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May 1, 1995
Building Better Fried Foods
By: Lynn Kuntz
Maybe people consider fried food a special treat. Or maybe they are just lying to the pollsters about how much fried food they really eat. Despite the current trend toward minimizing fat intake, fried foods retain a high level of popularity. They're quick, convenient, and - let's face it - quite tasty. While fried foods may make life easy for the consumer, the same does not hold true for those who design these products. Quality, cost, consumer appeal and even health all require careful consideration as a fried product is assembled. From an ingredient standpoint, most fried foods consist of three major components: the food product, a coating, and the frying fat. Sometimes, as in the case of potato chips and other fried snacks, the coating is optional. Each of these building blocks influences the finished product and often they can be engineered to give the best results.The main attraction Theoretically, anything can be fried. The most common products for this process include meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables (especially potatoes), and composition products such as egg rolls. While fried salty snacks make up a large category, this article will not focus on those types of products. Still, many of the concepts apply, especially those involving the properties of the coatings and the frying media. Meat - whether derived from four-legged, two-legged or finned animals - consists mainly of protein and water, with some fat and other constituents. The goal is to retain moisture during frying. "In the matrix, retaining moisture increases cook yields and improves processing," says Jerry Conklin, development leader, food applications, technology performance products, TS&D, The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, MI. "In most fried foods you want to maintain a high moisture gradient between the inside and outside." Using polyphosphates can provide several benefits, including moisture retention. Although not clearly understood, it appears the phosphates cause the proteins to swell, which increases their water-binding capacity. The phosphates also can help hold added moisture to a limited extent. "For years, we believed you lost the effect of phosphates at temperatures over 160°F," says William Swartz, director of technology, Rhône-Poulenc Food Ingredients, Cranbury, NJ. "But we found that the effect was merely reduced compared to lower temperatures. The moisture retention gives you better cooking characteristics, a more uniform product, and better texture." Using the wrong phosphate can contribute undesirable flavor characteristics. High-pH phosphates, such as tripolyphosphate, can produce a distinctive flavor in mild-flavored meats like poultry and most seafood. Flavor enhancers such as MSG can increase the phosphate flavor. A blend will give a better flavor without sacrificing the protein-binding characteristics needed in a chopped and formed product. "The small drop in pH resulting from a combination of tripolyphosphate and metaphosphate still promotes good binding but gives a much better flavor than a straight polyphosphate," advises Swartz. "You make a slight compromise between flavor and moisture retention, but nothing significant. Also, when forming patties, if you solubilize too much protein the product will tend to stick to the forming equipment." Phosphates also help with the manufacture of fish blocks commonly used for fish-stick-type products. These are large, compressed blocks of boneless fish frozen on plate freezers and cut to size or reformed. Without phosphates, the blocks tend to have voids and give off moisture very rapidly as they thaw. According to Swartz, phosphates reduce this effect; there is 10 to 20 times more drip loss without phosphate. Using phosphates in fish blocks for fried applications can reduce the batter blow off that sometimes results when air is trapped in a void. Those made with phosphate tend to be much more solid and uniform. In addition, with the elimination of voids, the product is less prone to breakage. Hydrocolloids, usually starch and certain gums, also help retain moisture in the finished product. Their water-binding tendencies help reduce cooking loss. This characteristic also contributes to freeze/thaw stability. Gums and starches work as adhesive agents and as partial fat replacers by forming gels. However, careful consideration of the characteristics of a particular hydrocolloid is needed to make certain it will perform its intended function during processing, frying and storage. "Many gums are heat reversible and the gel will melt under high temperatures," notes Florian Ward, Ph.D., director of research and development, TIC Gums Inc., Belcamp, MD. "Methylcellulose forms a gel upon heating, an effect known as thermal gelation. Some gums, such as alginates, which are widely used in making onion rings, can form irreversible gels." If a binder or viscosifier is required for the initial forming process, typically the formula would incorporate a product that works under ambient conditions. To prevent moisture loss during frying, the hydrocolloid must maintain its functionality at high temperatures. "Methylcellulose builds mash viscosity and firmness, so a product extrudes better and maintains its shape," says Conklin. "Once in the fryer, it gels and provides a nice eating texture, although the texture can soften at room temperature. A formulator can use a little more methylcellulose so the product stays firmer longer." Often starches act as binders and provide viscosity. This requires a product with a low gelatinizing temperature. The internal temperature attained during the frying process will gelatinize the starch so it holds moisture. Since many of these products will be frozen, freeze/thaw stability is often a requirement.Batter up Most fried products incorporate some kind of coating. These can take the form of a batter, a breading or a specialized film. Often these coatings are applied in combination to produce the desired effect. Several different types within these categories may go by different names, but they are often classified in the following way: Adhesion batters adhere some type of dry material to a substrate, such as a crumb onto a fish stick. Typically they are high in starch and quite thin. The heavier the batter, the more crumb will adhere. They may carry flavors, and the thicker batters can be used as stand-alone coatings. These will often contain leavening. Tempura or puff batters usually consist of flour and a leavening system, which allows the product to puff when exposed to the heat of frying. No breading is required to form a thick coating on the product. Specialty batters or films are often used on french fries to promote crispness. Sometimes they deliver flavor. Many are being designed either to retain moisture or to reduce fat pickup. Commodity breading can serve two purposes. It may act as a predust which roughens up the surface and promotes adhesion, or it may serve as a very low cost outside crumb. These products consist of cracker meal, fine granulation breading, or even straight flour. When used as an outside coating, commodity breading tends to give a very dense, very hard coating. Seasoned flour gives distinct textural and appearance properties, such as a crinkled surface. Home-style or American bread crumb products come from baked, yeast-raised dough, similar to bread. They have an open structure, contain crust pieces and give a home-style appearance. The color tends to be lighter than commodity breading, with some highlighting due to the crust pieces. Japanese crumb has a structure that is more delicate and open than the home-style crumb. It has a splintered appearance and is very crisp. Traditional Japanese crumb is baked by a dielectric process. An electric current runs through the loaf and cooks it from the inside out which eliminates the crust. Because of this, the crumb is light in color.
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