The best of breading

by Donna Berry
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Batters and breadings provide an additional sensory dimension to meat and poultry products through their contribution of color, flavor and texture. Before a manufacturer can add this extra layer of eating enjoyment, there are many factors to consider – including adhesion, freeze-thaw stability, heat-lamp tolerance, shelf-life and perhaps now more than ever, nutritional concerns.

Ingredient selection must include performance and nutrition considerations, as well as the impact of the manufacturing process and the user’s preparation of the product, as these variables impact ingredient functionality. Questions to consider include will the product be deep fried or baked at the industrial level? Can the consumer reheat it by either microwave or conventional oven and still serve the same quality product?

Battered and breaded foods have come a long way.

B&B distinctions

Batters and breadings are two distinct types of coatings, each with characteristics that influence ingredient selection.

Batter is a liquid mixture usually based on one or more flours and starch (80 percent to 90 percent of the total system) combined with one or more liquids. Most often, the system includes a leavening agent (i.e., sodium bicarbonate, egg or even seltzer or beer) to aerate the batter as it cooks. The viscosity of batter ranges from thick, as in the corn bread-like covering of a hot dog to quite thin, as in the light tempura layer on Asian chicken strips. Batters are an ideal carrier for all types of flavors, including sweet and savory herbs and spices.

Breading is a dry coating made from bread crumbs or a mixture of grains. This system is typically combined with seasonings and larger, identifiable flavor particulates. A breading is designed to stick to the surface of the protein when it is cooked, whereas a batter typically puffs up around the protein. When heat is applied, the breading is what dries out instead of the protein inside. Breading is typically applied with the assistance of an ingredient system that helps adhere the breading to the protein.

Both battered and breaded products often undergo a pre-dusting, which is a preliminary coating of a fine layer of flour, starch or a protein to prevent moisture release from the protein. Poorly controlled moisture yields a soggy product and fryer blow-outs, which is where the product bursts through the coating.

Healthy formulations

Battered and breaded foods have come a long way since the first chicken nugget was thrown into a deep fryer. Manufacturers of these coatings are adapting in a number of ways to keep finished products favorable in the minds of the health-conscious consumer. To remove guilt from the recipe, formulators are exploring the use of ingredients that reduce fat levels while improving nutrient content, all while providing a culinary experience.

Adding whole grain to batter and breading systems appears to be the leading trend in better-for-you formulating. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain kernel. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm, which results in the loss of about 25 percent of a grain’s protein, along with many important nutrients. Flour manufacturers often add back many of the vitamins and minerals to enrich the refined grains; however, whole grains are considered healthier.

“Our white, whole-wheat flour is a perfect fit for anyone hoping to add whole grain nutrition with minimal changes to the taste, texture or appearance of battered and breaded proteins,” says Elizabeth Arndt, director of research and development, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, Neb. “We work directly with farmers to grow specially selected white wheat that we mill to a patented particle size similar to white flour. The resulting flour performs similar or better than other whole-wheat flours and has the same nutrition but without the visible bran and germ specks, darker color or stronger taste you’d expect with traditional whole-wheat flour.”

There are many whole grains in the marketplace that also add flavor and color. When working with whole grains, there are many factors to consider, including the fact that whole grains tend to have a shorter shelf-life than refined flours because of the oils found in the bran and germ. They also differ in their moisture absorption level and hydration rate, which can impact bake and fry times and temperatures.

“We offer a unique, high-fiber, whole-grain barley,” Arndt adds. “It contains 12 percent beta-glucan, qualifying for the FDA heart-healthy label claim for beta-glucan from oats and barley.” Available in flour and flakes, it has a slightly sweet, malt-like flavor that complements many different batter and breading systems.

Whole-grain corn flour brings a unique flavor and texture to meat and poultry breadings. “The corn brings a sweet, nutty flavor to the coating. Depending on the application, it works best to combine the whole-grain corn flour with other grains so that the finished product does not taste too corny, like a corn dog batter,” says Jeff Dillon, vice president of sales and marketing, Didion Milling, Cambria, Wis. “For batters, we offer viscosity-controlled corn flours that readily hydrate. They are high in fiber and are a great way to achieve more nutritional value without changing taste profiles.”

Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., offers a proprietary whole-grain corn flour made from specialty high-amylose corn to deliver a wide range of functional and nutritional benefits. “Most notable is a high-fiber content of 30 percent to 33 percent,” says Santiago Vega, nutrition director. “This is approximately three times that of traditional whole-grain sources. It also boasts higher levels of antioxidants, folic acid and vitamin A and fewer calories than other whole grains. This allows companies using breadings and batters containing this flour to claim higher fiber content and fewer calories.”

Horizon Milling LLC, Minneapolis, a division of Cargill Inc., recently introduced a new defatted wheat germ ingredient to meet consumers’ demands for full-flavor grains that are rich in protein and fiber. “Defatted wheat germ delivers a unique proposition by providing protein, fiber and a great nutty taste and texture,” says Megan Speas, director of marketing. “This multidimensional ingredient offers more than 26 percent protein, approximately 15 percent fiber and a multitude of vitamins and minerals. Defatted wheat germ improves nutrition, enhances flavor and enriches the texture of the end product.”

Produced when the oil has been extracted from raw wheat germ, it is shelf-stable and available in a range of colors from light tan to dark brown. The defatted wheat germ can be incorporated into breadings used on meat and poultry. The product is low-fat (less than 1 percent) and has a 12-month ambient shelf-life.

Breaded chicken cutlet salad with strawberries.

Ancient grains add culinary adventure and great-tasting, whole-grain nutrition to many types of foods. Common ancient grains are amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. Each grain offers unique flavors and textures. According to Netherlands-based Innova Market Research, the increase in popularity of these grains reflects rising levels of awareness of their nutritional properties, as well as the flavors and textures that they impart.

Tubers, legumes and even fruit fibers can be milled into flours and used just like white-wheat flour. “Precooked, dehydrated edible bean powders, such as navy, black and pinto, are more nutrient dense than typical cereal grains and flours,” says Cheryl Borders, research manager of soy foods applications and technical service-edible beans, ADM, Decatur, Ill. “They also contain a significant amount of protein. In breading and batter applications, the flour percentage can be replaced 1:1 with the cooked-bean powder; a starting point would be 10 percent to 30 percent replacement.” The increased protein in bean powders usually requires increasing the liquid in the formulation.

“We offer a line of protein ingredients derived from yellow peas,” says Neelesh Varde, senior product manager-proteins and fibers, Roquette America, Geneva, Ill. “Yellow-pea protein not only contributes protein, it can also add some functionality to batters in terms of water binding, structure development and emulsification, depending on the specific application.”

Chandani Perera, senior scientist at Roquette, adds, “We offer a unique combination of pea and corn starches to make a gluten-free breading that works well on chicken nuggets. It provides a desirable crispiness that is much better than what one gets with tapioca or rice, which often gives gritty mouthfeel.”

“We found that using pea flours and starches together works well as a breading for chicken nuggets,” said Heather Maskus, project manager Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi), Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “The golden yellow color of pea nuggets is very appealing for this application. And these products maintain a desirable texture under heat lamps.”

“To maximize adhesion and crispness in battered chicken nuggets, it is beneficial to incorporate pea flour with small particles in the pre-dust to improve adhesion and to include pea or lentil flour with large particles in the batter to maximize crispness,” she adds. “Further, pea and lentil flours impart savory flavor notes, which may allow for reduced sodium or seasonings.”

Citrus fiber can also be added to batters as a cost-effective solution to reduce the amount of fat absorbed during frying. “For example, with whole-muscle chicken, when 1.25 percent citrus fiber is part of the batter, the fat content of the final chicken can drop from 12 percent to almost 10.8 percent,” says Nick Kovalenko, sales and marketing director, Fiberstar Inc., River Falls, Wis.

In both applications, the citrus fiber should be mixed with the dry ingredients. Because of the fiber’s high water-binding capacity, the batter requires extra water.

Fats and oils

Regarding fats and oils, formulators try to keep saturated fatty acids low and artificial trans-fatty acids absent. To do this, animal and palm fats are kept at a minimum because they are concentrated sources of saturated fatty acids, and partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans-fatty acids. Because vegetable oils vary in their fatty acid profile, as well as their smoke point and organoleptic properties, formulators must choose their oil wisely.

One of the most common approaches is to use high-oleic oils. Oleic acid has only one double bond, rendering it a very stable unsaturated fatty acid. It functions well as the oil that many coated proteins are fried in. Oleic acid is naturally found in abundance in highly flavorful vegetable oils such as olive and peanut, but the intense flavor profile of these oils, as well as price often limits their use. Recognizing the value of high oleic acid content in vegetable oil, conventional oil seed breeders have been very aggressive with trying to improve the fatty acid profile of those oilseeds that are bland in flavor and readily and economically grown. Mid- and high-oleic canola and sunflower oils were the first to market, with soybean oils following. Though compositions vary by oilseed source and breeder, in general, these oils have significantly higher concentrations of oleic acid. Sometimes higher levels than olive oil. They also have reduced levels of highly unstable linolenic acid.

These and other improvements in batters and breadings are making coated proteins a more healthful meal and snacking solution.

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and owner of Dairy & Food Communications.

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