I love versatile kitchen appliances. Which is why I was keen to see if I could replace my vegetable steamer with my air fryer.
While an air fryer is traditionally used to fry foods using hot air and a small amount of oil I was curious as to wether the core principles of the appliance could be used to achieve the same end result. Sadly, however, my research found that this isn’t quite the case.
While you can cook vegetables in both an air fryer and a steamer, you’re unable to steam in an air fryer as an air fryer works by circulating hot air with a minimal amount of oil and a steamer works by heating water to create steam.
I came to this solution by cooking the same frozen vegetables in both an electric steamer and an air fryer. An while the vegetables from the air fryer weren’t steamed, they were still super tasty and completely edible – more on that below!
The Difference Between An Air Fryer & A Food Steamer
Air fryers and food steamers both operate by way of a similar concept: they aim to heat the air that surrounds the food you’re cooking.
However, they go about it in different ways.
How An Air Fryer Works
An Air Fryer is a fantastic kitchen appliance which is to replicate the results of deep-frying, with hot air and minimal oil.
An air fryer is essentially a convection oven turned up to eleven. The two cook food in remarkably similar ways, through the circulation of extremely hot air.
Due to the compact size of an air fryer, it’s able to cook food much quicker than a full-sized conventional oven.
When putting food into an air fryer, you place your ingredients into a fryer-style basket, which is then placed into the pre-heated chamber. Hot air rushes down and around the food in the basket, similarly to how extremely hot oil coats food in a deep fryer.
The air fryer achieves similar results to a deep fryer thanks to the rapid circulation of hot air. The two main components in both a convection oven and an air fryer are a heating element and fan. The difference is that in an air fryer, those components are significantly increased.
How A Steamer Works
There are two types of steamers, though they both work on similar principles. The first type is the most basic: a steamer basket. This is a very common way to steam food.
Essentially, you add a small amount of water to the bottom of a pot, place the steamer basket into the pan, add your ingredients, and then apply heat.
As the water at the bottom of the pot heats, it will eventually boil, and become steam. The steam that is now present in the pot will cook the ingredients in the steamer basket, and when fully cooked, they’re ready to serve.
The second type of steamer is a little more high-tech but much more simple. An electric steamer follows the same principle as a steamer basket, but it is designed to be much more straightforward, and more of a ‘set it and walk away’ style of the appliance.
You add water to a chamber in your electric steamer, and then add the ingredients you want to add to the other chambers in the appliance.
Then, you select the option that applies to what you’re cooking and walks away. This is a much more simple process than a basket steamer, as it doesn’t involve routinely checking and adjusting the heat under your pot
An air fryer operates through the rapid circulation of very hot air. As such, air fryers have fans built into them which are designed to circulate the air quickly and efficiently.
A food steamer, on the other hand, has no means of circulating the steam it produces. Naturally, as the steam cools, it will sink, become hot again, and rise. However, this is due to the natural convection current that arises when boiling a pot of water, rather than due to a component in the steamer itself.
Meanwhile, you can control the temperature of the air fryer significantly easier than you can a food steamer. Instead, a food steamer is only able to cook your food at the temperature of the steam in which it produces.
Of course, cooking your food at different temperatures and for different lengths of time allows you to take the same food and as a result, the final textures and flavors of that same food can vary dramatically.
This can make cooking foods in an air fryer beneficial when compared to steaming them in an electric steamer.
Another difference between the two appliances is the amount of oil needed to use them. While most appliances require a minimal amount of fat to cook your food, it’s worth noting that there is a little needed for the air fryer, while none is needed for a steamer.
Most air fryers will tell you how much oil is needed to cook your food, and some might even come with a small measuring cup.
Conversely, food steamers don’t require any fat at all to cook your food, instead solely relying on the heat of the steam. Either way, unless you’re putting a large amount of fat into a recipe, they’ll both be much healthier than a lot of different, more traditional, cooking methods.
How To Cook Vegetables In An Air Fryer
While you can’t steam vegetables in an air fryer, that doesn’t rule out cooking them altogether. I’ve experimented (a lot!) with cooking vegetables in the air fryer and I’ve found the best method is to just slice the raw veggies up in similar size slices – thinner is better.
Vegetables cooked in an air fryer following this method keep more of their taste than if you boil or fry them.
The vegetables take 5-10 minutes to cook in an air fryer and shouldn’t be cooked with any other raw foods simultaneously. Otherwise you’ll risk cross-contamination and potentially food poisoning.
You should avoid overfilling the air fryer as the design and functionality of the appliance depends on the air being able to circulate. As a result, there should also be some consideration as to the positioning of the food inside the air fryer basket.
How To Steam Vegetables In An Air Fryer
You can cook any vegetables you like in your air fryer, from tender veggies like tomatoes, green beens or bell peppers to chunkier veggies like potatoes or carrots.
Chop your veggies to the size that you want, and then spread them out in the basket, aiming for a fairly flat layer.
You can then drizzle them with a little oil, and begin to cook.
- Green beans
- Bell peppers
- Cooking Oil
- Slice your vegetables up into the same size
- Spread them out on the bottom of the air fryer basket
- Aim for a thin and even layer
- Drizzle or spray some oil over the veggies
The Difference Between Air Fried & Steamed Vegetables
Air fryers are known for their versatility, so it’s no surprise that you can cook vegetables in them.
In theory, using an air fryer for cooking should be very similar to deep-frying it, though much healthier. Air fried vegetables have a similar texture to roasted vegetables, although perhaps a little crispier on the outside.
You can cook any vegetables in your air fryer, from tender veg like tomato or bell pepper to chunkier veg like potato or carrot. To cook the veg in an air fryer, chop them to the size that you want, and then spread them out in the basket, aiming for a fairly flat layer. You can then drizzle them with a little oil, and begin to cook.
For tender veg, you can cook for 10-15 minutes, whereas for chunker veg, you might need to cook for 20-30 minutes. For both types of veg, you’ll need to shake them occasionally to promote even cooking.
Technically, you can steam any veg, although you might want to steer clear of the chunkier veg I mentioned above.
Then add the water, your steamer basket, and your veg to the pan, and turn the heat on underneath. Veg will cook in approximately the same period of time when steaming as when air frying, ranging from 5-6 minutes for asparagus to 25-30 minutes for larger potatoes, which have been chopped up and prepared.
One thing that you’re sure to miss out on with steamed veg is the flavour that you can generate from the caramelization of air-fried or roasted veg. It’s a simple joy of life to eat a slightly charred roast potato, whereas a steamed potato will never get a similar texture or taste: the cooking environment simply isn’t dry enough.
To sum up: there isn’t much difference in the cooking processes that air fryers and steamers use. However, the small difference is large enough to change the texture and flavour of what you’re cooking.
Because an air-fryer will cook food in a much more dry environment, you’ll end up with much crispier food, which is reminiscent of roasted vegetables.
By comparison, steamed veg can be fairly wet, and you cannot achieve a crispy texture when steaming vegetables. Furthermore, cooking vegetables in a dryer environment can mean that you’re more likely to maintain the flavour of any spices that you add to your recipe.
If you steam vegetables after applying spices to them, you may well end up losing or diluting those flavours.