Breading is a very common method for preparing a variety of foods, from meat and fish to vegetables and starches — and even cheese.
Breading food can also be challenging: you need to get the timing right so that the outside browns and crisps up, while the inside cooks just the right amount. And you also have to take care so that the breading layer actually stays on the food while you’re cooking it.
Why do we bread food?
We bread food in part for the added texture and flavor: the roughness and crisp of a breading layer is a nice contrast to the smoothness of most food, and the browning imparts a bunch of flavor that complements the blandness of foods like chicken and white fish.
There are some common misconceptions about why putting a layer of breading on the outside of food items is a good thing. Most commonly, people think it “locks in the juices” so that meat doesn’t dry out. But it doesn’t really do that; sometimes food that has been breaded will end up juicier, but it’s not because the juices were “locked in” — and understanding what breading actually does to the cooking process is a big part of being successful in cooking breaded food.
Breading is a technique almost exclusively used with high-heat cooking methods, such as frying (including air-frying) and baking. If you’re applying a heat level greater than 212 degrees F to a piece of food, eventually the food will start to lose its water as steam. Cooked for too long, it can then become dry and tough — not at all appetizing. How quickly that happens depends on the method you’re using for delivering heat to the food. In an oven, the heat is being transferred by air, which is actually a terrible conductor of heat and slows down the process. If you’re frying, then the heat is transferred by oil, which has a very high heat capacity and is very efficient at transferring heat. That’s why a deep fryer at 375 degrees cooks food much faster than an oven at 375 degrees.
When you fry food, the outside cooks, loses its heat, dries out, and toughens very fast. Worse, then it starts absorbing oil, leaving you with the worst of all possible worlds: food that is both tough AND greasy.
We often bread fried food because it creates a layer of insulation around the outside, buffering the intense heat from the oil. That gives it more time to cook all the way through without overcooking the outer parts. It isn’t “locking in the juices,” but it is preventing the food from getting hot enough to lose its water to steam — so it will probably stay juicier.
There are two common failure scenarios for breading:
- The oil temperature is wrong. If it’s too cold (e.g. 275 degrees, above the temperature where water boils but below the Maillard reaction temperature of around 350 degrees), then the food won’t brown — or by the time it has browned, the food is hot enough to start losing its water. If it’s too hot, then the breading browns (and often burns) before the heat can permeate all the way through and cook the center; also, the oil itself can reach its smoke point and start imparting all sorts of bad flavors. All this is to say: get a good candy thermometer so that you can heat your frying oil to the right temperature (often around 375 degrees) and maintain it there.
- The breading falls off when cooking. There are three frequent causes of this. First, the surface of the food may be too smooth for the breading to stick to it. Second, there may be liquid between the food and the breading that quickly turns to steam and pushes the breading off. Third, the cooking process might agitate the food too much and knock the breading off.
Before we get into how we ensure that the breading stays attached, it’s helpful to talk about the two basic kinds of breading, which we can call “batter” and “bread crumbs.”
Batter is a thick liquid that we use to coat the outside of a piece of food before cooking it. The thickness provides a nice crust layer to insulate more against hotter temperatures; thickness also means less liquid to boil off before it dries out and hardens.
Bread crumbs are exactly as advertised: tiny bits of stale bread (with little remaining liquid). Since the bread crumbs themselves won’t stick to food, we often dip food into some kind of intermediary (like beaten eggs) that will hold the food and bread crumbs together.
When breading, we want the external surface of the food to be both dry and rough: no extra liquid to steam off, and a texture that helps the breading to adhere. If we’re using batter, we often marinate the food in something acidic (like buttermilk or soy sauce) that will start to break down the surface of the food and make it rougher. If we’re using bread crumbs, we might marinate it, but more often we’ll pat it dry and coat it in corn starch or flour (which makes it very dry and provides a rougher surface) before coating it in egg and breadcrumbs.
So at this point you may be thinking: batter makes no sense. We want the surface dry, so we’re dipping it in a liquid? And largely that’s true: it is harder to get batter to stick to the outside of food. Being thicker definitely helps, but most batter-breaded recipes call for one more step to deal with this issue: after you coat your food in batter and before you cook it, stick it in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Both the delay and the cold allow the batter to get a head start in adhering to the food, so that when you start it cooking it’s much harder to pry off.
So now that we know how breading works, and how it can fail, here’s a summary of the standard steps in breading food with batter or bread crumbs:
- Marinate the food in something slightly acidic to roughen up the surface.
- Coat it in the batter and place it on a tray or rack.
- Refrigerate it for 20 minutes to allow the batter to adhere to the food.
- Fry it in oil until the crust is brown and crisp.
- Thoroughly pat dry the food to remove all excess water on its surface.
- Coat the food in flour or corn starch (or another starch) to provide a rougher surface.
- Dip the flour-coated food in beaten eggs.
- Roll the egg-dipped food in bread crumbs until evenly covered.
- Fry it in oil until the crust is brown and crisp.
- You will see plenty of recipes for baking or air-frying as an alternative to oil-frying. Air fryers are essentially small convection ovens: unlike a traditional oven where the air may not move very much, an air-fryer circulates the air to ensure that there is always hot air next to the food — which is why they cook food faster than conventional ovens, and more consistently with fewer hot and cold spots. But they still can’t overcome the fact that air has low heat capacity and is a poor conductor of heat. Breading, as we’ve discussed, is also (intentionally) a poor conductor of heat. When you combine those two… well, the results are not great. That is why most air-fryer recipes that involve breaded food instruct you to spray the outside of the food with a generous amount of oil: to better conduct heat into the food and ensure that the breading browns. But that, to some extent, undermines the main selling point of air-frying as a “healthier” method of cooking food instead of plunging it in oil.
- A lot goes into getting exactly the right texture in a batter-based breading. Much of it revolves around discouraging the formation of gluten strands. When making bread, we want gluten because it creates the strength that allows bread to collect air bubbles and to rise. But gluten can make a breading coating on food tough, not the crisp and crunchy texture that we all like. You will often see recipes take several approaches to limit the amount of gluten formation. First, they will use cornstarch instead of flour, or another kind of flour that has little or no gluten. Second, they will use beer, vodka or club soda instead of regular water.
- Be careful using salt in your breading. Salt will draw liquid out of food and can make it more difficult for the breading to stick to the surface of the food. It may be ok to have some in a batter-based breading, but if you’re using a bread crumb based breading use caution — and definitely don’t mix salt in with the flour or cornstarch you use as a first coating. If you really want to pre-season meat with salt, brine it — then make sure you pat it VERY dry before breading it.
- Try not to over-handle breaded food while it’s cooking, so as not to dislodge pieces of the breading. Limit the number of times you flip it. Handle it gently. Don’t crowd it in the pan, and don’t stir it around.
- You can experiment with using different kinds of store-bought bread crumbs for your breading. A commonly recommended one is Panko, which is a Japanese style of light, unseasoned, white-bread crumb with large, flat flakes and only a very light toasting. Panko was essentially designed for breading and works very well across a variety of recipes as a go-to for breading food.
- A well-known specialty type of breading is tempura, which has its roots in Portugal but was perfected in Japan. It’s known for a very light, thin, crispy layer of breading and is used for deep-frying seafood and vegetables. Getting tempura to turn out right is challenging, for all of the reasons discussed above: getting the thickness and crispiness right; preventing gluten formation; getting the batter to stick to the food long enough for it to harden up into a shell. Serious Eats has a good, lengthy article on the challenges of making tempura, and I would recommend waiting until you feel comfortable with basic batter and bread-crumb breading before you take this on.