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Encrusting for Healthier FlavorEncrusting for Healthier Flavor

January 5, 2006

9 Min Read
Encrusting for Healthier Flavor

Encrusting for Healthier Flavor

By Andrew Hunter

There’s a culinary revolution afoot atthe casual-dining table. Savvy diners are demanding new and exciting flavorswithout wasting calories on excessive fat and bad carbs. Equally savvy chefs areanswering the call with healthier, more-sophisticated ways of delivering flavor.

Encrusting beef, pork, poultry, fish and seafood with anaromatic blend of fresh herbs, toasted nuts, cheese, sea salt and breadcrumbs isone answer that’s growing in popularity. The basic premise of a savory crustis to seal in the meat’s natural juices while creating an added dimension ofcolor, aroma, texture and flavor.

“Crust is a flashy new word on the American menu,” saysJim Lombardy, vice president, culinary services, MiDAS Foods International, OakPark, MI. “It implies a coating that’s loaded with clean, natural flavorswithout excessive batters and breading.”

Notes Bob Okura, vice president, culinary development andcorporate executive chef for The Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, CA: “Crustingimplies the item has been sautéed or baked versus deep-fried. Our guests aretelling us they want crusted menu choices through the sheer volume of orders.”

Anatomy of a crust

“A goodcrust takes advantage of juices released from the meat,” says Lombardi. “It’s like an ‘in-pan infusion.’ The sum of the meatjuices and crust is more flavorful than the two parts.”

Casual-dining concepts in the past might have hesitated fromincorporating crusts on their menus, because crusts have always been a tool offine-dining chefs and, therefore, perceived as difficult to execute en masse.The opposite is actually true. Paolo Lafata, executive chef, The Olive Garden,Orlando, FL, explains the simplicity of the crusting process. “For ourParmesan-crusted tilapia, we mix together breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and saltand pepper,” he says. “That’s it.”

A crust typically contains a percentage of breadcrumbs and drycheese, which together absorb the water that’s released from the meat as itcooks. The breadcrumbs, cheese and water form a slurry or glue that helps thecrust adhere to the meat. Combine this slurry with a nut, like almonds, and theresult is a crunchy texture that has great appeal. Other ingredients now active in the R&D flavor pantryinclude exotic sea salts, fresh herbs, citrus zest and mushroom powders. Eachmakes a unique contribution to the flavor, aroma and color of a crust withoutadded fat.

“Applying a crust at some point in the preparation enhancesthe appearance of the meat,” says Okura. “It’s one more layer of visualenticement, and adds another layer of flavor and texture.” For example, the Dijon-mustard-crusted chicken and crustedchicken Romano from The Cheesecake Factory. “A perfectly sautéed chickenbreast is moist and juicy, but a crust enhances the chicken by building interestand extending the guest experience,” he says.

Nutty nutrition

Consumers andnutritionists have a litany of requests they want to see better incorporatedonto menus, including healthier fats, more fiber, less sodium and cholesterol,and definitely no trans fats.At the same time, the public is charging agile culinary professionals withcreating a world of new and unique flavors.

Pulling nuts from the pantry shelf is a wise choice to helpmeet these product-development challenges. In addition to meeting or exceedingmost of the mentioned health considerations, nuts are bursting with flavor, theyretain their crunch in the presence of moisture and, at the right temperature,brown in approximately the same amount of time it takes a typical cut of meat orfish fillet to cook.

A recent study commissioned by the Almond Board of California,Modesto, found that almonds are seen as the healthiest of nuts overall.Consumers associate the fat in almonds as “good, heart-healthy fat,” andalso recognize them as an excellent source of protein. Consumers think a menuitem with almonds is worth more money, and taste is their primary reason forpurchase. Almonds contain enough glutamic acid, a flavor-enhancing amino acid,to provide an umami effect.

A group of surveyed operators say they can charge anadditional $0.80 for an entrée that incorporates $0.10 of almonds, and thesepreferences might extend to the retail market. With a food cost of 13%, almondshave the high-impact potential to improve the food cost of an entire menu itemwhile driving sales.

One example of an almond-crusted menu item is the beeftenderloin with an almond-bread crust and a Portprune sauce created by AdrianHoffman, group chef, Lark Creek Restaurant Group, San Francisco. He needed a nutthat would lend a crunchy texture to the beef while accenting the rich flavor ofthe beef, port and prunes. Other examples include the almond-crusted halibut withsesame-garlic aïloi andwasabi cocktail sauce from Michael Weeks, Dragonfish, Seattle, and the chickentenders encrusted with corn flakes and crushed almonds at the Tin Can Tavern & Grille,St. Louis.

Layering flavors

Chefs who relyon one component, like the sauce, for example, to act as the primary flavordriver of a menu item are struggling to remain competitive in the evolvingmarketplace. “Our goal is to layer several simple flavors together to createcomplex flavors,” says Paul Fleming, of P.F. Chang’s fame and founder of PaulLee’s Chinese Kitchen, Scottsdale, AZ. “The layering of flavor happens atseveral points in the cooking process, and crusts play an important role.”

Paul Lee’s sesame-crusted chicken is crusted with seasonedsesame seeds and flour, quick-fried and coated with a spicy sweet and soursauce. The sauce is traditional, but with an added dimension of fresh aromatics,including ginger and garlic. The chicken is finished with stir-fried vegetables,which add color, texture and a caramelized or smoky foundation from the wok. “Weimport a unique sesame seed that’s toasted and salted. At first, we just usedthem in the crust, but our guests demanded that a dish of them also be served onthe side,” says Fleming.

Lafata emphasizes that complex preparations aren’t necessaryto develop complex flavors. “The crust is simple, but the quality of theingredients is essential,” he says. “The Parmesan cheese we use is rich andnutty, and the olive oil drizzled over the fish as a finishing flavor isintense. The vegetables, angel hair pasta and garlic-butter sauce finish thepreparation.”

Susan Dederen, senior director of culinary, la MadeleineFrench Bakery and Restaurant, Dallas, says that a combination of sautéing andbaking or roasting is critical to the success of their herb-crusted porktenderloin, which is served with a Dijon demi-glace. “The crust is made with fresh rosemary, garlic and orangepeel, which are roughly chopped and mixed with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. We roll the whole tenderloin in the rosemary mixture, sear itin clarified butter and then slow-roast the pork in a low oven.” She notesthat the rosemary and garlic form the overriding flavor. The crust delivers agolden crunch, but the inside stays very tender, providing a nice contrast. Thespices build during the cooking process and infuse throughout meat.

While the flavors in the Sesame Crusted Chicken, ParmesanCrusted Tilapia, and Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin concepts each originate fromdifferent parts of the globe, the concept of building complex flavors isuniversal. And savory crusts are central to all three.

Training on the line

Casual-diningchefs agree that while training is critical to the successful cooking of crustedmenu items, it’s no more critical than training other items on the menu. “Thefirst crusted dish might have been a challenge, but our cooks are good at itnow. Using a combination of cooking techniques — with sauté and baking —was the key to success,” says Okura.

“At first we were concerned about the burn rate of thepecans, because the trout is sautéed,” says Christine Gardener, director ofmarketing, Rockfish Seafood Grill. “But we adjusted down the flame, and thequality has been great.”

When initially developing crusts, select preparationparameters might need adjusting. “We learned a lot at the beginning of thedevelopment process about time and temperature,” says Dederen. “The rightamount of clarified butter in a preheated pan works best.” And while she paid special attention to the timing andsequencing of the dish, “we realized that the procedure wasn’t that hard andthat we shouldn’t overcomplicate it for our cooks.”

Translating fresh

Crusting andbreading, while similar in some respects, illustrate the Culinology® conceptquite well. Crusting is an art while breading has been perfected to a science.The primary difference is the inclusion of flour at different stages of thebreading process, which adds strength and durability. Crusts don’t typically include flour, which means they haveless structure and are more fragile. Breading companies have perfected the rigors of freeze/thaw cycles,reheating and long hold times. But it seems water loss and the change in themeat’s cell structure during the freeze/thaw cycle is still a roadblock in themore-delicate art of manufacturing crusts.

Most fine-dining chefs develop their own crusts in-house inorder to present the freshest-possible products to their customers. As Okuranotes, “a product with a manufactured crust would have to be frozen.” Inwhite-tablecloth markets, frozen is often out of the question.

Lafata adds, “We crust the fish by hand every day in everyrestaurant, and we rely on the natural juices of the tilapia to make the cruststick during baking.”

In some restaurants, entrées are encrusted to order. “AtRockfish, our fresh philosophy mandates that we crust our shrimp and trout toorder,” says Gardener, referring to the popular coconut-crusted shrimpserved with a wasabi dipping sauce and the new “sizzling” pecan trout.

However, fine-dining concepts frequently trickle-down intomore-casual formats and the retail sector, and good opportunities exist formanufacturing crusts in the near future.

For example, Fleming discusses a coconut-almond prawn conceptthe Paul Lee’s team is working on: “We wanted a product that had a lightermouth-feel than a typical battered shrimp. We also wanted the almond and toasted coconut to really be thehero flavors.” The marinade is made with coconut milk, chili paste, soy sauceand corn starch, which infuses the shrimp with a spicy coconut flavor. Theshrimp are dredged in a crust of roasted and salted almonds, coconut andbreadcrumbs before frying. Fleming continues: “The marinade is thick enough to hold onto the crust whilethey’re being fried. And since they’re fried from frozen, we think they havegood manufacturing possibilities.”

Kraft was a visionary of retail-crust concepts by introducingShake ’N Bake ® in 1965. Seasoned flour is the primary ingredient, but theconcept of relying on chicken’s natural juices to adhere the crust, and bakingnot frying for a crispy coating, helped whet the public’s appetite for crusts.

Manufacturers who are working on new encrusted concepts mightfind good success through retail channels as long as they deliver a product thatmaintains its crust through distribution and final preparation in the home. In most instances, manufacturers will want to formulateencrusted products that work well when cooked from frozen, since cruststypically deteriorate quickly in the refrigerator.

As encrusted concepts move through the food chain, eventuallymaking their way into the freezer section of the local supermarket, restaurantgroups can extend their brand into retail by following the lead of chains likeT.G.I. Friday’s (Main Street Restaurant Group, Phoenix), which has severalsignature menu items in the freezer case.

Since the savvy diners fueling the menu revolution are alsocost-conscious, R&D is working to create a white-tablecloth dining experienceat casual-dining prices. Perhaps savory crusts will do more than quench thethirst for great flavor with better nutrition on our menus. These encrustedconcepts have already begun to trickle-down into retail products. Perhaps thecrusts will change the face of casual dining and the freezer case as we know itfor years to come.

Andrew Hunter is a professional chef and president of RecipeDevelopment & Merchandising Solutions, a San Francisco company that developsnew concepts for restaurants, retail and manufacturers. He is a member of theResearch Chefs Association and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He has 25 years of foodservice experience in culinarydevelopment, menu operations and training.

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