CHICAGO – The right breading or batter can literally make or break a protein. Such coatings must be designed to adhere to the protein – animal or plant – during manufacturing, distribution, preparation and plating, as well as keep the protein matrix contained. These coatings serve several additional functions, including protecting what’s inside from drying out and absorbing too much oil during frying. They contribute color, flavor and texture, and should form a tasty crust, with the degree of crunch and flavor profile dependent on the breading or batter. In some instances, they boost total protein content and contribute fiber. They also provide a form of familiarity in this complex protein world, inviting curious consumers to try new concepts.

“Trends in today’s marketplace continue to point towards healthy and better-for-you products,” said Newly Weds Foods Inc., Chicago. “The use of plant-based flours and inclusions is trending. They often provide an added bonus for labeling claims, such as gluten free, high protein, lower carbohydrate and more.”

Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist, Cargill, Minneapolis, said, “One of the big trends in the breading and batter space is the move to incorporate plant proteins in these systems. Plant proteins add crunch and integrity to the batter, helping brands create the sensory experiences consumers are looking for. Soy flour is a common choice, but we’re also seeing more customers experiment with other plant proteins, including pea protein, which really adds to the batter integrity.”

Ancient grains are also being added. Quinoa and barley, for example, provide unique textures that differentiate a product from others in the marketplace. They also enable brands to leverage the label appeal of trendy ancient grains.

Ron Pagaoa, senior marketing manager of savory, batters and breadings, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., said, “Other non-traditional ingredients used in coatings include cereals, corn chips, tortilla chips, crackers, nuts and seeds. These add visual interest and differences in crunchiness, crispiness, and overall texture and eating experience.”

Even vegetable flours have made their way into breadings with cauliflower leading the way. Consumers appreciate the creativity, especially with many fighting pandemic-fueled food fatigue.

“Edible glitter can add visual interest to products or can serve as visual cues for flavor notes,” said Lorie Pillsbury, senior product manager, edible films, Glanbia Nutritionals. “Our edible glitter is designed to hold up well in frying, imparting eye-appealing shape and color to products.”

Edible glitters can be made with varied colors. It is possible to color them with vegetable-based extracts and use them as substitutes for vegetable pieces that might not hold up during frying or baking.

Flavor conveyor

Regardless of the coating material, it is becoming increasingly common to add spices, seasonings and flavorings into the matrix to add an extra dimension to the finished product by changing the flavor and often adding heat. In some instances, the flavorful additions contribute to a better-for-you position.

“These components allow the food scientist to borrow from the health halo,” Newly Weds Foods said. “Spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and rosemary have long been used to enhance ethnic products. They also provide proven health benefits, such as improved digestion, reduced inflammation and antioxidant function.”

Julia Thompson, culinologist, CuliNex, Tukwila, Wash., said, “Real flavor delivery comes with careful layering. We think like a chef would when creating the right delivery of ingredients to the tongue, providing the best expression of flavors from the pre-dust to the outer layer, understanding that some flavors may be lost in frying or preparation.”

This may include the use of varied particulates and non-traditional textured crumbs. For example, waffle bits may be included in a battered chicken to deliver the popular waffle and chicken profile.

“There are opportunities to use inclusions like the ice cream industry would, adding premium appeal to batters and breadings,” Thompson said. “Cost is usually the biggest barrier, but this presents an opportunity to differentiate with a premium positioning.”

Newly Weds Foods, said, “Sometimes the purpose of the coating is not to differentiate, but to add familiarity to an entirely new substrate concept. Food neophobia, rooted in our primitive survival, is overcome by far more current pleasurable eating experiences with other coated products. And the magic does not stop with marketing. In addition to the coveted crunch, batters and breadings can ameliorate what might be polarizing unfamiliar flavors.”

Troubleshooting tips

As with any food, raw material quality matters. This is particularly true with plant-based proteins that may bring unexpected flavors to the finished product. The breading or batter provides a vehicle to manage taste.

“You can try adding maskers or flavor modulators to the coating system to deal with the off notes,” said Lorraine Noble, director of research and development, coatings, Kerry Taste & Nutrition, Beloit, Wis. “There are vegan meat flavors that are added to the coating system to layer in additional flavors that you can’t deliver through the substrate alone in a plant-based product.”

Regardless of the protein, good batter adhesion depends on the pre-dust. This is the initial coating on the substrate.

“It is composed of flour, often with functional starch,” said Pagaoa. “It creates a barrier between the oil and substrate to prevent dehydration. This barrier also helps prevent blow-off and lifting, minimizes gumminess of the coating, and increases product weight and pick-up.”

Removal of excess coating is important during the manufacturing process, as breading or batter residue contaminates fryer oil, reducing its shelf life. You also want to make sure the protein is properly and consistently prepared prior to coating.

“It’s very important when trying to maintain the crunch and juiciness, along with the visual appeal, that the substrate is processed properly,” said Newly Weds Foods. “Do not over marinate, that will create bleed through, a soggy coating and poor adhesion. More is not always better, not only in the case of added water, but in the case of enhancing ingredients. Too much will create an unpleasant texture and overall poor eating experience.”

Battered and breaded products sold refrigerated have different formulation considerations than those sold frozen. In both cases, formulations will vary if the protein is raw or fully cooked. Maintaining freeze-thaw stability through the inclusion of functional starches, flours and other ingredients may help to preserve the product’s eating quality, keeping it crispy and crunchy. Products intended for foodservice have additional considerations.

“Products sold in foodservice need to stay crispy and crunchy for at least 20 to 30 minutes after frying,” Pagaoa said. “They need to have the eating quality that consumers expect, whether eaten at the restaurant or brought home. To achieve a crispier, crunchier and less oily finished product, we recommend using functional starches, flours and other ingredients that provide good texture, color, and flavor that help retain moisture and prevent too much oil from being absorbed.”

Thompson said, “Baking breaded foods is quite different in a commercial oven versus a home oven and will need to be adjusted. The hot air from a commercial convection oven may burn the breading on a product formulated for the home chef that’s created with a slightly higher sugar content for proper baking. The leavening in a system must be adapted for freezing versus refrigerated and for baking versus air frying. A product that will sit under a heat lamp at the grocery store will need to be formulated carefully to optimize the crunchy texture that consumers want after holding it.”

Ingredient selection is paramount. Similar to how most of the food and beverage industry is moving towards cleaning up labels, so is the breaded and battered protein market.

“Instead of xanthan gum for thickening, formulators are using chia seeds, cilium husks and orange fiber,” said Eric Werth, senior scientist, LifeSpice, Chicago. “Instead of methylcellulose to keep breadings from getting soggy, they are using corn fiber or oat fiber.”

With so many new ingredients being used in the breading and batter space, it is paramount that formulators recognize it’s not a one-size-coats-all business.

“Formulators are developing new batter systems, such as high-adhesion batters that control the pickup of breading while reducing crumb fall-off and preventing surface voids,” said Amr Shaheed, technical service manager of food applications, Innophos, Cranbury, NJ. “Batter viscosity can significantly impact adhesion of breadings and batters to the meat, poultry or plant-based materials. Phosphates, such as sodium acid pyrophosphate and monocalcium phosphate are two ingredients that help to provide the right amount of viscosity.”

They can also help maintain uniform color while minimizing surface blisters and other issues related to appearance. If adhesion is an issue, polyphosphates promote greater interaction between the coating and substrate.

While crispy coatings are a desirable attribute, they are associated with being less healthful due to their high oil uptake. There are ingredients that assist with this.

“When breaded items are fried, most of the moisture turns to steam and evaporates,” said Scott Gardner, principal technical service manager, Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa. “As this occurs, the surrounding oil is absorbed into the breading system, increasing the fat content, as well as calories.”

Kemin markets a line of functional proteins that may assist. When applied via spray or dip to battered or breaded products, the ingredient system has been shown to block fat uptake when frying while maintaining moisture and increasing yield. By creating a protein micro-barrier, moisture is trapped, preventing it from turning into steam and evaporating. This lessens the amount of frying oil being absorbed in the breading.

“When fried products absorb too much oil, they become soggy and unappealing,” said Machen. “Corn dextrins are known for their ability to enhance crispiness. They can be added to create a protective film layer around the product, reducing oil pick up and preventing oil from seeping into the breading.”

Oil temperature also plays a big role in oil absorption. The right temperature can help prevent excess oil absorption.

And just when you think it’s all figured out, hello air fryer. This rather new cooking appliance is designed to simulate deep frying without submerging the food in oil. A fan circulates hot air at high speed, producing a crisp layer via browning reactions such as the Maillard reaction. Without frying oil, a certain amount of fat must be included in the coating.

“Whether par-cooked or fully cooked, you still need oil in the coating to crisp the protein,” said Machen. “That leads to a secondary consideration, fat oxidation. It’s important to select the right oil if the finished product will have a long, frozen shelf life.”