“Automating artisan” sounds like an oxymoron. Handmade epitomizes artisan breads, right? Maybe, but as artisan breads become more popular and artisan bakeries grow to keep up with demand, relying on completely handmade process makes it more difficult to meet customer demands. Automation reduces labor and allows bakers to increase throughput and make more products for consumers.

Despite these obvious pros in the debate about automation, artisan bakers still find themselves tackling a conundrum. After investing the floor time to properly ferment an artisan dough, the baker doesn’t want that delicate, open cell structure he or she took hours building to be overworked by punishing equipment.

To help artisan bakers solve this paradox, equipment manufacturers have found ways to reduce the stress that dough feeding, forming, sheeting and dividing equipment imparts to the dough, thus creating systems that replicate the gentleness of human hands. These machines help artisan bakers maintain the integrity of their products and increase throughput while making production consistent and labor-friendly.

Gentle from the start

When applying technology to the artisan process for yeast-raised doughs, it’s important to understand the fundamental differences between it and conventional wholesale pan bread methods. The steps in the pan bread process move sequentially through mixing (sponge first, then final dough), dividing, intermediate proofing, sheeting and moulding stages, and doughs get most of their fermentation in bulk between the sponge and dough mixing steps. Automated artisan methods generally use a different sequence: mixing, fermentation, sheeting, portioning and moulding.

Artisan doughs’ high absorption rates make them sticky and difficult for machines to process. Without dusting flour or divider oil, most automated equipment could not transport sticky artisan doughs. Although divider oil is an option, it comes with some flaws. Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo, Inc., Moonachie, NJ, said the company’s artisan lines use dusting flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the machine because excess divider oil can cause problems with dough piece separation. Even though too much flour can cause similar difficulties, absorption rates of 70% or more make these problems less likely.

After dusting the dough with flour on both sides, Rondo’s OSCAR low-stress calibrator forms dough into a dough band without adding stress or degassing it before sending it to the sheeter.

If their stickiness wasn’t enough, these doughs also have long fermentation times that help build flavor and desirable cell structure. Typical bread lines deflate the dough’s gas cells during degassing, as does hand moulding.

It’s the shear imparted by automated dividing that breaks down cells, so gentle treatment of long-fermented doughs is essential to maintaining their artisan identity. “A sheeting line is not going to compensate for a damaged or destroyed dough up front, so it’s really critical that you get it right to create a continuous dough sheet,” said Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker USA, Inc., Hudson, OH. Rademaker USA manufactures three different low-stress dough feeding systems that gently form batches of high-absorption doughs into continuous dough sheets that are ready to be sheeted to the desired thickness. The continuous dough sheet is crucial to the success of automating artisan dough production.

“We find that if you treat the dough gently you can make just about anything out of a continuous dough sheet,” said Jon Thompson, national sales director, Rheon USA, Irvine, CA. The company’s V4 artisan dough feeder uses four rollers to move dough down through the hopper without crushing or compressing it. The feeder gradually forms a sheet of dough from a dough chunk before sending the dough to the stretcher.  

Moline Machinery LLC, Duluth, MN, offers a family of stress-free dough formers called Yoga, which overlap chunks of dough into a dough sheet with uniform edges, minimizing edge trim.

“In the end, it produces a thick dough sheet with minimal energy put into the dough,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager. The latest addition is the Yoga Flex, a portable version of the stress-free dough former that gives bakers the flexibility to use multiple formers on a single sheeting system.

Sheeting without stress

Artisan dough can lose much of its structure during sheeting if care is not taken to maintain this essential characteristic. During moulding, doughs must be reduced in thickness, but ordinary sheeters with narrow gaps between their rollers squeeze dough excessively. While this achieves fine-textured crumb in pan breads, the artisan baker wants coarser, more open crumb. Because high absorption makes artisan doughs sticky and long fermentation times make them very relaxed, artisan doughs require gradual reduction, much like that accomplished by hand using a rolling pin.

Rheon USA’s dough stretcher uses multiple satellite rollers instead of the usual gauging rollers to reduce the dough sheet’s thickness. These satellite rollers gradually stretch the dough’s gluten structure without the damage that comes from rapid compression. According to the company, its dough stretcher replicates the gentleness of the human touch.

“We don’t want to take away the benefits that long fermentation times confer. With our V4 stress-free dough feeder and our stretchers, we’re not degassing the dough,” Mr. Thompson said. “We’re treating it just as gently as if you were using human hands on a bench.”

Moline’s Galaxy sheeter also uses multi-roll technology and a 24-in.-diameter platform to reduce the dough’s thickness. This method results in consistent dough reduction without damaging its structure.

Rondo takes a different approach with a large-diameter roller above the dough sheet and two smaller opposing rollers below. Bakers can control the the size of the gap between rollers based on the products they’re  making.

Rademaker uses multiple steps and customizes the reduction process to the complexity of the baker’s dough. As a result, the dough’s reaction to the equipment could determine whether to use a simple or complex sheeting process. The company places just as much emphasis on the simple act of moving the dough gently through the reduction process as it does on the actual reduction aspect.

“We have a pretty elaborate and sophisticated but user-friendly dough flow technology that we use to make sure that the dough is handled in the gentlest way possible throughout the entire sheeting process,” Mr. Riggle said. A controlled amount of flour dust applied to the dough prevents it from sticking to the reduction rollers. The dough isn’t pushed or pulled through the equipment but consistently and gently fed in and out of the rollers.

Mr. Riggle added that this gentle massaging work gets the dough to a manageable thickness for dividers and moulders.

Divide with care

A continuous dough sheet can only go so far in the breadmaking process. After sheeting, the dough has to be portioned and moulded into its final size and shape before going into the oven. This is also a point of danger for artisan doughs. That open cell structure has to survive portioning and shaping before it can be fully achieved in the proofer and oven. The stress of being cut threatens that structure.

“All that gas and prefermentation  — that cell structure — is going to be damaged going through a conventional bread divider,” Mr. Riggle said. “You’re going to end up with a tighter grain. You’re not going to end up with a ciabatta with a nice, big open cell structures that that product is known for.” Instead, Rademaker uses circular knives and guillotines to gently cut continuous artisan dough sheets.

For bakers who prefer to take their artisan doughs from mixing or fermentation stages directly to the divider, Gemini Bakery Equipment, Philadelphia, PA, offers the Voluminator, a shock absorber and pressure regulator, on its artisan dividers. The device adjusts the pressure on the main ram to ensure that the divider doesn’t put too much force on the dough. To get around the stickiness that comes with high-absorption doughs, Gemini’s dividers and moulders use oil and hot air to keep the dough from adhering to machine surfaces. The company also coats some of the equipment with Teflon to prevent sticking.

An unforeseen side effect of using guillotines or knives to divide a sheeted dough is the loss of dusting flour where the dough was cut. To get around that, Rondo’s equipment pinches the dough before cutting it by using a specially designed guillotine blade. When the pinched area is cut, the dough doesn’t lose the valuable dusting flour on the sides of the newly formed product.

Transfer points of danger

Each step of dough makeup presents a threat to an artisan dough’s cell structure. Equipment manufacturers have tackled each one to find new ways for machines to replicate the tender loving care of a baker’s hands. However, it’s not just the steps themselves that pose a threat to the dough when a bakery automates. Simply moving the dough throughout the process can cause problems.

“High-hydration doughs are really finicky as far as transfers go,” said Eric Van Hees, vice-president, engineering and system sales, Moline Machinery. “From experience, that’s where you can make it or break it on your artisan lines.”

Sudden stops and starts and vertical drops can distress these delicate doughs and damage structure. To avoid these pitfalls, bakers must consider smooth, gentle conveyor systems that gradually start and stop as well as production line designs that minimize all transfer points, leaving less opportunity for damage.

Rondo faced this challenge when placing dough pieces into pans before the oven. To combat any damage to the dough in the transfer, the company minimized the drop from conveyor to pan. The conveyor also pulls away from the product quickly, Mr. Murphy likened it to what happens when someone pulls a tablecloth out from under a table setting so quickly that the cups, glasses, plates and flatware don’t move.

With recent advances in technology, automating artisan isn’t an oxymoron, and it allows specialty bakers to keep up with the surging demand for their products.