In the film industry, they are known as sleeper hits. These are films that are commercial failures at first, only to resurface as widely acknowledged classics many years later. It’s a Wonderful Life is one such example – a loss-maker at the box office whose greatness was only fully recognised 30 years after its release when it became a Christmas staple on TV. The Shawshank Redemption is another; it appears in almost every top 10 list of the public’s favourite films, yet I don’t know anyone who has seen it on the big screen.
There are sleeper technologies, too: inventions that exist for years as the province of a small minority of eccentrics before they finally hit the big time. The fax machine was invented in the 19th century but was little used until the 1980s. Video-conferencing had to wait for a pandemic for its business use to become mainstream. The mobile phone, like the washing machine and dishwasher before it, spent its earliest years vilified as a pointless luxury. The same was even true of the car: in 1906, my distant cousin Woodrow Wilson remarked that “nothing has spread socialistic feeling in the United States more than the automobile”. It symbolised, he said, the “arrogance of wealth”. Three years later the Model-T appeared.
I suspect sleeper technologies have something in common with sleeper films. Either they are waiting for some magical extra ingredient to come along to help them deliver their value (in the way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show needed audience participation to achieve immortality). So, in this scheme of things, the Shawshank Redemption of kitchen appliances must be the air fryer.
The kitchen-top gadget has been around for years, but only recently has it received the recognition it deserves. Firstly, it suffered from having a very silly and unappealing name. An air fryer does not fry at all – it is a glorified, miniature, high-intensity convection oven. Unlike a fryer, it does not use any oil, although manufacturers sometimes recommend adding a few skeuomorphic drops of oil onto the food to recreate the smell of fried food. The whole point of the air fryer is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin – it creates the crispiness of fried food, but without the fat.
This important distinction did not prevent retailers from displaying air fryers next to deep-fat fryers on the shelves, hence confining them to a corner of John Lewis which the foodie bourgeoisie disdained to visit. Putting the device next to deep-fat fryers led people to believe they were primarily for cooking chips. They do this very well – but, in reality, that is only one of their many party pieces: kale, gnocchi, lentils, bananas, bacon, steak and chicken (and almost any food you care to Google) can all be cooked more interestingly in an air fryer, offering as it does the speed of a microwave without the sogginess.
Having an advertising client who made the gadget, but who bizarrely refused to advertise them, I was, for many years, the St Augustine of Air Fryers, regularly preaching their virtues while being met with widespread bemusement. Except, that is, from the tiny number of people who already owned them, who treated me like a long-lost soulmate.
I converted my octogenarian father, who subsequently converted several of his friends. I bought them as presents, and most of the recipients loved them. I once even suggested to my client that they rename the product the ‘Air Sauteuse’, suggesting that Frenchifying the name might destigmatise the product among snobbier Brits who scorn fried food. After all, sous-vide cooking enjoyed a brief vogue, even though it is no more hygienic than putting food in a plastic bag and then storing it in your underpants for five hours on a hot day.
What I eventually realised was that the air fryer is what economists call “an experience good”: you only want one when you already have one. It is also a ratchet product, in that once you own one, you cannot imagine living without it. It was a Catch-22: nobody wanted one until they owned one.
But, six months ago, I noticed something had suddenly changed. People were showing me more and more articles about air fryers from social media. A specialist US magazine launched, called simply Air Fryer. Google searches for “air fryer” rose more than tenfold in a month. And it turns out that what finally rescued the product from its undeserved obscurity was TikTok.
It seems that everyone with an air fryer had a secret recipe of their own devising, and that sharing these secrets had become an online meme. There are now dedicated air fryer gurus with millions of subscribers on the social media platform, and they have taken it from a cult to a movement overnight. A cynic would say that a fan oven cooks in the same way – but, to the impatient young, getting a full-size oven to full heat feels as tedious as getting up full steam on the Mallard.
TikTok and air frying were made for each other. What could be better for short-form video than a short-form cooking device? And the device thrives on the kind of cooking hacks that TikTok’s younger audience loves. Some of their recipes are utterly brilliant – crispy kale chips, cooked potato peelings, panko courgettes, samosas, banana chips – and so too their tricks for heating and pimping store-bought food in the air fryer. But none of them are as good as my own ‘bacon cooked three ways’ trick, in which you microwave bacon for two minutes, pan-fry it for three minutes and then air fry it for four.
But, finally, I feel vindicated. A bit like Professor Higgs must have felt when his boson was proven to exist. Maybe I’m not mad after all.
Rory Sutherland is vice chairman of Ogilvy Group, and author of Alchemy: The Magic of Original Thinking in a World of Mind-Numbing Conformity (Penguin, £9.99). Buy now at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514
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