The pedantic criticism of appliances with devoted followings is not something I consider worthwhile. While I understand that it is human nature to want to push back against anything that achieves sudden and ubiquitous popularity, it’s helpful to stop and consider why things become popular, generally. Whether a collection of lovable teens with pretty singing voices or a kitchen appliance, things that become very popular, very quickly usually do so because they make people happy.
For example, even though the Instant Pot is “just a pressure cooker,” it’s the pressure cooker that got the average home cook comfortable with pressure cooking, allowing them to expand their skill set and get dinner on the table faster. Some purchasers of the Instant Pot probably cooked new and exciting foods with theirs; some probably ate more beans. Either way, that has value, and looking down one’s nose at an appliance that gets people excited about eating and cooking is not, in my opinion, helpful.
Not everything is meant for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t meant for someone. The air fryer—which, yes, is “just a tabletop convection oven” that “doesn’t really fry anything”—is not a good fit for a mother of four who functions as the primary meal preparer for her family. Even if you get a big one, it simply doesn’t have the capacity to prepare six servings of any given thing. It would make much more sense for this hypothetical mom to invest in an oven with a convection setting.
But for single people, students, or teens whose parents work weird hours and often find themselves in charge of their own dinner (this was me from ages 10 on), the air fryer is very useful, very cost-efficient (mine was $50), and very easy to use. You get convection oven results without having to wait for an entire oven to heat, which means most meals—yes, full meals—can be prepared in about 10 minutes.
It’s like a big Easy Bake Oven, with the speed of a microwave. It doesn’t technically fry anything, but it does help a certain subset of eater eat better, and getting pedantic about the name the appliance is sold under helps no one.
Anyway, this is all to say that an air fryer makes a pretty stellar plate of gnocchi and meatballs in about 10 minutes. Both gnocchi and meatballs are at their best when they’re tender on the inside and ever so slightly crispy on the outside, and shelf-stable gnocchi and frozen meatballs just happen to cook at near identical rates. There is some variation with size of frozen meatball, but the ones I used to test this out were fairly large, and the gnocchi came out perfect—pillowy on the inside with a slight, not-quite-crunchy shell.
One of the great things about the air fryer is that you can easily check on the food as it cooks. Unlike sous-vide cooking (which is trapped in a bag) or Instant Pot meals (which are trapped under pressure), you can open up your air fryer, poke and prod its contents, then close it again without worrying about “letting all the heat out.” (Any lost heat returns very quickly.) Start checking your balls around the 8 minute mark. Slice one open to see if it’s warm in the middle, and give it another minute or two if needed. If you can handle cooking a TV dinner, you can handle this pasta dish.
Air Fried Gnocchi and Meatballs
- As much gnocchi as you would like to eat
- As many frozen meatballs as you would like to eat (do not thaw them)
- Olive oil
- Garlic salt (or salt and garlic powder)
- Your favorite prepared pasta sauce (store-bought or homemade)
Set the air fryer to 385℉. Add the gnocchi to a mixing bowl and drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat. Lightly season with garlic salt, then pour the gnocchi into the drawer/tray of the air fryer, keeping it in a single layer and leaving room for the meatballs. Add the meatballs, close the drawer, and cook for 8-11 minutes, until the gnocchi is crispy on the outside and the meatballs are cooked through. While the the air fryer is doing its thing, heat enough sauce for your meal (1/3 cup works for me). Plate the gnocchi and meatballs, pour on the sauce, and garnish with parm and/or fresh basil.