Is it ever possible to overcome poor processing standards with ingredient additions or changes? Given some of the extremes seen over my career, I would say the answer is, “No.” There is a tendency to Band-Aid processing issues or variances, and as the size of the Band-Aid grows, the amount — and cost — of ingredient waste tends to increase with it. Sometimes, it mushrooms out of control when you forget the root cause of the first issues and continue trying to fix the effect without remembering the cause. Money wasted! In the penny-profit business of the baking industry, every fraction of a cent counts.

When I think of managing process, I always think of 1993, the year when major floods in the US severely affected the flour crop. That year was difficult, but it made many of us better bakers. It was a matter of survival for us to make good bread. Our consumers were very vocal with their customer comments such as, “What did you do to my bread?” and “You have ruined my favorite [fill in the blank with Merita, Butternut, Sunbeam, etc.] bread.”

Many bakers alive at the time had never seen a worse year for flour quality. So, how to manage this crisis? Some bakers came out with the Band-Aid approach while others worked the process to manage the flour quality. It was a first for me to see the fermentation time for a sponge-and-dough at two hours or less. Any more time and the sponges would burn up. Great flavor but no strength! The longer fermentation resulted in bread with low volume and a course and open texture, and the bread became dry and crumbly very quickly. Hence, the rising voices of the customers who missed the usual fresh and soft bread they loved.

The tolerance of the flour that year was like dancing on the head of a pin. And it was painful! The accuracy and need for monitoring times and temperatures became paramount. Given the lack of tolerance, the plus/minus range became so narrow it was more of a bull’s eye than the usual broad target. Survival meant total focus on time and temperature.

Recently, I was talking to a long-time industry friend who made a profound statement. “The quality and consistency of baking ingredients has improved so much in the past 50 years that 99% of all quality issues lead back to process.” He went on to reiterate that following industry processing standards while using appropriate use levels of ingredients will solve the majority of problems.

The questions then become, do you have bakers on the plant floor who live and breathe time and temperature? What is the dough temperature out of the mixer? Is it the same as it was yesterday? If not, why? How many minutes (or seconds) of floor time? Did the flour temperature change? Can they tell you the temperature and humidity of the proof box? What is the internal temperature out of the oven?

Ensuring correct “time & temp” sounds so simple, but it can be incredibly difficult to maintain. Processing also sounds simple, but it is often overlooked when identifying the quality faults in the finished product. If we admit the process is out of sync, then it is likely “someone” is at fault. When there is fault, there is typically blame. Holding employees accountable is not always an easy task. Many people don’t like conflict.

Manage your process; don’t let your process manage you … while eating away at your profit margin.