I never imagined my few summer jobs in retail would ever come back to haunt me. For instance, I’ve never been offered a free puppy from one of the two imbeciles who owned the pet store I toiled at for two and a half years, nor have I been offered a free child from any of the summer camps I worked for. However, when I worked for T-Fal last summer, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be offered the flagship product of the very store, the Actifry.The Actifry is the stuff of dreams and reality of the incompetent. Where else could you combine a hairdryer, microwave, and peoples’ dieting hopes and fears and charge $300 for it? People would come in and marvel over the two we had in stock. One couple actually decided not to buy it because it didn’t come with the premeasured oil spoon. It was something that both entranced and scared me.
When I was offered a chance to review the Actifry last week, I immediately accepted. The most lauded recipe of the product is french fries, for god’s sake. So to make sure I was adequately prepared for the ensuing wonder, I invited FF over, bought a year’s worth of vegetables, fruits, and chicken, and prepared to have a fryathon. The deal was that if the Actifry failed both to impress and satiate the three of us, we’d all go out to tapas instead and bemoan the football helmet-sized device.
The Actifry is fucking huge. And noisy. When it turns on, it scares the cat and makes a weak, yet persistent whirring noise as it churns its innards around. FF dubbed it “Baby’s First Fryer” after seeing the aftermath of 40 minutes in the chamber. This thing is pretty weak. Keepitcoming and I tried it with both regular fries and sweet potato fries when it first came in. The problem really lies in its construction. The benefits to frying are that, if done correctly, the water from the product being fried will repel the oil and cook the food as it is heated without absorbing any extra oil in the process. Add that to the straining after and frying isn’t nearly as bad nutritionally as it’s made out to be. With this, the one tablespoon of oil is swirled around and distributed, but never really focusing on the exterior of the product versus that of a fried piece of potato that eventually develops a crust. With the Actifry, the oil doesn’t so much develop a crust so much as it just unsticks the pieces after cooking. In our photos, it was sitting on top of the fries in small beads.
The real issue with this, which we found out after cooking no less than nine different traditionally fried foods, is how it’s constructed. Older models of the Actifry had a large paddle that churned the foods similar to the paddle in an ice cream maker or fraternity. The model was revised to have a spade-shaped paddle that lifted and turned the items around. This is, of course, in its most ideal setting. In the worst of all scenarios, in our case, kettle chips, the shovel/paddle/spade scoops up all the chips, mushes them together, and carries them around for the remaining 40 minutes. I imagine this could be improved if the paddle had a setting that automatically switched the direction of its rotation after a prescribed amount of time, thereby eliminating the dreaded clumping syndrome and evenly spreading around the ingredients in the chamber. We found the paddle to better distribute chunks of things rather than long strips or slices.
It’s also difficult to set the timer on the device as the angle that the display is set at is badly placed and reflects so that the dial can’t be seen. It’s also hard to use this at night as there is no backlight or setting to make it easier to see in the dark.
To exhaustively test out the mad skillz of the Actifry, we tested ten traditionally deep-fried items. As a side note, this is NOT an alternative to a deep fryer. We found it to be rather limiting with the number of things one could actually “fry.” Anything tempura-battered or gooey is out as it automatically gums up the works. Deep-fried ice cream is impossible. However, unlike a fryer, it’s easy to do like a crock pot and “set it and forget it.” So we narrowed it down to french fries, sweet potato fries, a leftover frozen Davio’s egg roll, tortilla chips, plantain chips, kettle chips, David Liebowitz’s “foolproof” Korean chicken wings, onion petals, spiced stewed apples from the included cookbook, and deep-fried Oreos.
The Actifry rests its oil-free laurels on its french fries. Spoiler alert: they’re not really that great. They come out tasting like a baked potato with less seasoning. Even my oven fry recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which uses around the same amount of oil, has much crispier, firmer french fries. These just had a hard, crackly exterior and a somewhat gummy and wet interior.Before. How bad would thick, skin-on fries be?And, meh. Any fries over two inches long were mangled by the spade of doom. It looks like we stuck fries in a trash compactor and then ate them. We ate the whole plate of these, but it was only once we were finished that we realized we weren’t enjoying the texture so much as we were enjoying the copious amount of salt we’d put on top.Our next trial was sweet potato fries. A seemingly innocuous recipe. I expected these to be more turgid and harder to break in the cooking process because of how brittle they were when raw. Unfortunately, the Actifry pulled another Frymangling Maneuver again. These fared much better than the regular fries, but only because they were tastier when mushy. There was barely any crust on the outside. Raw fries…Turn into edible, vaguely crisped mush. And origami-like folded fries.Our next item was a frozen egg roll leftover from the last week’s review. This actually turned out to be really tasty. It didn’t break at all in the Actifry, though it occasionally got stuck on top of the rotating spade and had to be taken down so it could evenly cook. The egg roll soaked up all the oil and got very crispy without burning, as well as heating the frozen center. Delish.
We moved from Asia to Mexico with our tortilla chips. I’ve fried and baked tortilla chips before with awesome results, and this somehow screwed them up. After ten minutes, they had soaked up most of the oil, had broken up into a few small pieces, and were rock hard and over cooked, despite looking really delicious.
The plantain chips were fucking gross. Seriously. The flour and corn starch coating we applied infiltrated every bite of the chips and the slices were overcooked and brittle. Appetizing, no?
When FF arrived, we switched to a more finger-food-friendly snack, thinking that they’d be cooked well. Wrong again. While the chips were tasty, they weren’t kettle chips in any respect. The centers of the chips were cooked, but not crispy, so again carried that same wrinkled baked potato texture. The outsides were crunchy. Wholly inconsistent results.
I was most disappointed in the Korean chicken wings. The photos on David’s blog looked mouthwatering and fantastic. Using the exact same recipe, we took our chicken and coated it in the batter. It came out looking tasty, but in the scooping process, had lost most of its spicy coating. The chicken was well-cooked and juicy, but couldn’t really be considered a piece of fried chicken or chicken nugget. With the sauce, it was passable, but overall, not an alternative for the glorious bird.
The fried onion petals looked like discarded aromatics…
And the spiced apples were only partially cooked and oily. They left a film on the fryer.
I believe the above photo illustrates the success, or lack thereof, of the fried Oreos. Purchasing the Berry Blast variety only added insult to injury. Two days later, the pan is still soaking.
So, to recap. Here are our ratings for each individual item, based on flavor, authenticity/resemblance to its fried counterpart, and ease in preparation.
French fries- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 5/10
Sweet potato fries- 3/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 6/10
Egg roll-3/3 for flavor, 3/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 9/10
Tortilla chips- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 1/4 for prep = 1/10
Plantain chips- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 0/4 for prep = 0/10
Kettle chips- 1/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 4/10
“Fried” chicken- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 6/10
Onion petals- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 6/10
Baked apple and apricot dessert- 1/3 for flavor, 2/3 for authenticity, and 1/4 for prep = 4/10 Fried Oreos- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 0/4 for prep = 0/10
Machine pros: Easy to clean up if frying, set it and forget it function, knowledge of exactly how much oil is going in food.
Machine cons: Larger than Rosie O’Donnell’s left ass cheek, loud, takes a long time to prepare food, and $300.
So, either the Actifry is manufactured to only work with specific, low-calorie foods that need to be fried, and like the behavioral modifying drug Alli, discourages against using high-calorie foods in the fryer by turning them into facsimiles of poop, or it isn’t as successful a device as the world thought it would be.