Breadings and batters, sometimes referred to as coatings, crusts or tempura, provide an additional sensory dimension to meat and poultry products through color, flavor and texture. This concept of covering meat and poultry with a grain-based mixture has long been a technique used by processors to add value to lower priced cuts of protein or formed/emulsified products. Though many processors continue to apply breadings and batters for these reasons, many also recognize that the ingredient system can serve as a vehicle for layering flavors and even boosting nutrition.

“Breadings and batters are used to create texture and added sensory appeal, but they also protect the substrate through frying and freezing, helping to hold moisture and produce a more succulent finished product,” says Erin Radermacher, senior technical services specialist, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Processors also benefit from improved product yield.”

Breading versus batter

Breadings and batters both usually contain grain-derived ingredients; however, gluten-free systems may be formulated with specialty vegetable or legume flours and starches. The two types of coatings differ in how they are applied and their finished product appearance.

“Each part of the coating system is critical and contributes various aspects of texture and flavor to the finished food,” says John Kaufmann, research and development director of meat systems and flavor coatings at Kerry, based in Beloit, Wisconsin. “The manufacturing and cooking processes are as critical to the performance of batters and breadings as the choice of ingredients. These must be considered when the system is formulated.

“Flavor can be incorporated into any layer of the coating system; however, to prevent flash off during cooking, the closer the flavor is located to the substrate (protein), the better,” Kaufmann says.

Batters are described as wet coatings. They are typically a mixture up to 90 percent flour and starch, along with a leavening agent (i.e., sodium bicarbonate, egg or even seltzer or beer), and water, oil and seasonings. Wheat flour is standard, with corn, potato, rice and soy flours becoming increasingly more common, in particular if gluten-free is a desired trait.

“Batters are a liquid suspension of ingredients applied to a food product through dipping or pouring onto the product,” says Tim Howdeshell, research and development scientist at Ardent Mills, Denver.

The texture and viscosity of the mixture is important, as it must be thick enough to adhere to the product but not so thick that it weighs it down. Batters, in general, are designed to provide a lighter covering than a breading and require deep frying to set. The high temperature of the oil causes the batter to blow up around the protein, preventing the protein from scorching while locking in flavors and juices. Upon cooling, the batter collapses, encasing the protein.

Such flour batters – often described as tempura or fritter – are not to be confused with cornmeal batters. The latter are generously applied to the protein, usually hot dogs, and fry up to be crispy and crunchy. The density of the batter prevents it from expanding during frying.

Hydrocolloids are used to manage a batter’s performance, according to Samuel Hormel, senior technologist/technical services at Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Illinois. High-amylose starch or flour, for example, assists with adhesion during long hold times.

“Batter viscosity can be adjusted using xanthan gum or instant starches, though you can get some viscosity development from rice flours and dextrins,” Hormel says. “Potato starch works very well for high-moisture systems such as fish and vegetables. For chicken and pork, wheat flour, pulses flours or some modified food starches will be sufficient in adhering the batter to the substrate.”

Breadings are dry coatings, particulates that stick to the surface of the protein. During cooking, which includes frying, baking or even stove top, the breading dries out instead of the protein it is covering, becoming crisp on the surface while helping the protein stay moist and tender.

Breadings can be as simple as a blend of wheat flour, corn starch and seasoning, or they can be based on bread or cracker crumbs and include granulated nuts, seeds and even edible glitter. Unlike batters with their soft texture, breadings are expected to have a gritty texture. The finer the breading – think chicken kiev – the smoother the surface.

Many of today’s innovative encrusted proteins rely on larger granulation mixtures of different crumb types to develop unique textures and visual appeal. For example, panko, which is made from bread baked by passing an electric current through the dough in order to make bread without crust, has an airier texture compared to most other bread crumb types, which allows for a crispier finish.

Prior to the breading application, an ingredient system with adhesive properties is applied to keep the particulates in place. The system is usually determined by how the protein will be cooked.

If baking is the process, then adhesion is usually accomplished with help from a liquid coating. This may be an egg wash, a starch or gum solution, or an emulsion such as yogurt, mayonnaise or buttermilk.

With batters and breadings intended for the fryer, the protein is often dusted with a flour-starch mixture before the covering is applied. This pre-dust is also often where spices and flavors are added.

“The pre-dust absorbs surface moisture to create a barrier between the substrate and the fryer oil,” Hormel says. “This barrier will reduce moisture loss from the substrate and prevent oil absorption within the substrate. Additionally, pre-dusts evenly coat the substrate and provide adhesion properties to the wet batter or dry breading. This adhesion keeps the coating from lifting off the substrate during cutting or frying and will give a better appearance on the end product.”

Radermacher adds, “Seasonings can wreak havoc on a fry oil, significantly decreasing the shelf life of a costly component. By adding them into the pre-dust, the protein still gets the flavor, but the subsequent batter and breading layers keep them from direct contact with the oil.

“In fried applications, processors strive for a crispy, not greasy or soggy product,” she says. “Starches and dextrins can play a role here, too, creating a protective film layer around the product that reduces oil pick up and prevents oil from seeping into the coating.”

Breadings become crisp on the surface while helping the protein stay moist and tender underneath.

A canvas for creativity

Traditionally, batters have been simple, airy, almost delicate systems, while breadings have been heartier. In today’s marketplace, there are hybrids, with some proteins being both battered and breaded. And, it is with breadings where formulators are getting creative.

Seeds, for example, are an easy addition to many breadings. Some seeds add color to what are traditionally tannish colored breadings. They will also contribute flavor, texture and even nutrition. Think sesame seeds in breaded Asian beef cubes, poppy seeds on southern chicken strips and quinoa in rustic turkey medallions.

“Seeds certainly aren’t a new ingredient; in fact quite the opposite is true,” says Jane Dummer, a registered dietitian based in Toronto and author of The Need for Seeds. “Ancient populations understood the power of seeds and as a result, showcased foods containing seeds as a big part of their everyday lives and celebrations. While the health benefits are an obvious driver for the growing popularity of seeds today, their crunchy textures and earthy flavors are clearly appealing to consumers.

“People are looking for products beyond the ordinary,” Dummer says. “There’s no pullback in consumer desire for healthier products. Consumers want more convenient nutrient-dense options. Seeds pack a punch of plant protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. For consumers who require nut-free or gluten-free, seeds are outstanding ingredient choices.”

Jason Gronlund, technical sales manager, foodservice at Ardent Mills, adds, “Mixed ancient grains contribute a granular appearance and uneven texture to coatings, which brings a little more visual interest and a rustic appearance to the exterior. Grain crisps work particularly well for adding new texture and dimension.

“Using an ancient grain mix of amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff creates a gluten-free option that works well in most breadings and batters and can boost whole grain nutrition and fiber,” Gronlund says. “Grinding whole grains, or grain flakes and crisps, gives you a lot of options in granularity.”

To increase the protein content of covered chicken, Samuel suggests using a fava bean or pea flour as a pre-dust. Then the actual coating can also be formulated with these high-protein legume ingredients along with tapioca dextrin, which may allow for a gluten-free claim.

Newly Weds Foods, Chicago, recently introduced a range of crumbs that replicate popular breads. Biscuit crumbs, for example, contribute the nuance of Southern cooking to beef, pork and poultry. They can add buttery richness to baked breaded chicken patties without all the frying oil fat calories. Hawaiian bread crumbs, which are a rich, golden crumb with a slightly tropical sweet butter taste, give pork and poultry bites a new twist, one that complements sweet and sour or sweet-heat dipping sauces. Toasted cinnamon bread crumbs can add flavor and crunch to breakfast sausage patties. When used to encrust meatballs, the crumbs provide the flavor adventure associated with traditional Lebanese, Moroccan and Swedish recipes.

For colorful adventure there’s new unicorn dust, which can be used as a pre-dust with breading systems. The color comes from fruits and vegetables and is available in pink, purple and yellow hues and can be used alone or blended for a rainbow effect.