Now more than ever, batters and breadings have as much power to make or break a food product as any food ingredient. Conveying flavor, mouthfeel and eye appeal on one hand, and packing fat and calories on the other, they can be responsible for single-handedly changing the very character of many foods.
In recognition of these facts, food companies and coatings suppliers are revisiting this once-sleepy ingredients category and concocting new and different formulations to be more in step with the times.
Startled to action partly by the low-carb craze that saw some weight-conscious consumers spurn grains-based foods and partly by the obesity epidemic and healthier diet trends, the industry is in the process of turning adversity into opportunity by reformulating, redesigning and, in a very real sense, redefining food coatings systems. The result is an emerging generation of new and enhanced breading/batter/coatings systems friendlier to both processors and consumers.
Changes in breadings and batters take many forms; one of the most prevalent is the makeup of the mixture. New-generation breadings, for example, incorporate everything from grain type (whole, gluten-free, natural/organic and exotic) to subtly different crumb sizes and textures. Mixtures formulated to produce a more acceptable microwavable product are also desirable.
Whole-grain Interest Grows“We’re seeing a real trend to the use of more whole-grain breadings and batters,” says Ron Pottinger, vice president of research and development with a coatings supplier. “Big poultry processors like Tyson helped initiate the move, and that has caused others to look at it and inquire as to whether their breadings can be converted to a whole-grains makeup.”
Driven chiefly by more interest everywhere in whole grains, such breadings are seen as a way to make a clear appeal to the health concerns of growing legions of whole grains devotees. Plus, they may offer a way to give many maligned breaded foods a healthier halo; Pottinger cites the fact that some corn dog nugget makers are making the switch to whole-grain coatings.
From a functionality standpoint, whole grains pose some different challenges and opportunities in processing. Pottinger notes whole grains are ideal for use in breaded products designed to be baked rather than fried. With more baked protein applications emerging, whole-grain coatings might be beneficial. Additionally, Pottinger says, using whole grains reduces the need for coloring agents typically used in breadings made from more highly processed grains. However, pricier whole grains also add to ingredient costs.
Specialty breadings that may employ a mixture of gluten-free whole grains such as flax, oats or millet pose a challenge as well. Limited availability means they are generally more costly. Additionally, such grains also produce breadings that, when cooked, yield an appearance and texture possibly foreign to the average consumer.
While steadily emerging, whole and non-wheat-based breadings remain largely on the industry’s fringes, but changes also are taking place in breadings made from traditional ingredient sources. A driving force is the demand for healthier, less-fattening breaded and battered foods which achieve that status either through baking or frying processes where cooking oil absorption is minimized.
Processors and coatings suppliers have worked to develop systems which deliver a mouthfeel and flavor in ovenable and microwavable products similar to that in fried versions. Meanwhile, products still designed to be fried increasingly employ breadings and batters designed to work in more challenging trans fat-free, par- and finish-fry applications adopted by more processors.
Dealing with New RealitiesThese and other demands are sending many coatings suppliers back to the drawing board to devise systems that can handle multiple duties. A new approach is needed, says a vice president of marketing for a leading supplier, because coated products are increasingly prepared and handled in ways that many traditional coatings systems were not designed to address.
“Retail products increasingly have to be ovenable or microwavable, and they still need to deliver ‘wow’ flavors and textures. In foodservice, you need to have all-purpose coatings that can be used with multiple products and which won’t allow flavors to leak out into the cooking oil vessel in which multiple items are prepared,” says executive George Manak. “Another challenge in foodservice is the need for coatings that will hold their texture for extended hold times. That’s become more of an issue, as casual dining restaurants handle more takeout orders from customers.”
Manak’s company has responded by trying to change the breading mixture to be fundamentally more functional. The approach, for which the company is seeking a process patent, builds on the industry standard Japanese crumb, American crumb or crackermeal breading. “We’re trying to make something that’s more physically robust that will hold up in a manufacturing environment or in the back of a restaurant,” he says. “The goal is to have a more functional crumb that will replicate the flavor and texture of breaded foods prepared in a fryer in both oven and microwave cooking applications.”
Earlier this year, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp-oration unveiled a line of chicken products that utilize a new breading formulation. The breadings allow EatWellStayHealthy Kids™ Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets and Breaded Popcorn Chicken to be baked (rather than fried) and, in the process, deliver chicken with sharply reduced fat, sodium, calorie and carbohydrate counts that qualify them for the USDA’s “healthy” designation and the American Heart Association’s “heart check mark” seal of approval.
“The key was dialing in the breading formula,” says Dan Emery, the company’s vice president of marketing. “Getting the sodium content down to a reasonable level was a big key, as was getting a batter and breading mix that would work with a baking process. We had to work to get the texture and the adhesion right, in addition to ensuring that it would pass the taste test.”
Coatings as Flavor CarriersThe latter consideration is clearly a top priority for coatings suppliers and food processors. Even as breadings and batters become more functional, they continue to be retooled to pack more robust flavors. Systems that employ marinades, starch predusts that aid adhesion, encapsulated spices that dissolve in the cooking process and coatings engineered to prevent flash-off in the fryer are getting more attention as the demand for full, authentic flavor grows.
Gorton’s, maker of frozen seafood products, is looking to batters and breadings to shoulder much of the load in delivering more flavorful products to market. Coatings are so vital to the company’s products that it relies on its own specialty products division to formulate batters and breadings for products ranging from pollock to tilapia to shrimp.
“It takes great flavor, appearance and texture to sell our products, and coatings play a central role,” says Donald Lynch, the company’s vice president of research and development and quality assurance. “Inclusion coatings that incorporate herbs, spices and texture agents to deliver flavor and a visible reinforcement of those flavors are important.”
Lynch says one of the newest coatings initiatives is a line of “authentic” coatings. A prime example is the company’s Beer Batter Fish Fillets that employ a flour-and-starch batter made with real beer. The company’s lemon pepper fish fillets employ inclusion coatings, while a frozen pollock product sports a new potato crunch breading that mimics the flavor and aroma of potato chips.
While improved and enhanced coatings breathe new life into these and other products, they also open the door to new food applications. Fish, chicken and other proteins still account for the lion’s share of the market’s breaded and battered products, but more vegetable, cheese and meat substitute products are being introduced to coatings.
A look at Houston-based foodservice distributor SYSCO Corporation’s lineup of breaded and battered products shows how the roster of coated products is expanding. Cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, okra, onions, squash, mushrooms, pickles and even sweet corn are available in a variety of special breading and batter formulations. Vegetable applications, in particular, are testing the formulation skills of coatings suppliers because of the moisture migration challenges inherent in products with a high water content.
So far, however, such hurdles have not kept food processors and their coatings suppliers out of the test lab in search of ways to add a host of unique values to food products. As consumers look for novel, but healthy, methods of increasing flavor and mouthfeel in their favorite foods, the quest for new ways to bread, batter and otherwise coat foods is likely to continue.