Monday, November 29, 2010

BREAD & BATTER

Before foods are deep-fried or pan-fried, they are normally smothered in a dry or wet coating.  Dry coatings are often referred to as "breadings" since they frequently, but certainly not always, include the use of bread crumbs.  Wet coatings are called batters.  Breadings can be used when deep-frying or pan-frying.  Batters are exclusive to deep-frying.  Deep-frying involves completely submerging the food in oil.  It is performed in a deep fryer or a large pot while pan-frying, as its namesake suggests, is done in a pan.  However, the crucial differentiation is that in pan-frying the oil's depth is no more than half the food's height.  This is why wet-battered food must be deep-fried; if not completely engulfed in oil, the batter would simply run off before it had the opportunity to cook and coalesce.  

     The purpose of breadings and batters is threefold.  First, it adds flavor.  Can you even imagine the dreadfulness of crust-less fried chicken?   In a similar vein, coatings also furnish a textural element.  The contrast between a crunchy outside and a tender, moist inside is generally pleasing to the human palate.  Finally, coatings also provide a thermal buffer between the hot oil and the food.  They allow the food to heat sufficiently without becoming overly charred.  

     Let's discuss what comprises a breading and a batter.  As stated, breadings often employ bread crumbs.  Indeed, the "standard breading procedure" as it is known amongst culinary professionals, involves dipping the food in flour, then beaten eggs, and finally bread crumbs.  All three elements contribute to the overall flavor and texture of the final crust.  The sequence however, has more to do with the cohesion of the coating.  The flour provides a base for the eggs to adhere to.  Wet eggs will slide off wet food.  The eggs in turn form a base for the dry breadcrumbs to attach to.  

     The methodology of the standard breading procedure is such:  First season the food with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings the recipe may require.  You may also season the flour, eggs or even the breadcrumbs.  Dredge the food in the flour and shake off the excess.  Surplus flour can cause the breading to detach during cooking.  Next, give the food a thorough dip in the beaten eggs.   Finally, place the food in the breadcrumbs, covering it completely.  Use one hand for the flour and breadcrumbs and the other for the eggs. This will prevent your fingers from becoming breaded.  Rest the food for at least 20 minutes before frying.  This facilitates the adhesion of the coating by setting the egg proteins.  

     Not all breadings follow the above steps or ingredients.  Various types of flours can be used and sometimes even omitted.  Or, cornstarch or cornmeal may be substituted for the flour.  Other fluid mediums can replace the eggs such as milk, buttermilk, honey, and water based starch mixtures to name a few.  Finally, instead of breadcrumbs, there exists a seemingly endless array of options:  cracker meal, crushed Ritz crackers, matzo meal, cookie crumbs, cake crumbs, crushed cereals, etc.  But even if you'd like to stick with breadcrumbs there are alternatives.  Panko breadcrumbs are a good choice.  These Japanese breadcrumbs are larger and coarser and produce a delightfully crunchy exterior.  Regardless of the base ingredients, diversity can be increased further by blending all kinds of other seasonings in with the breading such as: herbs, spices, cheese, grated onion, garlic, ginger, or other aromatic vegetables.  

     Batters are wet coatings designed to be applied to food immediately before cooking.  Inevitably they are some mixture of fluid and starch.  Milk, buttermilk, water, seltzer, and beer are some of the most common liquids.  Effervescent fluids like seltzer and beer impart a pleasant airiness to the batter.  All kinds of flours and starches can serve as the starch.  Eggs, seasonings, sour cream, grated cheese, and baking soda and/or powder, are just some of the items added to batters to augment their flavor, texture, or leavening capacity.  Tempura is a classic batter composed of water, flour and eggs.  

     When making a batter some recipes/chefs will tell you to add the wet ingredients to the dry and others the reverse.  Each will pontificate about why their sequencing produces better integration of the ingredients.  I think the logic on each side is as loose as their batters.  I've done both and unless I'm brain-fried, (with either a breading or a batter), I don't see the difference.  Here's what does make a difference:  Ensure both the wet and dry ingredients are each thoroughly mixed before marrying them.  If the recipe calls for eggs, beat them before adding the other liquids.  If you're utilizing an effervescent liquid, mix no more than is necessary to prevent unnecessary dissipation of the bubbles.  If the dry ingredients are comprised of flours, starches, salt, baking powder/soda, then sifting them will exact better integration and a finer texture.  Once completely integrated do not let your batter linger.  Dip the food in it and proceed with cooking.

     A final caveat with all deep-frying and pan-frying:  Make sure the oil is hot enough.  If not, the crispiness of the food will suffer and you will produce greasy food.  Oil is actually more likely to infiltrate food at lower temperatures.  Consult your recipe but 350-375 is the usual target range depending on the food.

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