If you’re not a homeowner with the budget to create your own, built-to-order kitchen, you’re most likely just stuck with what you’ve got. As an apartment dweller, I am at the mercy of the landlord — whether or not they’ve upgraded the appliances in my 3-bedroom since 1989 is entirely up to them, and as a result, my kitchen isn’t exactly what you’d call well-equipped. The dishwasher opens up directly in front of the sink, and only one person can be in there at a time without feeling totally claustrophobic.
Perhaps most importantly (or awfully), the stove that I use day-in, day-out, is a total piece of shit. Since moving in less than a year ago, maintenance has already replaced the heating element in my electric oven, along with repairing connections for two of the wobbly, uneven burners on the stove. Even with those repairs, it is still an relentlessly terrible appliance. Forget baking or roasting anything approaching evenly, I do well to avoid burning everything I throw in there to a complete and total crisp.
Which is why when I received a sous vide machine for testing, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was initially skeptical of the sous vide method, but once I got the hang of it, I found that I hadn’t turned my oven on in more than a month. I was still using the stove to sear meats that had been slow-cooked into mouthwatering delicacies, but that was about it. The appeal of perfectly-cooked chicken, steak, and pork was just too much for me to consider ruining a nice cut in my awful oven.
Then, I started looking for more ways to avoid using that hideous hunk of junk. I used a torch to sear meats after a dip in the sous vide, to uneven results. I wasn’t using a pricey Searzall attachment, so some corners of my steak were far more browned (read: burned) than others. In my quest, I quickly learned that it was possible to replace most, if not all, of my oven’s functions with just three gadgets — my sous vide machine and vacuum sealer, an air fryer, and the trusty old microwave. The results were surprisingly impressive.
The sous vide had already taken the place of those heavy-ass roasting pans in my cabinet, but it wasn’t good for much of anything that needed to be cooked in less than an hour. Beyond that, it couldn’t fry, bake, or sear a damn thing. After a little research, I discovered the Philips Airfyer, a machine that promises to fry and roast traditionally unhealthy foods like French fries with less than a tablespoon of oil. As if I didn’t need enough motivation with my stove mishaps, the idea of preparing delicious fried foods in a healthy manner was incredibly intriguing.
Once I received my Philips Viva Collection Air Fryer, I set to work in making just about anything I could get my hands on. The machine is basically just a small convection oven that is capable of heating up quickly, reaching 400 degrees in just four minutes. The first recipe I tried was simple — naked chicken wings. I had high standards for these wings, and was skeptical that the air fryer could produce the crispy, dressing-drenched wings that I craved. I asked a butcher for two pounds of split chicken wings — who wants to do butchering when they’re trying to make their lives easier — and prepared them for the air fryer.
To really test Philips’ “one tablespoon of oil” brag, I measured out a single tablespoon of safflower oil and tossed it with the chicken wings, along with a little garlic salt and pepper. I layered the wings into the air fryer’s “oven,” a small drawer with room to prepare about two or three portions of food. The directions included with the fryer said to let the machine cook the wings for about 20 minutes, so I closed the door, set the timer, and said a little prayer to the culinary gods.
When I opened the drawer of the air fryer, I was met with an incredibly delicious odor of crispy-fried chicken skin. The wings hadn’t quite crisped up to the point that I wished, so I simply shut the door and waited about three more minutes. I then had a batch of chicken wings that rivaled any deep-fried bird that I’d had at any wing joint ever. These were the best chicken wings of all time, and I could technically call them healthy. Perhaps even better, the fat that dripped away from the wings was pure, decadent schmaltz — which I quickly strained into a jar for future use.
From there, I just threw different foods into the air fryer to see what happened. Leftover French fries and falafel were surprisingly returned to an edible state after lingering in the refrigerator for a few hours, and any frozen Trader Joe’s convenience entree came out better than putting it in the oven. Carrots, brussels sprouts, and potatoes all roasted perfectly, perhaps even crispier than when in the oven. The biggest challenge I faced was when I removed a 1-pound ribeye steak from the sous vide, and realized that the single large burner on my stove was totally broken. How the hell am I going to sear this thing?
Image: Pomax, CC BY-NC-ND
This was the real test. I couldn’t count on any of the smaller burners on my stove to produce enough heat to effectively sear the steak, but the air fryer was already heated to an appropriate 400 degrees Fahrenheit. I crossed my fingers, and gently placed the cooked steak onto the top rack, and hoped that it wouldn’t ruin my dinner. After just three minutes in the air fryer, I had a steak that was perfectly seared on both sides — a Maillard reaction to truly envy — and still nice and medium rare on the insides.
By now, I was practically declaring victory over my terrible kitchen, and moved the air fryer on top of the stovetop so that the giant hunk of metal could at least be useful for one thing. I decided to really push my limits when I acquired a few small silicone baking pans from a nearby Japanese dollar store — could I actually bake an entire cake in the air fryer? The answer was a resounding yes. The three-layer buttermilk banana bread cake that I baked in just under an hour in that machine was impossibly tender and rich, and cooked perfectly throughout.
The combination of the sous vide machine and the air fryer was ultimately able to replace a great deal of my kitchen needs. I started to use the microwave more than ever before, melting small amounts of butter in record time and steaming individual portions of vegetables, both of which I had previously just done on the stove top. At this point, the only thing that I haven’t figured out how to do satisfactorily is boil pasta, but I’m not really much of a pasta-eater anyway. If it means staying away from my stress-inducing stove, I’m happy to leave that up to the professionals.
It is worth noting that the adjustment is certainly pricey. A sous vide machine will run you anywhere from $99 to $499, and air fryers are similarly priced. A good vacuum sealer to ready foods for cooking sous vide will run you another $100, along with the cost of a convection-friendly microwave. I could probably have a very decent stove for that amount of money, but I’m not thinking that my landlord is going to be willing to let me completely remodel the kitchen in my rented apartment.
Speaking of my landlord, maintenance finally came and repaired my broken burner, more than five weeks into my experiment. By this point, though, I barely missed it. I even used my tea kettle to make a packet of Korean ramen noodles as a late night snack without even thinking to use a regular old pot on the regular old stove, and used the air fryer to (perfectly) toast a bagel for breakfast. I realized that I had thoroughly converted to the stove-free life.
As I head into fall, I know that I will probably be using (and fighting with) the stove more and more — soups and stews aren’t exactly easy to make in a sous vide — but I have no doubt that the air fryer, sous vide, and microwave will still continue to do most of the heavy lifting in my own personal kitchen. I may not have been able to replace my entire kitchen with these gadgets, but I’ve certainly found a few new kitchen tools that are totally indispensable. And, despite being “repaired,” my stove is still a complete and total piece of shit.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She really, really hates her stove.
Main image: SummerBl4ck CC BY-NC-ND