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Taste test: Can you make crispy french fries without the deep fryer?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 12, 2011 10:34 AM

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Producing a crispy french fry without a deep fryer is one of the holy grails of food science. Last Friday, a Cambridge research company called DuraFizz invited me to lunch to taste their latest project, fresh from the oven.

I met with founder David Soane, formerly a tenured chemical engineering prof at UC Berkeley; Dan Jacques, an ex-Ocean Spray exec; and Lauren Fortin, a UMass-trained food scientist with extensive experience in "omega-3 fatty acid stabilization, snack food texture optimization, food surface adhesion, and food texture optimizatiom," according to her bio. (That's Fortin in the picture, with the lone sweet potato fry that survived the lunch.)

frenchfries1.jpgIt's tough to bake potatoes in the oven and achieve anything like a proper french fry texture, Fortin explained. And once you start dunking a potato in a Jacuzzi bath of hot oil, it gets fattening fast. What DuraFizz has been developing is a healthy french fry that tastes super-crispy, but can be baked in an oven. The customers they've got in mind aren't just restaurant chains and frozen food producers, but also schools and military installations.

The coating they've developed, which they call Oh So Crisp, uses starches and flours from corn, rice and potatoes, which form a layer around the potato itself. "The ingredients are all natural," Fortin explains, and the fries are gluten-free, too. 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 without creating 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 says. DuraFizz is already 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 the Oh So Crisp coating.

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

frenchfries2.jpgBoth the white and sweet potato fries had a crunchy coating. (That's a sweet potato fry in the picture at right.) On the white potato fries, the coating was so assertive that it overwhelmed the potato filling, and for that reason, I preferred the sweet potato variation, which had been cut thicker. They had a light, pillowy interior. But while the Oh So Crisp coating succeeded in conferring a substantial crunch, it also had a strange stickiness to it, adhering to my tongue and teeth in a way that you don't expect from a french fry. (It caked on, a bit like a candy coating would.) Fortin explained that they are working on a way to apply a thinner coating more evenly, eliminating that problem.

If a traditional, well-made fry is an A (and healthfulness isn't factored in), I'd grade DuraFizz's sweet potato fries as a solid B, and the white potato fries as a C+.

As for the 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 size of Oh So Crisp fries has just 170 calories and zero grams of fat, according to DuraFizz. Compared to Ore-Ida sweet potato fries (190 calories and 9.5 grams of fat for a 100-gram portion), Oh So Crisp prevails, too (140 calories and 0.5 grams of fat).

It'll be interesting to see whether DuraFizz's Oh So Crisp gets adopted by the restaurant and food service industries; an earlier breakthrough from the company, instant cappuccino foam that didn't require hot steam, never took off. (Turns out that café customers will pay more for the experience and the sound of milk being frothed just for them.) For now, the only place you can taste the 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 being made in large volumes, they predict that it won't add that much to the cost of an order of fries.

"We've been talking with the Army, universities, and restaurant chains," says Jacques. "Their big question right now is, how are you going to make enough to supply us?" He says the company is focusing first on sweet potato fries, which Jacques says have a higher profit margin. Also, sales are growing fast.

DuraFizz raised $250,000 last year from a Japanese venture capital firm, Global Venture Capital.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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