Topping Systems: Finishing Touches

by Shane Whitaker
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While aromas created by freshly baked foods entice consumers, the drab palette of beiges and browns does not always elicit such excitement. Baked foods and snacks often feature dull exterior colors, but bakers and snack manufacturers can bring color, texture and extra flavor to their products by adding toppings or finishing marks.

While colorful candy-coated chocolate pieces on a cookie may attract young consumers, an Asiago cheese-topped focaccia might catch the attention of mom or dad. Multigrain blends that adorn bread loaves also add visual appeal. And what would crackers and other snacks be without topical salt or flavorings?

To make baked foods and snacks stand out visually and add value and flavor, bakers and snack manufacturers can rely on a variety of equipment that consistently and accurately tops baked foods and snacks. Equipment manufacturers continually work to adapt machinery designs to best meet the needs of their clients.

SAVING SEEDS.

Burford Corp., Maysville, OK, works to ensure its electronically controlled topping machines meet the volume and coverage needs of its customers. An electric clutch/brake on its Smart Seeder/Topper permits the release of seeds or toppings only when pans are present below, according to Mitch Lindsey, technical sales, Burford, so that bakeries can save significantly on seed costs. Its 1-touch setup automatically adjusts pan guides, mandrel speeds, deposit patterns, and hopper and nozzle heights. When a new quick-change mandrel is inserted into the Smart Seeder, it automatically prompts the operator to set up the machine.

The Smart Seeder/Topper from Burford is designed to accurately place sesame seeds as well as a variety of other dry toppings on baked foods. The equipment manufacturer also offers a flour duster for topping baked foods with fine powders.

Clay Miller, sales engineer, Burford, noted that one of the latest product trends is topping sandwich rounds, the thin, sliced flatbread buns that have been introduced within the past few years. However, this item presents a challenge to topping equipment manufacturers because these products are generally made on conveyors as opposed to pans like most bun products, so there is an opportunity to recapture and reuse extra toppings.

RECLAIM, REUSE.

Burford’s position on reclaim has been that its equipment minimizes topping waste to the point that reclaim is not necessary, according to Mr. Lindsey. However, as more and more bakeries seek to reuse toppings, the company is researching reclaim systems that can effectively capture and reuse these ingredients, according to Mr. Lindsey. The challenge will be ensuring that the excess toppings don’t become contaminated by moisture or pieces of the product.

Recovery of excess toppings prior to baking represents a big challenge, noted Don Setsma, vice-president, sales and marketing, Food Process Automation (FPA), Grand Rapids, MI. To address this, the company designed a system that channels excess materials to the side of the conveyor for reuse.

Axis Automation, Hartland, WI, offers optional reclaim systems for its toppers and salters, according to Norman Searle, the company’s COO. When working with higher-cost ingredients such as candy-coated chocolate pieces, it makes sense for bakeries to try to reuse the topping material, he added.

Axis provides two methods to reclaim toppings. First, it offers systems that can bring materials to the sides of the conveyor, where processors can recapture and recycle the ingredients. The other option, Mr. Searle said, is to build a hopper underneath the conveyor to catch toppings that miss their targets. Using either method, when the hopper reaches a certain level, the processor can mix in fresh toppings with the reclaimed topping to achieve a homogenous blend of both.

Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA, offers vacuum transfer systems to capture the material that falls off the product and integrate these recycled toppings with fresh materials in the dispenser, according to Shawn Moye, the company’s executive director of sales. “These systems come in either dilute-phase or dense-phase transfer and are configured as such depending upon the materials they will be moving,” he added.

Christy Machine Co. also manufactures reclaim systems to put surplus toppings back into the hopper, according to Randy Fielding, president and owner of the Fremont, OH-based company. However, it also can install photo eyes on its topping systems if a customer would prefer that its units more precisely top baked foods.

Christy Machine custom-builds all of its topping units to its customers’ needs, constructing units from 2 in. up to 12 ft wide and with hopper bodies from 2 in. to 6 ft tall.

EVEN DISTRIBUTION.

Parmesan cheese has become a popular topping lately, according to Mr. Fielding, but unfortunately, this ingredient can bridge within the hopper. Christy has designed a machine that accurately dispenses parmesan cheese as well as other ingredients that form cavities within the hopper without the use of vibrators, he said.

Further, its machines also dispense whole candy-coated chocolate pieces or nuts without any degradation to the product, Mr. Fielding added.

Uniform application is always the most critical quality of topping equipment, according to
Mr. Moye.

Mr. Setsma concurred that even distribution of topping particulates is one of the greatest challenges, and as such, FPA designed its systems to ensure uniform product distribution across the hopper. The company works closely with bakers to provide custom solutions for their new product requirements. “We continually test new concepts in our customer lab, and many end up as new consumer products,” he said.

For toppings that carry a lot of dust or that need gentle handling, Mr. Miller recommended Burford’s Multi-Product Auto Fill systems, which eliminate the need for operators to fill hoppers using 50-lb sacks of toppings. Sensors help keep levels consistent so toppings are distributed more evenly, and bakers don’t have to worry about the hopper running out.

REDUCING OIL.

Currently, it’s common to use 70% oil to 30% dry ingredients for slurries. Further developments on pumps, spray systems and flow meters will allow lower oil proportions in slurry-based snack and cracker toppings, according to Kirk Metz, vice-president and co-owner of Spray Dynamics, St. Clair, MO. Such solutions are pumpable and user-friendly, he said. “The problem is snack and cracker manufacturers are being pushed to make the same flavor snacks using much less oil,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Metz predicted that in three years he would be talking about oil-based slurries with a ratio of 50:50 or even 40:60 of oil to dry seasonings. “I also believe that in five years, water-based slurries may indeed be commonplace,” Mr. Metz added.

While some people think the US snack and cracker market is maturing, Spray Dynamics continues to see start-up companies coming to it every month with new ideas for a snack and asking for help in designing a system, he said. “It gives me a great feeling of accomplishment when I taste the first bag of product on the market from these start-up companies, and I know I had a hand in making their product,” he added. “Even more satisfying is when they call me back within 12 months for another new line because they have outgrown their manufacturing capabilities.”

Mr. Metz noted a renewed interest in the company’s Workhorse side-vented coating system. The cost of oil and seasonings as well as the mandate by some Latin American governments to remove as much oil as possible from children’s snacks are driving renewed interest in this technology, he said. “This technology allows the snack manufacturers to apply seasonings to the snacks without using oil,” Mr. Metz added.

“Developments made by the seasoning companies are allowing this type of snack to now have nearly the same flavor as those coated with oil,” he continued.

In addition, Spray Dynamics continued developments to its Scarf Plate seasoning distributors allow manufacturers to cut seasoning cost up to 20% by allowing proper placement of the dry seasoning inside the coating drum and over the top of bakery products on a conveyor, according to Mr. Metz. Food companies no longer have to over-apply the seasoning to obtain the desired amount on the finished product, he said.

EASY USE, UPKEEP.

Bakers expect well-designed and -executed topping and finishing systems that are trouble-free and easy to clean, Mr. Setsma noted. “There is heavy emphasis on sanitation today, so everything we design has to be with that in mind, particularly with regard to types of materials used and adherence to sanitation principles,” he said.

Processors desire seasoning systems that are easier to clean and maintain, and Spray Dynamics developed a novel way to cantilever the dry ingredient feeder and the liquid spray bars to allow customers to pull them out of the drum for servicing without the use of tools or the need for operators to lift more than 1 kg.

Also, bakers and snack manufacturers want ways to control allergens within their plants, and they want to make their production areas safer and cleaner, according to Mr. Metz. Accordingly, Spray Dynamics offers allergen containment drums that prevent oil mist and hot seasoning powder from leaving the drums.

Burford provides segregated, or interchangeable, hoppers to better control allergen issues within plants, according to Mr. Lindsey.

So instead of running a variety of products through a single hopper, each topping will have its own hopper but will run using the same set of controls. The equipment manufacturer also has given much attention to the ease of sanitation and maintenance of its topping equipment systems, according to Mr. Lindsey. Its toppers and seeders are all washdown-capable.

Some people, Mr. Fielding said, claim that Christy Machine’s topping equipment is over-simplified. “But sometimes simple is super because you don’t have a lot of moving parts that need to be maintained,” he said.

If a bakery wants to add value to its products, toppings and finishing marks can be a great way to give them more visual appeal and entice consumers to make that all-important initial purchase.               

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