Frying is a popular cooking method worldwide. Although it has fallen into some disrepute in recent years, when done correctly it yields light, well-flavoured foods with very little fat. Most fried foods are given some sort of coating, ranging from a simple dusting of flour to a breading or batter. There are many benefits to this technique.
Minimising Fat Absorption
The key to keeping fried foods light-tasting is minimising fat absorption. Coatings like breading and batter help accomplish this by providing an outer surface that crisps on contact with the hot oil, binding it at the surface and blocking its penetration further into the food. Temperature also plays a key role. Foods fried at too low a temperature will not create this barrier at the surface, allowing oil to penetrate and resulting in unpleasantly greasy food. Too high a temperature does not result in fat absorption, but it will yield unpleasant scorched flavours.
The barrier that forms around coated foods, upon their immersion in hot fat, has the secondary benefit of blocking the passage of moisture, just as waxed paper does. Some of the food's flavourful juices will still escape, but much less than if the food was uncoated. For the diner, this results in moist, juicy food with its flavours intact. The oil is also protected from the cooking juices. For a home cook who will discard the oil, this is immaterial, but for restaurants, the lifespan of their fryer oil is a significant cost factor.
Texture, Flavor and Appearance
Coating fried foods provides a crisp, golden shell on the finished product. Heat creates deeper flavours in the coatings, in the same way that toasting does for bread. The coating also provides a useful way to add flavours to the finished product, by incorporating ingredients like herbs and spices, salt and pepper or shredded Parmesan cheese. Other recipes coat the fried item with inherently flavourful substances such as ground nuts or pumpkin seeds. Finally, the crispness of the coating provides a texture which is not only pleasing in itself, but complements the tender foods inside.
Browning, Thickening and Sticking
The simplest form of coating for fried foods is a simple dusting of flour, corn flour or similar substances. This technique has a few different characteristics. It is often used with delicate vegetables that would be overpowered by a thicker coating, or meats, which would otherwise stick to the pan. Flour browns more readily than most meats and vegetables, providing an esthetically pleasing surface. When meats are browned for stewing or braising, the flour provides the additional benefit of helping to thicken the juices.