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Innovation Economy

Cambridge company tries to build a better french fry

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2011

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Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

Producing a crispy french fry without a deep fryer is one of the Holy Grails of food science. This month, a Cambridge research company, DuraFizz, invited me to taste their latest project, fresh from the oven.

I met with founder David Soane, formerly a tenured chemical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Dan Jacques, a former Ocean Spray executive; and Lauren Fortin, a University of Massachusetts-trained food scientist.

It’s tough to bake potatoes and achieve anything like a proper french fry texture, Fortin explained. And once you dunk a potato in hot oil, it gets fattening fast.

What DuraFizz has been developing is a healthy fry that’s super-crispy but baked in an oven. The customers they have in mind aren’t just restaurant chains and frozen food producers, but also schools and military installations. The coating they have developed, called Oh So Crisp, uses starches and flours from corn, rice, and potatoes, which form a layer around the potato.

“The ingredients are all natural,’’ Fortin said, and the fries are gluten-free.

Soane says the coating works by creating a stiff, ridgy layer that your tongue and teeth perceive as crispiness, along with pores that allow the moisture inside the potato to escape to avoid sogginess. Even when you reheat the fries in a microwave, Soane says, they stay crispy.

“And there are no new ingredients in the coating - nothing that would require FDA review,’’ he said.

DuraFizz is working with Russet House, a Canadian company that produces sweet potato fries for restaurants and grocery chains like Trader Joe’s, on production tests of Oh So Crisp.

Fortin whipped up two samples in a convection oven, baking them at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. I tried them sans ketchup.

Both the white and sweet potato fries had a crunchy coating. On the white potato fries, the coating was so assertive it overwhelmed the potato filling. For that reason, I preferred the sweet potato variation, which had been cut thicker. It had a light, pillowy interior.

But while Oh So Crisp conferred a substantial crunch, it had a strange stickiness, adhering to my tongue and teeth in a way you don’t expect from a french fry, a bit like a candy coating would.

Fortin said they are working on a way to apply a thinner coating more evenly, eliminating the problem. If a traditional, well-made fry is an A (and healthfulness isn’t factored in), I’d grade DuraFizz’s sweet potato fries a solid B, and the white potato fries C-plus.

As for calories and fat: A 100-gram serving of McDonald’s french fries (slightly bigger than a “small’’ order) has 324 calories and 15.5 grams of fat, while the same serving of Oh So Crisp fries has 170 calories and zero grams of fat, according to DuraFizz.

It will be interesting to see whether Oh So Crisp is adopted by the restaurant and food service industries; an earlier product from the company, instant cappuccino foam that didn’t require hot steam, never took off.

For now, the only place you can taste Oh So Crisp fries is at Arizona Pizza Company in Hadley, where a basket costs $5.49. (Regular fries there cost $2.99.) Once the Oh So Crisp coating is made in large volumes, it won’t add much to the price of fries, the company says.

“We’ve been talking with the Army, universities, and restaurant chains,’’ Jacques said. “Their big question right now is how are you going to make enough to supply us?’’

The company is focusing first on sweet potato fries, which have a higher profit margin, Jacques said.

And the award goes to . . . Boston University created a nifty award in 2010: Innovator of the Year, handed out annually as part of an event called Tech, Drugs and Rock & Roll. The award is intended to honor a faculty member “whose cutting-edge research has led to creation of companies that benefit society,’’ BU spokesman Richard Taffe said.

This year’s recipient is Avrum Spira, cofounder of Allegro Diagnostics and head of the Division of Computational Biomedicine at BU’s medical school. Allegro is commercializing Spira’s research into gene-based tests that could spot lung cancer sooner and better manage its treatment, in current or former smokers.

Spira has authored 37 peer-reviewed papers and attracted more than $3.5 million in funding for research. Maynard-based Allegro has raised $8.9 million in total funding, Taffe said.

Business ideas abound On Thursday, 10 teams of Babson College students and recent graduates will present the business ideas they have been developing over the summer. They include KokoBerna, which is marketing holistic facial care products, and RooferQuotes, which sounds a bit like LendingTree for roof repair services.

The event is free; register at http://2011babsondemoday.eventbrite.com.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation.