Karaage: Bridging Tradition With Technology Without Compromising On Authenticity

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

GEA Product Expert Luuc van Lankveld discusses the issues surrounding the automation of karaage production.

With the global demand for meat snacks expected to grow significantly in the coming years* it would seem that the potential of the meat snacks market is barely being touched in many areas, as consumers continue to demand new and exciting flavours and products.

Throughout Asia, marinated battered chicken pieces known as karaage remain a popular snack, often sold as street food or prepared as a main meal at home. Iconic in Japan yet little known outside of Asia, large-scale industrial production methods remain limited. However, with the increasing global call for a wider range of meat-based snacks as well as the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine, GEA Food Solutions believes karaage has the potential to take the world by storm.

Originating in Japan during the 17th century, karaage comes in various regional forms including dry karaage and wet karaage. The basic method of preparation remains the same and involves marinating meat or seafood pieces, typically chicken, then coating them with starch or batter and frying to achieve a crispy coating with a juicy core.

Food manufacturers need to seize the opportunity presented by the growing popularity of these delicious bite-sized meat snacks and expand into wider markets, while still retaining the artisan nature of this very traditional product.

Semi-industrial methods currently in use for karaage production tend to be very labour intensive, heavily relying on human intervention. Karaage is produced in much the same way as it would be in a restaurant or at home but simply on a larger scale. Naturally this presents challenges for mass production such as the potential for human error, and the increased risk of contamination, as well as limiting output capacity.

However, creating authentic karaage industrially does not need to mean that production methods have to remain inflexible. For example, when it comes to coating the product, food manufacturers which have automated this procedure using the latest technology have been able to benefit from a more seamless process, boosting efficiency and overcoming many of the technical challenges involved.

The technology for industrial karaage production is there and that is a full line solution. Meat pieces are pre-dusted by being loaded onto a bed of potato or corn starch. No wet product touches the metal of the machinery during this process so build-up of dough balls is prevented. The meat pieces are then fully coated with starch by being fed into a row of parallel tumbling drums, after which they are transferred by a conveyer plate onto the next belt. Alternatively, in the case of wet karaage, meat pieces can be submerged into the batter by means of a specially developed dipper equipment, so in either case, manual handling is eliminated during the coating stage, but the final product remains the same as the fully handmade version.

Given that the frying time for karaage is fairly long, it is often fried in two stages using two separate fryers, allowing for greater capacity. Furthermore, using two fryers enables the life of the cooking oil to be extended, as the oil in the first fryer deteriorates more quickly, since the coating is not set and some of the starch is “washed off”  and burns when the karaage is initially dropped into the oil. However one of the challenges for producers is that this double frying method can cause up to 20-25 percent of the product weight to escape as moisture loss, meaning lower final yields, and loss of some of the succulent, juicy texture. But is it possible to alter production methods to retain this moisture whilst still creating a fully authentic product? GEA’s food technology experts believe this can be done with some creative rethinking.

As karaage is sometimes referred to as the ‘Asian chicken nugget‘, let’s consider for a moment the commercial success of the humble chicken nugget around the world. Rather than the traditional fry only method, back in the 1980s, food technologists developed the ‘fry-cook‘ method, where the nuggets are flash fried to achieve a crispy coating and then cooked in an specialised oven where both heat and steam are added, ensuring the product is fully cooked and moisture is retained. By applying this same technology to a karaage line, tests have produced up to 20-35 percent higher yields of karaage which is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, a mouthwatering combination sure to delight customers and boost productivity.

Oil filtration systems commonly used for nugget lines can also be used in the same way for karaage, making the frying process more efficient and cost-effective.

Automating karaage production without compromising on authenticity allows for a significant uplift in speed, which in turn helps address the challenge of managing flux in consumer demand, ensuring that increasing numbers of orders can be fulfilled. Processes can be well controlled, ensuring optimum yields and consistent results every time.

Viable new alternatives are now available for karaage producers to automate processing whilst still turning out traditional karaage that consumers delight in. Having tasted authentic karaage myself in Japan, as a food technology specialist I am excited to see manufacturers beginning to take on this technology. This will allow them to not only build upon existing customer bases, but also to diversify and expand into new markets, allowing this delicious product a wider reach than was previously possible.


For more information visit www.gea.com


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