It's amazing what a kitchen gadget can tell you if you know how to listen—who you are as a cook, for example, hidden prejudices you never knew you had, even the fundamental nature of cooking. I learned this by accident, courtesy of three gadgets that were new to me: a food dehydrator, which is exactly what it sounds like; a Philips Airfryer, which cannot be what it sounds like for the simple reason that the verb “to fry” means both “to cook with hot oil” and, more colloquially, “to destroy,” neither of which can be accomplished with air alone; and a plastic contraption called a spiralizer, with blades optimized for turning vegetables into long, curly strands.
Dehydrators, needless to say, have been around for a while. Food-processing companies use them to make snacks like dried mango, and hard-core backpacking enthusiasts have been dehydrating their vegetarian chili since at least the 1970s. Dehydrators also figure prominently in three contemporary food trends: modernist fine dining, in which chefs employ them to create edible soils and so-called “fruit veils,” like thin sheets of raspberry that can be used to gift wrap other foods; the rage for old-fashioned food-preservation techniques like pickling, which has even city dwellers like me yearning to harvest heaps of late- summer tomatoes and dry them for use in the dark days of winter; and the Paleolithic diet, in which dried fruits and vegetables and beef jerky qualify as approved snacks.
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Still, I never would have considered myself modernist enough, pioneer housewife enough or Paleo enough to enjoy dehydrating if not for a chance conversation over cocktails with two acquaintances: Tim Sinclair, a tall and handsome city-employed doctor who roams the San Francisco streets helping people in desperate straits, and his husband, David Funk, an exhibitions coordinator for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I asked what was new in their lives, and Tim said, with a laugh, “Our food dehydrator!” David, who is rumored to be a sensational cook, told me that most available recipes for dehydrators seem aimed at people “either going hiking or predicting the end of the world. I really just wanted to get more flavor into our dinners.” So David was finding ways to dry lemons and grind them into powder for sprinkling onto salads; he had even dried his homemade kimchi to create an intensely flavored sort of magic dust to sprinkle on anything at all.
“My breakthrough came when I dehydrated some kale, then tossed it with oil, salt, chili powder and my new dehydrated-lime powder.”
I liked the sound of this so much that I ordered a Waring dehydrator that turned out to be, in essence, a big metal box with a heating element, a fan and six removable plastic trays designed to maximize air circulation around their contents. Over the next few weeks, I made flavored powders of my own—lemon, navel orange, even black olive. My big dehydrating breakthrough came when I stripped the stems out of some kale, dehydrated the leaves until crispy, tossed them with oil, salt, chili powder and my new dehydrated-lime powder, and then heard my 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, say, “Dad, I would eat kale all the time if it always tasted like this.” I found this so motivating that I ran out and bought a couple of pounds of top-round beef, froze it for an hour to harden, sliced it thin, soaked it for a few hours in a soy sauce–based marinade that I made up on the spot, set it in the dehydrator for 12 hours and pulled out beef jerky so good that my wife has taken to eating it for breakfast with coffee. The big lesson of the food dehydrator, in other words, is that I missed my true calling: Master Snack Chef.
The Philips Airfryer hasn’t been around long at all, unless you think of it as what it really is, a convection oven—meaning that it is simply an oven with a fan inside, just like the convection ovens that have been in restaurants for decades. Somebody at Philips seems to have noticed that if you toss raw potato sticks in a little oil and bake them in a convection oven for 10 minutes, they come out very much like French fries. The Airfryer, which looks a bit like Humpty Dumpty on your kitchen counter, has been engineered to capitalize on this miracle, and also to prey on the widespread misconception that all dietary fat is bad for us. Given the many reasons to believe that the health risk is the potato itself and not the oil (as long as you’re not using hydrogenated oil), this marketing campaign raises the infuriating specter of a company deliberately exploiting consumer ignorance.
Once I got my Airfryer out of the box, however, I noticed that the included recipe book contained instructions for panko-crusted cod. This happens to be a go-to meal in my household, so I was fascinated to discover that simply mixing panko with a tablespoon of olive oil, then coating the fish and placing it inside this egg-shaped convection oven produced a crispy exterior almost identical to the one I get by shallow-frying in a skillet, but with a fraction of the oil and almost no mess. That alone could never justify keeping the Airfryer in nightly rotation, but two other uses come close: mixing together walnuts, almonds and pecans, air-frying them at 390˚ for three minutes to get them flawlessly toasted, then tossing them with olive oil and salt for a perfect party snack; and tearing over-the-hill bread into pieces, tossing those pieces with oil, putting them in the Airfryer for five minutes and watching them emerge as excellent croutons.
The ideal environment for the Airfryer would seem to be a college dorm room outfitted with a little fridge-freezer unit, such that a hardworking student might toss in a bag of frozen chicken wings whenever focus flagged. But the Airfryer also taught me that my loathing for phony marketing is so intense, it can blind me to what’s right in front of me: namely, that an air fryer and a dehydrator are both just boxes with heating elements and fans. One is optimized for hitting large amounts of food with low heat and slow air circulation for long stretches of time; the other is optimized to hit small amounts of food with high heat and fast air circulation for a short period of time. Both create environments well outside my oven’s capacity—gentle, for the dehydrator; intense, for the air fryer—and both, therefore, offer interesting variations on the basic project of transforming the raw into the cooked.
As for the spiralizer, I should begin by saying that my particular model was called the Inspiralizer, which I think means something like “inspiring you by turning your food into spiral shapes.” Its creator, Ali Maffucci, told me spiralizers originated in Japan as tools for creating garnishes. “The raw vegans adopted it,” Maffucci said, “as a way of eating pasta, and they nicknamed it the spiralizer.” If you’re wondering how spirals equal pasta, it goes like this: Certain vegetables—zucchini chief among them—upon being run through a spiralizer, really do take on a noodle-like appearance. This caught the attention of the low-carb and gluten-free crowds, providing the killer app that broke spiralizers out of sushi-and-raw-vegan obscurity into mainstream trendiness.
I find this depressing because it suggests that the only way we can imagine eating more vegetables and less pasta is by tricking ourselves into believing the former is the latter. My daughter, however, mentioned recently that a schoolmate’s mother was using a spiralizer at home. That mother happened to be Katie Morford, registered dietitian, big-league mommy blogger (momskitchen handbook.com) and author of Best Lunch Box Ever, from which my oldest daughter regularly makes the mashed-chickpea panini.
“I’ve only had it a month,” Katie told me when I called. “But so far, I’m surprising myself. I really thought, like, How many zucchini noodles can you eat? But I’ve made some pretty delicious things.” Katie described a miso-mushroom-ginger soup with sweet-potato “noodles” that got me off the phone and spiralizing a purple yam that I found in the refrigerator. Observation No. 1: Watching a six-inch yam transformed into 15-foot-long ribbons feels very much like learning for the first time that we all have 25 feet of intestines tucked somewhere inside. Observation No. 2: Just because classical French knife work reflects the Enlightenment obsession with regular geometrical forms does not mean there is something inherently inferior about long spiral ribbon shapes.
Quite the contrary. The spiralizer does what all culinary knife work does: It chops up food into smaller pieces optimized for cooking and eating. In the case of the spiralizer, that means a shape that, when cut from a russet, tossed with oil and popped into an air fryer, makes a remarkable stand-in for shoestring potatoes. It also means a shape that, when cut from a purple yam, cooks instantly in broth and hangs well on a fork—so well that I decided to heat up some chicken stock, season it with my powdered kimchi, drop in a little dehydrated kale and then add a handful of purple yam noodles to create a lunch that wasn’t bad at all.
San Francisco–based writer Daniel Duane is an F&W contributing editor and the author of How to Cook Like a Man.