Advancing the art of tortillas
Apriil 18, 2016
by Laurie Gorton
KANSAS CITY — What makes a good tortilla better? The tortilla manufacturer’s answer
will always be one that is produced faster with less labor. Today, as
food service emerges as the big dog in the room, tortilla processing technology
must operate at tighter tolerances, while new food safety regulations throw
additional emphasis on cleanability.
In the past few years, equipment vendors have made such improvements to
both wheat and corn tortilla systems. Make no mistake: The processes are as
different as the products are, but the influences on design and engineering of
tortilla equipment make no such differentiation.
While issues of line speed and labor input continue to shape the state
of the art in tortilla technology, newer concerns about line controls, product
tolerances and food safety are gaining ascendency.
Full line integration has graduated out of the luxury class to become an
“Everything on the line has to be integrated in all
adjustments,” said Chris Herrera, sales, Casa Herrera. “And this
helps improve the quality of the product across the board. It also means fewer
people and more pounds per hour.”
Reliability touches on the matter of product consistency. Finished specs
must be stricter to satisfy customer demand — especially that from the
burgeoning food service market. “Tortilla manufacturers need to operate within
ever tighter tolerances to get and keep the business of the food service
industry,” said Glenn Shelton, vice-president, sales, Lawrence Equipment. Factors
such as diameter, moisture content and toast points, among others, are how
tortilla manufacturers are measured today, he observed.
Verifying such performance goes hand-in-hand with striving for it. Mr.
Shelton described a vision system installed at the end of the cooler that looks
at all factors that could cause a rejection. “It provides a report card not
only of the operating group but also of the equipment,” he explained.
Accelerating diversity in dough formulations, inclusions and sizes also
complicates consistency. “Tortilla producers need flexibility on their
equipment to produce different flatbreads on the same production line,” said
Cesar Zelaya, bakery sales and technology manager, Handtmann Inc. Switching
between styles necessitates quick changeovers to minimize down time.
Another major improvement has been made in energy conservation. Robert
Meyer, sales and marketing manager, J.C. Ford, noted that controls that reduce labor and
increase capacity will also increase energy efficiency by feeding more products
through a single oven and/or fryer vs. having multiple lines running.
Wheat: round ‘em up
Both dough ball and sheeting processes comprise the makeup of wheat
flour tortillas. While dough ball systems account for the bulk of table tortillas,
sheeted styles are often used for burritos and preparation of frozen Hispanic specialties.
Both technologies have seen recent improvements.
“The process is going to dictate quality,” Mr. Herrera said.
Equipment vendors are designing dough-ball systems for ever-faster
changeovers, according to Bruce Campbell, vice-president, product
technology, AMF Bakery Systems. “With the push of a button on the AMF Flex series
of dividers, they will immediately begin making the new dough ball weights with
high accuracy, ±1 g,” he said. “And the rounding technology with the belt
system now gives good symmetry at higher rates than available with older
volumetric style rounders.”
Mr. Zelaya affirmed the weight accuracy of Handtmann vane cell
technology as aiding finished product consistency. “We also feature a servo
drive flow divider that addresses any weight fluctuation from side to side on
multi-line systems,” he added.
Dough balls benefit from a short rest in an intermediate proofer after
rounding and before pressing. But for improved performance, Lawrence Equipment
added servos to its automatic loader system that transfers dough ball from the
proofer to the press. “It pre-forms the dough ball before it reaches the
press,” Mr. Shelton explained.
“We recognize how the elasticity of the dough ball impacts the way the
tortilla forms at the press and affects the finished quality of the tortilla,”
On the corn side
Increasing diversity in the corn tortilla market challenges producers
and alters the design of the equipment that makes them. “The biggest change in
corn tortilla and tortilla chip sheeting technology is that it must be able to
handle multigrain doughs,” Mr. Herrera observed. “These healthier-for-you
products are harder to sheet because they can contain beans grains, seeds and
What this means for sheeter heads, he explained, is that rollers must be
adjusted — or redesigned — to handle drier and sticker doughs. “For example,
the back roller will be coated with a slick surface, such as Teflon or
something similar,” Mr. Herrera said. “And the principal roller has to be
thicker so it won’t deflect to cause weights to vary across the roller.”
Another emerging product — restaurant-style tortilla chips — puts a
different demand on chip lines. Compared with conventional types,
restaurant-style chips are much larger and require a longer bake on a larger
baking surface. Yet they feed into the same packaging lines as regular chips.
“We just built our largest three-pass oven, which uses 89 ft of baking surface,”
Mr. Herrera said. “The extra length means the tortilla manufacturer can make
restaurant-style products without slowing down the processing or packaging
There’s no doubt that tortilla lines are getting bigger, wider and more
productive. Mr. Meyer described a new J.C. Ford line that’s 62-in. wide and
outputs 8 rows of corn tortillas or 16 rows of tortilla chips. Output reaches
up to 10,000 doz tortillas per hour or 4,000 lb of chips.
Heat and Control rethought corn masa preparation and set the stage for tortilla
manufacturers to save considerable time, water and floor space, compared with
traditional simmering and soaking processes. “The Masa Maker system will turn
dry corn into masa in less than one hour,” said Don Giles, director of sales,
snack processing systems, Heat and Control Inc. It converts a 10-to-16-hour
corn simmer-and-soak procedure into a 15-to-30 minute process.
“By eliminating the simmer-and-soak process, significant reduction
in water usage, discharge and sewage costs is achieved,” Mr. Giles continued. He
estimated that water consumption will drop from to nearly 1 gal per lb when
simmering and soaking dry corn to 0.13 gal per lb with the Masa Maker process.
And the new method occupies 15% less space.
Tortilla chip frying technology, too, has improved. Mr. Reardon
described the customized belt feed system on TNA FOODesign’s direct-fired
continuous fryer. It suits a wide range of products and reduces product
breakage while optimizing throughput speeds, he said.
“The system’s continuous oil filtration process maintains the clean oil
critical to delivering a high-quality end product via particulate removal and
fresh oil infeed,” said Tim Reardon, group solutions manager, processing, Americas, TNA North America. “This prevents oil overheating and
removes the potential for harmful fatty acids and free radicals to form and
compromise finished product integrity.”
gains have been made in tortilla technology recently. Systems are getting
faster and producing more products with tighter tolerances and less labor
input. Changes in design and engineering make wash down possible for more lines
to help with food safety goals. Still, there’s one more need that remains
paramount. “Tortilla manufacturers are also looking for the most reliable
equipment to reduce downtime … especially unplanned breakdowns,” Mr. Meyer