Since the microwave cooker transformed the kitchen in the 1980s there has been a proliferation of alternative cooking devices over recent years. some of these such as the Halogen Oven and Low Fat Fryer are every bit as revolutionary as the Microwave. This is not just in terms of convenience but they are also healthier, more economical and faster than traditional cookers. Slow Cookers (Croc Pots) have been around for a number of years now and people generally understand them. Rice Cookers or Food Steamers have similarly been around for the same period. Then we have the Low Fat Fryer (also called Health Fryer, No Oil Fryer and ActiFry) and Halogen Oven. These have really taken us by storm. Most people will by now either own one of these amazing devices or will know someone who does. There are also Multi-cookers which combine aspects of some of the former and in some cases acts as a pressure cooker to boot.
Not surprisingly, with so many claims and seemingly endless features, people are confused and are afraid to make a purchase. If this is you then please read on because we want to explain in simple terms what each of these wonderful devices will do for you and how they can transform your kitchen. Equally, we also want to highlight what they won’t do. For example, can a multi-cooker do the same as the low fat fryer, halogen oven and rice cooker? Read on and find out. Let’s start with a brief description and comparison of each.
Low Fat Fryers
The Low Fat Fryer is also called a Health Fryer, Healthy Fryer, ActiFry, and No Oil Fryer. The various names stem from the way the different manufacturers market them. Generically, they are usually called Low Fat Fryers or a variation on Health Fryers. The names may vary but they are all basically the same thing.
The first thing to appreciate about the low fat fryer is that this a fryer rather than an oven. This might help when deciding which is right for you. As a fryer it is exceptionally good at ‘frying’ food rather than ‘cooking’ food. If you want to do more than fry or if you want to cook whole meals, then we suggest you check out the Halogen Ovens.
Low fat fryers use very little (or no) oil or fat. That’s right. If you didn’t know already, you only add a spoon full of oil to this device; making it both a healthy fryer and a safe fryer. Frozen chips come pre-coated so you don’t even need to add any oil. If food can be fried or grilled it will work well in a low oil fryer.
These no oil fryers distinguish themselves from other devices such as the halogen oven in terms of their size and the concentration of heat. The heat is generated at the top of the device and circulated inside using a fan. It is this concentration of heat in a relatively confined space that enables it to ‘fry’ food in a way that resembles the ordinary deep fat fryer. Results are comparable to the deep fat fryer only much healthier. Some healthy fryers also have the option of rotating the food as it cooks. This can be important in say Chip cooking, in order to keep the food evenly cooked on all sides. The only notable difference to deep fat fried chips we have found is when cooking home cut chips. They come out fantastic but sometimes have a mottled effect. This is because the small amount of oil you use may not have coated the potatoes evenly. This is not a problem and won’t effect the flavor, and can be resolved with practice. Frozen chips have no such problem as they are coated very evenly in a thin film of oil and work perfectly every time; especially the thin French fries which are better than any fast food fries by a long way.
Some of the larger low fat fryers can have a shelf which allows you to cook different food types at the same time e.g. steak at the top and chips on the bottom. This larger size with additional layers is characteristic of the halogen oven but don’t be confused. Even these low fat fryers are relatively small in size compared to the halogen oven and so remain fryers and not ovens.
Some have a heat control but not all. The Tefal Actifry, for example has a very simple on/off button and a timer. They don’t have a heat control because they don’t really need one. You are not expected to be cooking anything that doesn’t need the intense heat. Some other manufacturers do incorporate a heat controller but in our experience this is seldom needed.
All Health Fryers / Low Fat Fryers heat up almost instantly and so unlike a traditional deep fat fryer or oven, you can start frying straight away. As an indication of speed, frozen French fries will cook to a nice golden crisp in about 17 minutes from start to finished depending on the quantity. Chunky chips will take 23 minutes. Other items such as savory snacks, chicken strips, sausages, burgers etc. will generally take less time than if grilled. All come with decent instruction books and recipes for you to try.
You will notice that there are two type of design. Some look like a large round bowl with lid and heating element on top. Others look more like a traditional deep fryer with a pull out drawer where the food goes. The key difference between the two is that the hinged lid type usually has the rotating paddles which keeps the food moving within the fryer. You can also visually inspect the food in these types during cooking, whereas with the drawer type you have to pull out the drawer and maybe give it a shake during cooking. Where rotating paddles these are available, they can be removed when not needed. For example, when cooking more delicate items such as fish. The drawer type low fat fryers look a little nicer but have no particular advantages.
In summary then, low fat fryers are great for food that needs frying or grilling. There are two basic designs (hinged lid with rotating paddles and drawer). The capacity of the healthy fryers is around 1KG to 1.5K. They are a healthy alternative because they use very little or no oil. Care must be taken to coat the food in a tiny amount of oil to avoid burning and aid crisping (frozen chips are the exception). If you want to do more than frying, have a look at the Halogen Ovens.
Halogen ovens use a similar technology to low fat fryers to generate an intense heat and circulate this inside the bowl. There are two key differences between a halogen oven and a low fat fryer. First, the halogen oven is much larger in size. Whilst this is great for cooking more food such as a whole chicken complete with potatoes, it also means that the heat is less concentrated. This is the case even though it might have an equivalent rating to a low fat fryer. This is great for oven style cooking but less good for frying. Therefore, halogen ovens are better suited to cooking foods that you would traditionally cook in the oven such as meat, potatoes, veg, scones, casseroles, sauces etc. but are not as good at frying. Some would argue that a halogen oven can cook chips and it can. Some come with a tray that enables you to place the food high up inside, near the hating element. Others provide this as an optional extra. In using this tray for frying food such as chips, you do get a better result, but still generally not as good as a dedicated low at fryer; especially where chips are concerned.
In terms of capacity, a standard halogen oven will be around 12 litres which is ample for a whole chicken. If you want even more capacity, you can usually purchase an extender ring which adds height to the halogen oven and increases the capacity to 17 litres. Halogen ovens also have internal shelves to separate different foods types so that you can cook a complete meal relatively quickly and conveniently.
In terms of controls, you will typically find a heat control as well as a timer. Some are more sophisticated than others but all follow a similar design. In fact, many look almost identical. If you are buying a halogen oven, please make sure it has a hinged lid. This makes it much easier and safer when opening the halogen oven. Remember, it will be extremely hot and you don’t want to be carrying a hot lid around and finding somewhere to put it. It is much better to simply lift the lid and let if fold backwards on its hinge.
We have tried a number of halogen ovens and broadly speaking they perform very well. Prepare for some noise due to the fan; about the same as an extractor hood. They are also quite large so you will need a fair amount of space to put them. The great thing about all these modern devices is that they come apart easy for cleaning and are even dishwasher safe.
In summary, halogen ovens cook faster than traditional ovens and the heat is almost instant. They are also much more economical, convenient and arguably healthier as the fat leaves the food and drains to the bottom. They appear to be a larger cousin of the low fat fryer but do not fry food as good as the dedicated low fat fryer. However, if you want total flexibility the Halogen Oven is a better option than the low at fryer.
Key differences between low fat fryers and halogen ovens
The following table summarizes the key differences between low fat fryers and halogen ovens.
|Low Fat Fryer||Halogen Oven|
|Capacity||Generally measured in weight i.e. 1Kg to 1.5Kg||Generally measured in volume i.e. 12L to 17L|
||Round with heating element in the lid. Make sure you get a hinged lid.|
|Rotation||Some have (removable) rotating paddles to stir the food during cooking. Type ii above does not rotate the food so you will need to do that mid-way through cooking like you would with a deep fat fryer.||There is no rotation.|
|Controls||Tend to be basic On/Off and Timer||Typicaly has On/Off, Timer and Heat Setting|
|Versatility||Best for frying||Can do lots more than the low fat fryer but not as good at frying|
Rice Cookers & Vegetable Steamers
An electric rice cooker is basically a removable non-stick bowl, into which a measured amount of rice and water are placed. The lid is then closed and the processes begins. Providing you have measure the rice and water correctly, and rinsed the rice before hand (depending on the rice) then you will get perfectly cooked rice. If you don’t want to eat it straight away the rice cooker will keep it warm for you.
The attraction of the electric rice cooker for many is that you are guaranteed a good result, it doesn’t take up a place on the hob, and you don’t have to time it to coincide with when the rest of the meal if ready.
Of course, some rice cookers can also be use to cook other meals such as porridge, stews, and even some deserts. You just need to make sure that the one you buy is appropriate for these other uses, otherwise you may damage the non-stick coating by burning it.
Rice cookers are also good at steaming vegetables but not as good as a dedicated vegetable steamer, which are far better at controlling the cooking process.
Similarly, rice cookers have much in common with the slow cooker. However, the slow cooker does not have the controls needed to guarantee perfect rice but can be used for this is you know what you are doing.
Slow cookers are perhaps the simplest of all of these type of cookers. They consist of a removable bowl, which can be quite large in size. The bowl is heated by an element underneath and the intension is that the food is cooked over a number of hours. For example, you can set the slow cooker in the morning and the food will be ready when you return from work later in the day.
Slow cookers have only basic controls such as High, Medium and Low heat settings. Some also have a timer but not all. The timer can be useful but usually not essential.
You can in theory cooker rice in a slow cooker but you will have to use trial and error to determine the exact quantities to put in. If you intend use this for rice cooking on a regular basis you would be better off getting a rice cooker.
Multi-cookers are the new kid on the block and as the name suggests, you can perform a number of different types of cooking in the one unit. Some even have pressure cooking. For those who do not remember pressure cookers, they cook at a high temperature and therefore much quicker than in the oven.
It is important to stress that the multi-cooker will not replace the low fat fryer or halogen oven. These use a completely different processes of cooking that cannot be replicated in the multi-cooker which is in essence a sophisticated rice cooker / slow cooker / vegetable steamer. Not all multi-cookers have the pressure cooker facility so if that is important, make sure you choose one with this.