Consumers sought out convenience with value-added meat and poultry in 2020, according to the Power of Meat 2021. This is expected to continue, especially in the fully cooked, heat-and-eat space, with breaded chicken leading the way thanks to formulators getting out of their comfort zone and exploring new ingredients and technologies, allowing for creative flavor innovation to ward off food fatigue.
For the adults in the household missing international travel and craving flavor adventure, think crushed curry butter cracker-encrusted chicken filets and black sesame seed panko crumbed strips. And while most kids don’t tire of chicken nuggets, adding colorful edible glitter to whole grain bread crumbs or sneaking in some legume or vegetable powders enables parents to feel better about serving the same protein multiple times per week.
Regardless, if it’s gluten free, plant based or whole grain, breadings, as well as batters, used to envelop meat and poultry must be durable. This exterior coating must adhere to the protein and keep it contained. Breaks in the continuous coating may cause it to slip or crumble off, leaving a bare piece of protein that may become dry and lose the flavor and crunch being delivered through the coating.
Think of all those breaded chicken sandwiches competing for share of stomach in the fast-food and quick-service channels. Some might argue that the breading is as important to the sandwich as the chicken. For KFC, Louisville, Ky., a double breading of the quarter-pound filet was part of the improvement in its chicken sandwich that rolled out at the beginning of the year. The double breading provides for a crispier chicken, according to the company.
While KFC will not reveal the Colonel’s secret recipe, Joe Fontana, owner of Fry the Coop, a Chicago-based counter-service chain specializing in Nashville fried chicken, shared how he makes great-tasting, succulent, crunchy, boneless, skinless chicken.
“It’s a two-fry process with an extra dip right before serving,” Fontana said. “The frying and dipping is with beef tallow.”
The company sources never-frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts from Mar-Jac Poultry, Gainesville, Ga. His employees hand-trim and cut the chicken, followed by tenderizing with a hand needler and dry rubbing with a salt, pepper and a cayenne pepper blend that marinades for about 24 hours.
“We then coat the breasts in buttermilk and bread them with a seasoned flour mixture. Then they are fried twice,” he said. “The first time is in the prep. They are blanched at 250˚F. This fully cooks them and seals in the juices. The breasts are then chilled until order.”
When the order has been placed, they get fried again. This time at 350˚F.
“This warms them and makes them crispy,” he said.
Upon removal from the fryer, the breast is dipped in a vessel of melted beef tallow and sprinkled with the desired heat level of hand-crafted seasoning.
Breading versus batter
Breadings are all about providing an additional sensory dimension to meat and poultry products through their contribution of color, flavor and texture. They are intended to create a tasty crust, with the degree of crunch and flavor profile dependent on the breading.
The intent is for the breading to absorb moisture from the surface of the meat, forming a barrier between the meat and the heat. This is accomplished by including a hydrophilic component such as starch. That starch can be something as simple as plain flour or breadcrumbs, or more complex like dried, crushed cauliflower with rice flour (for a veggie-forward, gluten-free option).
“When you fry, hot oil tries to get into the protein, while moisture works to escape. Breading acts as the interface between that interaction,” said Laura West, marketing and innovations team, Wynn’s Grain & Spice, Montgomery, Ala. “Breading adds a protective layer keeping the chicken (or other protein) tender and juicy on the inside and nice and crispy on the outside. A double breading process, in particular, yields better coverage, appearance and hold times.”
Wynn’s offers breading designed for both a single-step breading process, as well as a double-breading process. Breading can also be formulated differently for a pressure fryer versus an open fryer.
Breadings are described as dry coatings and are not to be confused with batters, which are wet coatings. Both coatings envelop the meat and should stay intact during the cooking process.
Batters are typically a mixture up to 90% 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 light by design. In order to adhere properly, they must maintain a proper viscosity and not experience mechanical shear stress. This can change the viscosity with ingredients that exhibit shear-thinning, damaging starch granules and negatively affecting their functionality, which may lead to breakage of the coating during cooking.
Prior to application, the meat is often dusted with a flour-starch mixture to assist with adherence. Starch, as an added ingredient or that inherent to wheat flour, plays a big role in batters. The starch initially helps build viscosity by holding water, then it helps form a structure that improves adhesion of batters to the substrate. Other carbohydrates, in particular dextrins and gums, may also improve adhesion in batters.
Batters 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.
Unlike batters with their soft texture, breadings are expected to have a gritty texture. Many of today’s innovative encrusted proteins rely on larger granulation mixtures of different crumb types to develop unique textures and visual appeal. The inclusion of seasoning, granulated nuts and seeds is becoming quite common.
Prior to applying the breading, an ingredient system with adhesive properties is applied to the meat to keep the particulates in place. The system is usually determined by how the protein will be cooked. For fried, as well as air-fried breaded meats, it’s usually a pre-dust, much like one used with batters. This assists with keeping the breading crisp and the meat moist.
For baked, breaded meats, 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. Batters can also be used as the liquid coating.
Moisture management is crucial for breading durability. Before applying a pre-dust, the meat surface should be dry. Excess moisture will cause the starch to get soggy and it will not adhere properly to the meat.
In frozen batter or breaded meats, binding moisture improves freeze/thaw stability. This helps prevent ice-crystal damage and moisture migration from the substrate to the coating. Starches and other hydrocolloids may assist.
If the meat is tumbled or injected prior to coating, adding flavor through the marinade makes sense. Another option is to add spices and flavors via the pre-dust or liquid coating. While flavor may be incorporated into any layer of the system, to prevent flash-off during frying, the closer the flavor is located to the protein, the better. Also, keeping ground spices and dried herbs within the coating prevents particulates from burning during cooking.
The challenge is that consumers eat with their eyes. So, if particulates on the exterior of the coating are desirable, choose whole spices like peppercorn or seeds.
“Breading flavors can offer a savory taste, with hints of garlic, onion, sea salt and black pepper,” West said. “Breading can also deliver heat, in either a slow build or a more upfront intensity.”
Two of Wynn’s most popular flavors are an all-natural crimson breading and a fiery hot breading.
“The crimson breading is a bold, savory blend crafted with clean and simple ingredients,” West said. “Customers eat with their eyes and paprika gives this blend a mouthwatering golden-brown finish that will draw customers to try it.
“The fiery option brings on the heat,” West said. “It has heat that builds and that is balanced by a light and crispy finish.”
Minimizing fat calories
Breadings and batters, in particular wet coatings and frying oils, add extra calories, often in the form of fat calories. And while sugar reduction has been trending in the food formulating world, lowering calorie content is gaining traction. With fat the most calorically dense ingredient – it’s more than double that of carbohydrates and protein – a reduction in fat calories can assist with lowering calories of breaded and battered meats.
Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, Iowa, now markets a fat block technology designed for industrial fried foods. The functional protein system forms a protein crust around items that inhibits frying oil from being absorbed into the breading. Depending on the coating system, fat uptake may be reduced by 10% to 30%. Less moisture is also lost in the product during frying, which results in increased yield.
“Our new fat block technology provides manufacturers the opportunity to meet the label claims and product attributes consumers desire, while achieving greater yields,” according to Courtney Schwartz, marketing director. “It has excellent flavor with no negative sensory attributes.”
Breaded and battered proteins are one of 14 applications that are Generally Recognized as Safe by the US Food and Drug Administration for esterified propoxylated glycerol, or simply EPG. This is a new, revolutionary alternative fat technology from Epogee LLC, Indianapolis. It reduces calories from fat by 92% for each unit of fat replaced. It also reduces total calories, as EPG provides only 0.7 calories/gram, while traditional fat delivers 9 calories/gram.
“From a functional and quality perspective, EPG performs as well as any other traditional fat, because it is made from fat,” said Tom Burrows, chief executive officer and president. “We are on a mission to solve one of the industry’s most elusive goals: replace traditional fats and oils with a safe, low-calorie alternative fat that doesn’t sacrifice flavor, texture, nutrient absorption or satiety.”
Protected by more than 20 patents, EPG is made with natural, GMO-free rapeseed oil. The triglyceride is split into its components: the glycerol backbone and three fatty acids. The technology involves inserting a food-grade propoxyl link, which resists digestive enzyme action, to reconnect the glycerol and fatty acids. EPG was designed to work in any application containing fat. Like other neutral vegetable-based fats, EPG takes on the flavor of the product. It is currently labeled as: EPG (modified plant-based oil).
Plant-based products benefit from breadings
Formed and comminuted poultry in the form of nuggets and tenders, have long relied on the use of breading to add flavor and texture, while at the same time ensuring a moist bite. The same is true for plant-based products trying to simulate the real deal.
Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Ark., offers a range of breaded plant-based products under its Raised & Rooted brand. The line relies on pea protein isolate, with a number of the varieties incorporating flavor through the breading, such as the spicy nuggets and the sweet barbecue bites.
Los Angeles-based Daring markets a line of 100% plant-based chicken alternatives made with minimally processed ingredients that deliver on the look, taste, pull and mouthfeel of the traditional animal protein. The line includes a seasoned breaded product that resembles a premium chicken tender. The texture is achieved by using a high-moisture extrusion process on a soy protein concentrate and sunflower oil emulsion.