Batter Up!

The Spice Table

Tapas-style feast. Fried cauliflower. Lamb-belly satay. Curry-fried chicken wings. Hainan chicken. Beef rendang. Chicken liver toast.


The entrees for this meal were pretty spicy, not surprisingly. Some slight remixes of Chinese and Indonesian classics, and some modern Asian interpretations of English ingredients.

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Pop goes the cauliflower.
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Hainan chicken.

Six hungry dudes and small tapas style plates always makes me chuckle just a tiny bit. I wouldn’t say we starve ourselves in order to treat ourselves to a “special” night, but a bunch of twenty-something year olds with raging metabolisms usually prefer something substantial. I guess part of tapas-style eating is a bit from each plate, and mathematically, 1/6 of 6 to 7 plates is well, one plate. Regardless, eating is also about great company, so in some aspect, food is simply lubrication for great conversation. From my memory, I believe we food-hopped to Wurstküche later that night, so you know, all was well in the land of semi-empty tummies (in optimistic contrast to the land of empty wallets).

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Gourmet...nuggets.
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Liva' toast.

One question arose for me, as there were some “ooos” and “aaahs” of satisfaction from the fried foods that night. Besides the audible and comforting crunch that fried foods usually confer… 

Batter. Breading. What’s the difference? Howzit work?

Breading is “dry.” Object to be fried is first patted dry. A fine layer of flour is added to the food, then dipped in something like egg/buttermilk, and then into breadcrumbs. Object is rested in order to allow the breading to set, then fried at high temperatures. This is slightly confusing sometimes, as the egg/buttermilk stage is technically a “batter,” and is wet, even though it is technically referred to as a “dry” method. For the sake of not confusing the hell out of everyone reading this, breading is a “dry” step in a battering process.

How does it work? It’s all friction. Let’s take chicken as an example. The first thin layer of flour grabs onto the surface of the chicken (a dry step). Molecular friction between flour molecules themselves and the meat surface provides a substantial grip. The second egg wash dunk allows proteins of the egg to bond to the starch molecules of the flour (batter, wet step). The last dunk allows the breadcrumbs to grab onto the egg (a dry step) via surface tension/viscosity of the wet egg. At each dunking step, it is paramount to shake off the excess. Uneven layers result in structural failures, and the breading may fall off. Allow the dry and wet layers to merge before dunking it in the fryer.

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In the case of just batter (analogous to paint and primer all-in-one), batter is “wet.” Object to be fried is simply dipped in a fluid mixture with starch, which can comprise of cornstarch/flour mixed with milk/buttermilk/beer/eggs/cream/cheese; the possible combinations of starch and fluid are fairly limitless. Many chefs have perfected their batters over the years to maximize flavor, achieve supreme crispy skin with tender innards, and obtain superbly light outer layers, without ever sliding down the slippery slope of batter separation (the batter sliding off your food like a lubricated sleeping bag).

This study shows that as viscosity of batter increases, the adherence of breadcrumbs increases. Not much of a surprise. Higher viscosity usually confers higher amounts of internal friction, usually by the workings of a starch. Less water, more concentrated solids/starch would result in more gripping power (more opportunity to form bonds).

Therefore, from our subjective experiences of eating fried food, one can surmise that batter and breading play a role in three main aspects of fried food; flavor (of the breading itself), texture (crunch), and heat dynamics (keep the moisture in). What happens when we…

double batter. This can get confusing. Online sources all have varying methods of double battering. One site said that flour, egg-wash, and breadcrumbs was “double battering,” which didn’t make sense to me, because that method has always been known to me as a regular breading process (plus it only goes into batter once). It’s a bit confusing. Double batter should be more like alternating dry and wet layers, whether the dry layer is flour, cornstarch, breadcrumbs, and the wet layer egg-wash or batter; it doesn’t seem to matter as long as you make distinct layers. If we “double batter” by dunking a piece of chicken twice into batter without any dry layers, well…that’s just a winter batter for the chicken (a thick, nice, warm single coat of batter on batter, and batter on batter usually is just excess batter, which rolls right off). I’m getting sick of saying batter.

ignore battering. You get burned, dried out, unappetizing-looking food, unless it’s a quick fry, like how the Chinese do it wok-style with their cruciferous veggies, which allows for a quick cook, but also the potential to overcook.

apply battering processes to liquids. The said “liquid” cannot just be thrown into the fryer. That would be a terrible idea if not, dangerous idea. The liquid in question (usually something like soda), is frozen and/or mixed with other ingredients to make a liquid batter. This is subsequently coated with the normal batter, and fried. In some cases, the batter can be drizzled into the fryer, where it instantly puffs up due to the evaporation of the water, creating things like funnel cakes.

The reason one has to make a batter out of the liquid that’s being fried is because frying evaporates water. Frying, like any other cooking method, needs something to cook. If you evaporate water, you get fried…nothing. The physical disturbances of the evaporation of room temperature or cold water versus a 450 degree Fahrenheit pool of oil is usually highly turbulent. This is what we call a second-degree burn to your face.

apply battering processes to proteinaceous foods. Wait. This was covered already.

double fry with batter. Double frying usually is first done at lower heat, in order to par-cook the fried item. The first layer of batter acts as an insulator as to prevent overcooking. A second layer of batter is added, and the item is fried again at a higher temperature, finishing the cooking, and creating a superbly crispy skin. If one tries to achieve crispy skin by just high-temperature frying, the internal temperature of the food in question may not reach done-ness before the outside is completely scorched. Fry at too low a heat, and you get a greasy, stodgy outer layer that has absorbed too much oil. Double frying is usually done with fries, but with no batter involved.

Does batter matter? Yes, if you do it well and it stays on; no, if you don’t, because it’ll just fall off. The best batters are fairly light, stay on, have a subtle flavor and spiciness, and are crispy but not burnt.

For your own reading: Beer batter, compared to wheat batter, induces softer, yet crispier layers for fried food due to an increased uptake of oil. The results are comparable to rice batters as well. Beer-drinkers rejoice.

Also, healthy fried food?