It’s not your father’s cracker anymore. While many traditional mainstays happily remain within this category, newcomers are changing the way cracker technology works. Products formulated to meet “natural” and/or “clean label” expectations put different demands on processing equipment — different enough to affect performance because of their softer doughs and use of seeds, toppings and inclusions. As well, the newly popular cracker-like flatbreads especially test the limits of traditional methods as they cross categories into the snack world.
Specifically, bakers want equipment that delivers more consistency out of ever more difficult doughs. They want savings in energy and materials consumption to cope with customer demands for sustainability. And they want efficiencies to optimize ingredient usage.
“In our experience, customers are putting at the top of the list factors such as performance, sanitation, energy use, repeatability and flexibility for future products and increases in production,” said Harald Bechmann, content manager and senior editor, marketing department, Franz Haas Waffel- und Keksanlagen-Industrie GmbH, Leobendorf, Austria. He also noted a trend toward wider lines, 1.6 m (5 ft) or more, to make the best use of factory floor space.
Confirming these trends, Jim Warren, director, ExACT Mixing, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA, observed, “Our customers seem to be focused on high-speed lines, automation, process control, energy usage and reduced downtime.” He reported that cracker technology is undergoing a sort of revolution and noted the factors involved:
• New ovens are wider to increase throughput.
• Wider ovens require wider sheeting equipment.
• Lay-time conveyors are replacing carts.
• Continuous mixers are replacing batch mixers.
• Rest times are being reduced.
• Mixing, sheeting, lamination and baking sections are designed to communicate with each other and work together.
• Machine operators are becoming focused on product quality rather than output volume.
• Equipment is designed for quicker product changeover.
And as Keith Graham, marketing manager, Baker Perkins Ltd., Peterborough, UK, noted, sanitary design has come to the fore in an unprecedented fashion. Describing the company’s new rotary cutters, he said, “Every aspect of the of the machines has been reworked to meet or exceed the latest hygiene standards in Europe and elsewhere, including the 10 Principles of Equipment Design developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).”
THE NEW CRACKER.
Although snack crackers have been a staple in the cracker aisle for many years, new varieties offer a significant difference in preparation. Specifically, flatbread crackers and snack breadsticks involve technologies with a bread-like bent. Often heavily topped with seeds or grated cheeses, these new snack crackers may also incorporate dried vegetables and other particulates, observed the cracker-processing specialists at Fritsch GmbH, Markt Einersheim, Germany.
Another aspect is that several new crackers boast “natural” formulations, deliberately made without additive dough conditioners or improvers. These doughs can be considerably softer than conventional cracker doughs, according to the Fritsch specialists. They require gentle handling and use of “stress free” sheeting equipment such as Fritsch’s SoftProcessing satellite-head reduction rolls vs. conventional large-diameter gauging rolls. Stretching or imposition of mechanical loads must be avoided to prevent distortion of product shape.
Snack crackers in the form of small baked snacks topped with cheese, tomato and other flavors were also noted as an important product trend by Mr. Bechmann. Additionally, these small crackers can be readily sandwiched with an aerated creme filling. The company recently introduced the HMH capper, a joint venture product by Haas-Mondomix and Houdijk, both based in The Netherlands.
The popularity of sandwich crackers was confirmed by Matt Zielsdorf, vice-president of sales, The Peerless Group, Sidney, OH. “On-the-go snacking is still gaining popularity in many markets around the world,” he said. The company’s Peters line of sandwiching machines performs filling and capping operations for these items.
“The next goal is a reduced-time saltine process,” Mr. Warren said.
Understanding that food safety and sanitary equipment design go hand in hand, manufacturers of cracker processing systems have improved the performance of equipment involved in these lines. Mr. Bechmann described an active program in place to optimize Franz Haas design for sanitation. The high level the company seeks is achieved by discussing with customers their needs, attending conferences and workshops on sanitary design, then applying that knowledge to the machines. “We have even gone as far as to include washdown design should this be required,” he said.
Mr. Graham cited the launch of a new range of Baker Perkins forming equipment, the TruClean line, which includes a new rotary cutter for crackers. The company found it could use international hygiene standards, along with GMA principles, without altering the fundamentals of the process, thus ensuring that end product quality and line efficiency are maintained.
“Three levels of hygiene are offered to enable customers to achieve the blend of sanitation, productivity and cost most appropriate for their particular operation,” Mr. Graham said. “The prime objective is to eliminate any risk to consumers from cross-contamination. Usually this means allergens and pathogens, but the same high standards are required when making kosher, organic or GMO-free products.”
Three principles formed the basis of the company’s TruClean redesign process: 1) reducing any accumulation of unwanted materials, 2) improving visibility and access for cleaning, and 3) simplifying the removal and replacement of components. “The complete array of Baker Perkins forming equipment for crackers, cookies and biscuits is being upgraded to TruClean standards,” Mr. Graham said.
Sanitary performance applies to the mixing stage, too, and manufacturers are stepping up their efforts with mixers. “Most recently, bakers have been putting sanitary features at the top of their needs lists when specifying equipment,” Mr. Zielsdorf observed. New bowl and shaft sealing options now offered by Peerless have become very popular, he said.
In designing its latest generation of Baker Perkins mixers for cracker dough, the company adopted a unique blade design that gives faster and more consistent mixing and dough development coupled with minimal cleaning costs, according to Mr. Graham. The new shaftless blade, formed as a one-piece heavy-duty steel casting free of welds or crevices, ensures thorough mixing through good distribution and rapid dough development. “Having no shaft in the mixer bowl means that there is no static point where debris can build up,” he explained.
The HS mixer’s design and its 150°-tilt feature facilitate automatic discharge, with no operator intervention required. “Total discharge removes the possibility of contamination in the bowl, so when the recipe is changed, no time is wasted in cleaning,” Mr. Graham said. The payoff is measured in product consistency, improved sanitation and lower production costs.
“Cracker manufacturers have always put consistency at or near the top of their list of requirements,” Mr. Graham noted. Products consistent in shape, size, thickness, weight and color not only find greater acceptance with consumers but are much easier to package, leading to fewer stoppages, less waste and higher efficiencies.
“This requirement has not diminished in any way but has been joined at the top of the list by hygienic design,” he added. “[Cracker] manufacturers are now insisting that the equipment they buy does not generate or accumulate debris and that it can be cleaned thoroughly, quickly and easily without the use of tools or special equipment.”
Consistency, in terms of repeatability and efficiency, requires control. “This includes user-friendly control systems that measure and control the key functions of the lines so that settings for products can be repeated at the start of each production run with a minimum of start-up time and waste product,” Mr. Bechmann said.
Another concern is downtime, and tool-less changeover is key to minimizing such waste. “For example, cutting and moulding rollers can be changed over without the need for any hand tools,” Mr. Bechmann added. “[Designing forming lines] for easy maintenance and cleaning has been a big focus for us.”
Cracker bakers, like all other food processors, are being challenged by their customers to adopt sustainable manufacturing techniques. What’s involved is a complex mixture of energy efficiency and waste reduction, with the target being more product per consumed material, be it energy or ingredients.
Bakers are among the biggest consumers of energy in the entire manufacturing sector, according to the Fritsch specialists. The company devised its eProcessing program to address this issue as it affects the drive segments of a production line. It was an early adopter of energy-saving motors, which will be required in all EU countries effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Baker Perkins recently made infrared burners available for its direct gas-fired (DGF) ovens, described by Mr. Graham as a significant contribution to energy conservation. The design uses a fine wire mesh that becomes red hot and generates more radiant heat than a conventional burner, he explained.
Additionally, hybrid ovens, which combine different forms of heat, can improve energy use. Convection heating is generally more fuel-efficient than DGF systems, but it does not give the range of heat, humidity and turbulence options that cracker baking requires. “A hybrid oven combining both DGF and convection gives the best of both worlds,” Mr. Graham said. “A typical Baker Perkins’ hybrid oven comprises a DGF front end featuring infrared burners, followed by a Jetcirc convection baking section. The DGF front offers maximum process flexibility in the first phase of baking, while the convection rear end optimizes moisture removal and coloring in phases two and three.”
The modular concept for oven design, a feature for all Haas-Meincke ovens, means easy addition of further modules of the same type or another (hybrid ovens) if more output or higher product flexibility is required in the future, according to Mr. Bechmann.
“Oven fuel consumption is a very important topic,” he continued. “We designed our ovens to minimize energy consumption. This includes a high level of oven process control and burner management, use of fuel-efficient burner types, a design that reduces heat loss and — very importantly — heat-recovery systems.”
Heat-recovery systems capture the heat in the oven’s exhaust stream and reuse it for the air supply to the burners. The result, Mr. Bechmann observed, can achieve double-digit percentage energy savings in some cases. “This type of system has been a great success not just with new projects but also in projects where older ovens were retrofitted,” he said.
And energy savings can be combined with improvements in sanitary design. Mr. Zielsdorf explained that Peerless made variable frequency drives (VFDs) standard on its mixers, “which can help reduce energy consumption by eliminating power spikes or surges upon start-up,” he said.