If you love crispy fried fish or breaded chicken patties, you may think that you can't be satisfied on a low-carb diet. It's true that traditional breading ingredients — such as flour, bread crumbs and beer batter — are high in carbs, but there are plenty of delicious alternatives.
The flavor and texture of low-carb breading may not be identical to traditional breading, but you'll get some of the crunch you're after using some of these unconventional ingredients. The descriptions below all refer to net carbs, which is a measure of total carbohydrates minus dietary fiber and alcohol sugars.
Use Almonds for a Nutty Flavor
Franziska Spritzler, RD, author of The Low-Carb Dietitian's Guide to Health and Beauty, says that almond flour is her go-to breading when she's in the mood for fried food. A quarter-cup serving of almond flour contains just 4 grams of net carbs, according to the USDA, compared to 14 grams of net carbs per quarter cup of breadcrumbs made with wheat flour. (And keep in mind that only a portion of those grams will actually stick to the food being breaded.)
You can purchase almond flour in most grocery stores, or grind blanched almonds in a food processor to make your own. (Be careful not to over-pulse them, or they'll turn to almond butter!) You may also see "almond meal" in stores; the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but almond meal is typically coarser than almond flour, according to grain manufacturer Bob's Red Mill.
For a crispy breading that's great for chicken or veggies — think onion rings or fried zucchini — Spritzler recommends mixing almond flour or almond meal with salt, pepper, onion and garlic powder. "Then you use it exactly the way you would regular breading," she says. "It's always a big hit when I make this, and people should know that it's a really easy, delicious alternative."
Dip the item to be breaded in a bowl of beaten egg, or egg wash — itself very low in carbohydrates — and let the excess drip off. Then roll it in the almond mixture until the food is coated. Fry in a pan with oil or butter, or, to save some calories, place it on a baking sheet, spritz with cooking oil and bake in a hot oven.
Get Cheesy With Parmesan
You've probably heard of chicken and eggplant parm — recipes that usually involve breading, along with the eponymous cheese and a hefty helping of red sauce. But Parmesan cheese alone can also form a crunchy exterior for chicken cutlets or fish fillets, while adding close to zero grams of net carbs.
Simply dip strips of food in an egg wash and then roll them in shredded Parmesan cheese. To add another flavor dimension, season the cheese first with dried Italian seasoning or chili powder. Don't use finely grated or powdered Parmesan, which won't adhere well or melt into a crust.
Place the pieces in a very hot skillet — a cast iron pan is often best — coated with a dab of butter or oil. Cook only a minute or two on each side to form the crispy exterior without burning the cheese.
Try Flaxseeds and Coconut
"My favorite suggestion for low-carb or gluten-free breading is to use seeds," says Suzanne Ryman-Parker, RD, founder of the gluten-free Powerhouse Bakery at Nutrition Matters, Inc. in San Antonio, Texas. "They're an easy substitution because they provide some natural texture and crunch."
A combination of flaxseed and unsweetened coconut is ideal: They both have 1 gram or less of net carbs per quarter cup, according to the USDA. Put them in a coffee grinder to create a powder — not too fine, though, or you'll lose the satisfying crunch. Then, dip egg-drenched chicken, fish or thinly sliced vegetables into the mixture. "It's a great option for pan-frying," Ryman-Parker says.
You can also use coconut flour, which has just 4 grams of net carbs per 2-tablespoon serving, as a breading option. This versatile ingredient can be combined with almond flour or used alone, according to The Real Food Dietitians.
Pork Rinds for a Low-Carb (but High-Fat) Crunch
Low-carb recipe collections often tout pork rinds as a great low-carb "breading" for chicken or fish, zucchini strips or mushrooms. Pork rinds have no carbs, according to the USDA; they're simply strips of pork fat, usually fried in lard and seasoned with salt.
You can purchase pork rinds at just about any grocery store. Crush them and add grated Parmesan cheese, along with spices like powdered garlic, dried thyme, cayenne pepper, black pepper and paprika. Dip the item you'd like to bread in an egg wash, let the excess drip off, then dip it in your pork rind crumb mix and pan-fry in oil over medium to high heat.
The texture of these crumbs is similar to the light, crispy Japanese crumbs known as panko, but they do have a distinct pork flavor that not everyone likes. Pork rinds are also high in sodium and saturated fat, says Ryland-Parker, and should be eaten in moderation — especially if you have health issues such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or a family history of these conditions.
Read more: Can You Eat Quinoa on a Low-Carb Diet?
A Note About Breading and Frying
Recipes that involve breading often involve frying in oil—a method that adds significant calories and saturated fat. Even if you're not following a diet that limits these things, Ryland-Parker says it's smart to keep them in check and choose healthier cooking methods whenever possible.
For one thing, as the Mayo Clinic notes, eating fried foods has been linked to greater risk of type 2 diabetes, heart problems and early death. Frying foods in fat or butter also produces chemicals called free radicals, which damage cells and can increase risk for cancer., according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Read more: 18 Fat-Rich Foods That Are Good for You
If you do choose to fry foods, use oils that are lower in saturated fat, like olive, sunflower or canola oil, over those that are higher in saturated fat, like coconut and palm oil. Pay attention to the smoke point of the oil you're using, since not all oils should be used at high temperatures. And skip deep-frying, which involves submerging food entirely in oil, and instead opt to pan-fry using as little oil as possible.
You can also bake food on a sheet pan in the oven after breading it, with just a spritz or light coating of oil. This will save a lot of calories and saturated fat, says Ryland-Parker, and can still produce an enjoyable (and yes, crispy) texture.
- USDA Food Data Central: "Almond Flour"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Breadcrumbs"
- Bob's Red Mill: "What Is It? Wednesday: Almond Meal/Flour"
- LowCarbDietitian.com: "About Me"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Egg, whole, raw"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Shredded Parmesan Cheese"
- PowerhouseBakery.com: "About us"
- The Real Food Dietitians: "Buffalo Chicken Strips with Buffalo Ranch"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Coconut Flour"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Seeds, Flaxseed"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Shredded Coconut"
- USDA Food Data Central: "Pork Rinds"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Things You Should Know About Cooking with Oil"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Healthy Heart Oils: What You Need to Know"
- Mayo Clinic: "Mayo Clinic Minute: Why eating too many fried foods could lead to early death"