mustard sauce (optional, as dip)
Barbecue sauce (optional as dip)
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and moisten slightly with water. Place cereal in a plastic bag and crush using a rolling pin or can. Add remaining ingredients to cereal crumbs. Close bag tightly and shake until blended. Add a few chicken pieces at a time to crumb mixture and shake to coat evenly. Discard any unused crumb mixture. Place chicken pieces on greased baking sheet so they are not touching. Bake until golden brown with an internal temperature of 165 F, or about 12 to 14 minutes.
Makes four servings. Without added sauces, each serving has 280 calories, 5 g fat, 22 g protein, 40 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber and 220 milligrams sodium.