Advancing the art of tortillas

by Laurie Gorton
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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.

What’s universal?

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 everyday necessity.

“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,” he added.

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 so forth.”

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 lines.”

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.”

Big 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 said.
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