A new cooking technology under development at Purdue University could please both dieters looking for lowercalorie meals and food retailers seeking lower costs. It has the potential to produce "fried" foods using vastly less oil, and to cook them at speeds that make microwave ovens seem as slow as crock pots.
A Purdue professor is working with Anderson Tool and Engineering Co. in Madison County to create advanced prototypes of the device, called a "radiant fryer."
The first off the line will go to Kevin Keener, an associate professor of food service at Purdue, who will use it for extensive testing. He hopes later models will go to food companies clamoring to try the technique on their own products.
"We've had probably close to 25 to 30 major food companies all over the world that have come in and we've evaluated product for," Keener said. "About any product you can find in a grocery store, we've probably run it through our lab unit. And most of those with very favorable results."
Keener helped create the concept several years ago while teaching at North Carolina State University. There, he and his co-inventor, food scientist Brian Farkas, spent a great deal of time researching, of all things, the frying process. They agreed there ought to be a way to produce food that tasted fried but didn't have to be submerged in so much highly caloric, dangerous-to-handle oil.
So they used radiant energy-essential ly carefully manipulated infrared radiation-to create a system that not only mimics the super-fast frying style of hot oil, but also can cook products with uncanny speed and precision.
"We can control the rate of heating," Keener said. "So if we want to heat the surface of the product very quickly but leave the interior untouched, we can do that. If we want to heat the middle of the product but leave the surface untouched, we can do that."
Keener has run hundreds of items through a microwave-size test oven he cobbled together in his lab. The results are intriguing. While the fact that the system uses much less oil to prepare fried foods is interesting, the speed with which it cooks is what might make it revolutionary.
The speed is what attracted the attention of McDonald's Corp. and other restaurant firms that have looked at the device, Keener said. French fries take about one minute to go from frozen stiff to ready to serve, and about 300 dozen frozen uncooked doughnuts can be finished in an hour.
"A fast-food restaurant could literally produce any of its products and have them ready in the time it takes for you to give them your money and for them to give you a tray and a drink," Keener said.
The system has its limitations. It can cook, say, 100 fried chicken patties to uncannily uniform crispness, but can't handle pieces of whole fried chicken-or anything else that lacks a uniform shape. Also, the process is best suited for items no more than an inch thick.
Not that this worries Keener. Uniformity is the watchword at most fast-food chains, and few items on their menus are too thick to use the radiant fryer.
The other caveat is that the technology must use some oil. You just can't make a toothsome food with a crispy, brown crust without it. However, the radiant fryer employs much less than conventional techniques. For example, most restaurant-ready foods are "par-fried," or partially fried at the factory, then finished at the eatery.
"So the oil content is 40 percent by weight when you're served that on your tray," Keener said.
The radiant fryer would, in theory, cut that percentage in half by forgoing the second oil bath. And if the technology were adopted by food-service manufacturers, the par-frying stage also could be avoided, reducing a food's fat content even further.
Refining the prototype
An even more advanced prototype of the fryer will come online next year. After that, manufacturing could begin in earnest. Keener and Anderson Tool and Engineering Co. have been talking for about two years, but the development process was kick-started last year by an $80,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, matched by another $80,000 from the Indiana Economic Development Corp.'s 21st Century Technology Fund.
The result is "a prerequisite to a nextgeneration unit that would be very close at that point to a production unit," said Ted Fiock, president of Anderson Tool and Engineering.
Though the company specializes in designing and building specialty equipment and one-offs for roughly a dozen industries, it's also capable of mediumscale manufacturing. Which means that, once it designs the fryer, it might also build it. Or one particular version of it.
"We're not going to build 200,000 or 300,000 of something," Fiock said. "But the volume of this type of product may be at a level where we would initially manufacture most of the units involved."
Keener said it's too early to know whether he'll create a one-size-fits-all unit for sale to a number of markets, allow large food companies to license the technology to design their own models, or pursue some combination of the two.
The most practical approach, he said, might be to build machines tailor-made to specific foods-say, a doughnut maker for doughnut shops or a french fry cooker for fast-food chains.
Large potential market
Also unclear is how much fryers would cost, though Keener said they'd need to be in the ballpark of cooking units they would replace. Such units start in the thousands of dollars and run higher, depending on size and features.
What is known is that the potential market, if the technology proves practical, could be vast.
"If you look at traditional fast-foodstyle french fryers, and only french fryers, there's something like 750,000 of them in use," Keener said.
Bill Coffey, an intellectual-property attorney and retired Barnes & Thornburg partner, said the product faces several obvious hurdles. First and foremost, it has to work faster and better than the cooking units it would replace.
"The key is to provide something that really, really works and that will be easier to clean and maintain and less complicated to operate," Coffey said. "If you come up with something like that, and it can put out satisfying food at the right price, it typically takes off."
The fact that food companies want to examine the system also is a good sign. But it's no guarantee since they look at lots of new technology, Coffey said.
Heading toward market
The technique sounds sweet to Kate Leahy, senior associate editor at Restaurants & Institutions magazine. The fatreduction angle would be a publicity bonanza. Blink-of-an-eye food preparation would increase efficiency and save money. And dealing with less fryer oil would be a boon to food-service employees.
"I used to have to clean out fryers, so I can attest to that," Leahy said.
Now, all the radiant fryer has to do is live up to expectations.
The device will have to be both energy-efficient and versatile enough to meet the needs of different types of customers. But perhaps most important, it will have to perfectly replicate what, for lack of a better term, could be called The Deep Fat Experience.
"People are really picky about their
fried foods," Leahy said. "If you have a
product that makes them crispy, but it's still not as good as something that's
maybe been par-fried and then fried to a
finish, it's not going to catch on."