Nine documentaries in four months: how air fryers took over TV

Denise Van Outen, host of Channel 4's Air Fryers: Are They Worth It?
Denise Van Outen, host of Channel 4's Air Fryers: Are They Worth It?

Do you hear the constant, whirring sound of fans before the sound of food being eaten? If so, you either use an air fryer — or have been watching the plethora of documentaries about the faddish kitchen gadget.

While many new culinary appliances can languish untouched and unloved after being given as a Christmas present, this humble device has won legions of fans and as air fryer fever sweeps the UK, Britain’s broadcasters are leaping on the bandwagon.

This week the fans will crank into gear as Channel 5 starts a four – yes, four – episode series about air fryers. Having launched into the world of the utensil with Air Fryers: Christmas Made Easy on December 10, by the end of this next run the channel will have aired nine documentaries about a single piece of kitchen equipment in just 124 days.

The first of the two new episodes, airing on Wednesday and Thursday, promise to show viewers how to make a full Sunday lunch and host dinner parties using air fryers; the following pair, to be broadcast the week after, will teach devotees that they can make takeaway-style meals and easily batch cook with them. This is after Channel 4 got the ball rolling in June, when Denise van Outen demonstrated how air fryers worked by standing in the Crystal Maze dome as golden tokens flew around her. It has also commissioned a series on the gadgets from Jamie Oliver – sponsored by Tefal – that will air later in the spring.

But it is Channel 5 that is churning out fast-food volumes of air fryer documentaries. It has earned a reputation in recent years, under content chief Ben Frow, for an almost comic laser-like focus on its devoted viewers, who are often older and in the north of England. Many of its best-performing factual shows are about railways, Yorkshire and the royal family.

The air fryer documentaries, fronted by Alexis Conran, that Channel 5 has so far aired have drawn in more than one million live viewers apiece – outperforming their timeslots. So, what is it about air fryers that is catnip to the Channel 5 audience?

“They are the ultimate leveller: there is one at every price range and you don’t have to be a great chef to make good food,” says Kit Morey, the commissioning editor for Channel 5. “The people who come to us come for trusted advice on how to get the best out of their lives.” Once the first documentary found a large audience, Channel 5 turned the heat up to the max and commissioned more programmes.

Amanda Lamb and Alexis Conran hosting the air fryer-centric Sunday Lunch Made Easy, on Channel 5
Amanda Lamb and Alexis Conran hosting the air fryer-centric Sunday Lunch Made Easy, on Channel 5

Some viewers may find that, much like an air fryer itself, the programmes are full of hot air. One, in which the air fryer takes on the microwave, its long-established rival, sees the appliances placed in a boxing ring with gloves on top of them before squaring off. The challenges, if they can be described as such, include determining which makes the crispiest chips by recording the sound of them being eaten and measuring which makes the loudest sound. The air fryer triumphs, with 41 decibels to the microwave’s 35.

In another, which airs tonight [April 4], self-confessed air fryer sceptic and stand-up comedian Marcus Brigstocke is blown away by the beef nachos and risotto that Conran’s air fryer produces. “Annoyingly, Alexis, it’s delicious,” he concedes while eating a forkful of rice. “I am quite persuaded that air fryers have more to them than I thought.” Other luminaries who share their tuppence worth include John Partridge, who has not much troubled the public consciousness since leaving EastEnders in 2016, and erstwhile Coronation Street actress Sherrie Hewson.

Alexis Conran hosting the Channel 5 show Air Fryers: Do You Know What You're Missing?
Alexis Conran hosting the Channel 5 show Air Fryers: Do You Know What You're Missing? - Channel 5

According to kitchenware retailer Lakeland, some 45 per cent of British households own an air fryer, compared with 87 per cent who own an oven or hob and 88 per cent who own a microwave. The biggest concentration of air fryers are said to be in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The actress Drew Barrymore is so enthusiastic about air fryers that she released her own range of them.

As is the way of the modern world, the trend has been picked up by Gen Z TikTok users, who laud air fryers as a quick and easy way to make their favourite meals. The #airfryer topic has been tagged on almost 500,000 videos with 13 billion total views, and they have become something of a cost-effective status symbol. Conran says: “How do you know if someone has got an air fryer? They will tell you about it!”

The air fryer – a fancy way to badge what is essentially a miniature convection oven – started to be developed in 2005 by Dutchman Fred van der Weij because he struggled to get crispy chips without deep-frying them.

One thrilling Channel 5 show pit air fryers against microwaves
One thrilling Channel 5 show pit air fryers against microwaves - Channel 5

It took van der Weij three years to develop his prototype and his egg-shaped gadget was introduced by consumer electronics giant Philips in 2010 at a trade fair in Berlin. The key was to combine a heating element at the top of the device and a fan rapidly circulating heat around it, meaning that it can get from 0°C to 240°C in under a minute and creating a method that is more like frying than baking. Philips owns the patents to van der Weij’s technology.

“It was kind of a holy grail that many companies were looking for – to make better French fries,” he told The New York Times before his death in 2022. “To find a way to make the handling much easier and the results much better would be a very big potential, that was clear. But I did not expect it would be as big as it is right now.”

Most of the original marketing about air fryers made much of the fact that food requires a fraction of the amount of oil as cooking on the hob or in an oven, meaning that meals cooked in them were much healthier. Now, however, they are primarily badged as a way to cut down on soaring fuel bills. Van Outen’s documentary from last year tells viewers that while it costs £220 a year to run an electric oven, to cook the same meals in an air fryer would cost just over £42 (a microwave is cheaper yet, at £21, but much less versatile).

Dean Edwards, who won Masterchef in 2015 and has published a book of 90 air fryer recipes called Cook Smart, claims they have “changed the way that we cook: it’s saving people time and money”.

After becoming immersed in air fryer lore, and being given one for Christmas, Morey now has the zeal of the convert and uses it five nights a week to make exotica such as soups and baked oysters for a wife and three children.

If the latest glut of documentaries prove another hit, Morey plans to feed viewers more of the same. “Our sole job as a broadcaster is to give the audience more of what they want,” Morey adds. Brace for more of those whirring fans.

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