On top of working from home and taking care of a 14-month-old, sheltering in place means that I, like most people I know, am cooking more than ever. Managing my schedule and my son’s are pretty much full-time jobs on their own, so I have little extra time for my third gig as the family chef — too little, I’ve learned, to wait around for the Thermador double oven in our kitchen to warm up every time someone wants a hot meal. The oven’s slow heating time demands that I plan ahead whenever I want to use it, but my current reality too often requires the ability to prepare something in a flash. Longing for a more versatile alternative, I decided it was time to clear some counter space for an air fryer–slash–toaster oven my husband and I had stashed away in a closet after receiving it from my parents last May. The only regret I’ve had since is that we didn’t open the thing up sooner.
Pre-quarantine, I only made about one meal a day during the week, so cooking was more of a hobby than a necessity, and I didn’t think it was worth the clutter of installing yet another appliance. But this do-it-ourselves moment called for a sous chef that more or less does it all at the press of a button, which is exactly the Cuisinart’s appeal: It can bake, broil, toast, fry, and even convection cook at basically the turn of a dial. And it’s fast. Unlike my actual oven, which needs some time to preheat before I even begin cooking, the Cuisinart oven gets right to work. If I feel like having whole roasted sweet potatoes for lunch, I simply pop them in, set it to bake, turn the dial up to 350 degrees, and set the timer for about 25 minutes. By the time I finish feeding Augie his yogurt, I have perfectly cooked potatoes (or perfectly roasted broccolini, or perfectly toasted, open-faced ham and cheese sandwiches).
An even more miraculous ability is the Cuisinart’s air-frying function. Instead of cooking with oil, an air fryer uses really hot air to the same effect, yielding food that’s just as crisp and golden but without the grease (though you can add a little oil for extra crunch). I’ve used it to make mini frozen pork dumplings oil-free, which came out crunchy and hot in less than ten minutes. (When I panfry, dumplings always end up burnt before cooking through on the inside.) I’ve also whipped up more-than-respectable French- and sweet-potato fries, culinary feats that have convinced me I could air-fry just about everything, like the kale I recently bought to make homemade kale chips. The Cuisinart’s toast function also works as well as, or better than, a stand-alone toaster, and its ovenlike design makes it easier to toast open-faced sandwiches or enough English muffins for three. I have yet to use the convection and broil settings, but it’s only a matter of time before quarantine cooking compels me to do so.
And the Cuisinart doesn’t just stand in for our oven — it’s also a great alternative to our microwave, because it can consistently prepare leftovers without turning them soggy. For instance, we recently ordered Korean fried chicken from a new neighborhood joint, Jiku, and got some extra pieces, knowing we could reheat them for a future meal. When that future meal came, I pulled a few wings from the fridge, threw them in, turned on the air-fry setting, and (again) in less than ten minutes had ready-to-eat wings that were (almost) as good as the ones we ate straight from the restaurant. I suspect reviving old pizza using the Cuisinart’s toast function would result in crust as crispy as our reheated wings were.
As helpful as it is, the Cuisinart does have its limits. One is its size, which is too compact for, say, baking a dozen cookies or roasting a turkey for the whole family (though I could probably roast one for two; the machine’s manual includes a recipe for a four-pound whole roast chicken). Because there is only a dial to set the heat, I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable making anything that requires a super-precise temperature. And depending on what setting you’re using, you have to move around the different racks inside the Cuisinart or take them out completely — which isn’t difficult, just tedious. But even with these minor nuisances, the gadget has done wonders at helping me feel in control of my kitchen. Now if I could just say the same about the rest of my household.
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