When food is breaded or coated with a crumb crust, it takes on an entirely new dimension. The crust may be seductively crunchy or pleasantly chewy. It may add a little heat, some smooth cheese flavor, or nuttiness.
Most importantly of all, the coating holds in moisture so that delicate fish, chicken breasts, and veal fillets are juicy and tender. It also adds interest to inexpensive cuts, if they are cut thin and evenly coated.
Tips for Success
Coating food for pan-sauteeing or oven baking usually involves dredging the food with a crumb mixture. In most instances, the seasoned breading mixture is spread on a flat plate or work surface so that you can apply the coating.
Make sure the fish or meat is dry and at room temperature. Pat it with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture and then sprinkle it lightly with flour to absorb any residual moisture.
Some recipes call for dipping the food first in beaten egg, which helps the crust adhere.
Lay a few pieces of meat or fish on the plate while holding them lightly between your fingertips. Turn them in the crumb mixture. Use the tips of your fingers to pat them gently with the coating. Your goal is a thin, even coating that sticks easily to the food without clumping or sliding off.
As one or two pieces are coated, set them aside on a wax-paper-lined tray while you work with the remaining food.
Cuts of beef and chicken that are not fragile can be dropped in a plastic bag with the coating and shaken. This is both an easy and effective method for covering the food, but is not recommended for more delicate fish, shrimp, or very thin fillets of chicken.
Bread Crumbs and Cornmeal
Bread crumbs, cornmeal, crushed potato chips, crushed corn flakes, or another crushed cereal can all be used to make a crumb coat. Crushed, toasted nuts add wonderful flavor and texture.
Bread crumbs are the most popular choice, and cornmeal provides the firmest coat.
Begin with plain or seasoned dried bread crumbs. You can buy them or make them yourself, which is very easy.
Make plain bread crumbs from slices of stale bread that you further dry out in the oven or toaster without browning. Grind the bread in a food processor or blender. Spread the crumbs on a baking sheet and toast them for about 10 minutes in a 375°F. oven to complete the job.
To make seasoned dried bread crumbs, toss ground plain bread crumbs in melted butter over medium-dry heat. Use four or five tablespoons of butter for every cup of crumbs. As they cook, add salt, pepper, dried herbs, spices, or grated cheese. When the crumbs have absorbed the butter and are lightly browned, spread them on a sheet of wax paper to cool.
Plain bread crumbs keep in a tightly lidded jar or sealed plastic bag for up to a week. Seasoned crumbs keep for several days. Either can be frozen for up to a month.
To make your own breading mixture - rather than buying them in a box from the supermarket - mix together those ingredients that sound good to you. Sift the crumbs, flour, or cornmeal before mixing them with other ingredients.
For instance, try plain bread crumbs, a little flour, ground ginger, paprika, and salt and pepper. Substitute crushed corn flakes for some of the bread crumbs. Toss a generous pinch of lemon zest into the mix.
This would be delicious on mild fish, shrimp, or chicken.
Mix together plain bread crumbs, flour, crushed potato chips, onion powder or dried chives, and salt and pepper. Or try a combination of cornmeal, crushed corn flakes, parmesan cheese, dried rosemary, and dried tarragon.
Try these crumb mixtures on chicken, veal, or beef.
Cooking Breaded Food
Most breaded food is thin and boned, and so lends itself to quick cooking. This is most often accomplished on top of the stove, although breaded food can be deep-fried, oven baked, or even broiled.
Make sure the pan and fat (butter, oil) are hot. Lift the coated food with your fingertips or tongs and lay it in the pan. Let one side get browned and crisp before turning it. You do not want to flip-flop the food or the breading may fall off.
When done, serve breaded food right away. The coating tastes best when freshly cooked.