When it comes to producing cookies and crackers, ­bakers balance a lot of variables to ensure their finished products are good enough for customers and consumers. Product integrity, weight accuracy, allergens and flexibility are just a few of the balls that cookie and cracker manufacturers must keep in the air. Bakers need equipment that not only offers fast and easy sanitation and quick and seamless changeovers but also preserves product quality throughout the process.

Recipes for success

Maintaining consistent product quality throughout ­processing continues to be a challenge for all bakers, regardless of the type of finished goods they produce. Often the inconsistency of ingredients such as flour can create product variability.

Taking control over the mechanical process helps bakers offset these inevitable changes. PLC-based systems can certainly help, noted Ken Zvoncheck, director of Reading Bakery Systems’ Science and Innovation Center. The Robesonia, PA-based company relies on touch-screen PLCs to entirely automate dough forming, cutting and baking. Process recipes are held in the system for the future. “Keeping these recipes stored allows the exact settings of the line to be replicated each time the product is run, without room for human error,” Mr. Zvoncheck said.

When changing products on a cracker line, operators must adjust the gaps and speed of the conveyor. That can mean up to 15 independent adjustments. Baker Perkins’ recipe-driven system changes gaps and speeds automatically to match the cracker formulation. “On a complex line, recipe systems start you off right,” said Keith Graham, marketing manager of the Grand Rapids, MI-based company. “Now you have an acceptable product from the start.”

Continuous mixing also offers bakers an opportunity to provide front-end control to the process. Reading’s Exact Continuous Mixing System automatically meters ingredients and produces dough continuously to ensure that all dough is processed at the same age, meaning that no single batch has been sitting longer than any other.

From a marketing perspective, current demand for gourmet cookies with large inclusions remains strong, according to Dave van Laar, vice-chairman of the board at Oak State Products, Wenona, IL, and chairman of the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association. Unfortunately, larger inclusions pose greater operational challenges, specifically to make sure they remain intact throughout the entire process.

 “It’s always harder to make a dough that has something in it than one that doesn’t,” Mr. van Laar said. Inclusions make mixing, portioning and weight control — everything before the oven — more difficult.

Inclusions lose their charm when they’re broken and battered, so mixing cookie dough with such ingredients requires gentle folding, not the pounding that happens when mixing bread dough. For this purpose, Tonelli Group, Parma, Italy, equips its planetary mixer to handle large inclusions. “We have specialized mixing elements designed for gentle mixing of gourmet cookies with big inclusions, such as chocolate chips and nuts, so they don’t break up during the mixing process,” noted Kevin Wilkinson, North American sales manager, Tonelli Group. “Programmable variable-speed drives, from very high RPM to very low, allow bakers to fold in large inclusions gently without breaking.”

Heat also can damage larger particulates’ integrity. “The inclusions have to be mixed better, and the dough temperature is more critical because of bigger chunks,” Mr. van Laar said.

This is important for all cookie dough, but especially for batches that will end up frozen rather than baked and packaged. Mixing generates friction, thus heating doughs, but there are good solutions to this problem.

“With a frozen dough line, you don’t want to start with warm dough before the freezing process,” Mr. Wilkinson said. Tonelli Group’s planetary mixer has a shorter mix time than traditional mixers, which leads to less heat rise. Bakers can also use cooling jackets or inject cryogens such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide to bring down dough temperatures.

Chocolate chips, nuts and other inclusions also take portioning to the next level of difficulty. Weight accuracy is critical to cookie manufacturing. Any reduction in waste goes directly to the bottom line. That’s especially true with gourmet cookies, where using excess ingredients can get expensive, so it is imperative that bakers avoid any kind of waste. Baker Perkins offers the TruClean wirecut depositor that consistently delivers the same weight of cookie dough across the entire mechanism. “It doesn’t matter where the dough is in the cutter,” Mr. Graham said. “It gets treated the same.”

Reiser relies on double-screw technology to handle accurate weights differently than a conventional wirecutter. The double-screw machine uses a vacuum to pull dough through with the least mechanical force, according to John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, at the Canton, MA-based company. “What you get is as close to what goes into the hopper as possible,” he said. Not only does the depositor’s double screw keep inclusions intact, but its knife-style cutter also ensures they are visible to consumers.

After portioning, cookies and crackers to be sold as finished products head to the oven. The proper heat ensures a proper bake. Topos Mondial’s hybrid oven combines two different heat types during the baking cycle along the length of the oven: cyclothermic at the beginning of the oven and direct heat at the end.  “This creates a better baking result for some types of cookies,” said Damian Morabito, president of the Pottstown, PA-based company. “For certain formulations if you use only one type of heat, the cookies can be either too dry or too chewy. The Hybrid oven can also maximize the production throughput for a given length of oven.”

Avoiding cross-contamination

While the entire food industry scrambles to meet new food safety regulations, cookie and cracker manufacturers have known the woes of dealing with allergens for quite some time. “Cookie and cracker production environments are very sensitive to allergens,” Mr. Morabito said. “Some cookies have peanut butter; some don’t. Some have nuts; some don’t.”

A stress on sanitation is a relatively new concept for baking because the oven is typically the kill step for pathogens. Allergens, however, must be avoided from ingredient handling all the way through packaging. “You can’t kill allergens,” Mr. Graham said. “There is no other way to deal with allergens other than segregation or sanitation.”

Sanitation is vital for companies producing frozen or raw dough products. “When you sell frozen dough, consumers sometimes eat it raw even though the package says not to,” Mr. Wilkinson said. Because of the lack of a baking step during production, pathogens as well as allergens become part of the sanitation challenge.

Cookies and crackers are packed with all sorts of allergens, including dairy, eggs, gluten, nuts and seeds. To minimize cross contamination, bakers must rely on proper production scheduling and need equipment that is easy to clean to reduce costly downtime. “Equipment design is No. 1,” Mr. van Laar said. “It must be cleanable in an acceptable period of time.”

To do that, equipment suppliers have gone on the offensive with sanitation by designing mixers, dough feeders, portioning equipment, belts and ovens that are fully washdown-capable with open-frame design, tool-less removal and clean-in-place (CIP) capabilities.

Baker Perkins’ TruClean machines are designed to be sanitation-friendly. “They stay clean,” Mr. Graham said. “There are no surfaces where debris can accumulate. Everything is easily visible and easy to reach for inspecting and cleaning.” The company applied its TruClean design to moulders, wirecutters and mixers.

Open-frame design is another element that makes equipment more accessible for maintenance and cleaning. To accommodate this, Tonelli Group builds its planetary mixer with no ledges to collect water or debris.

Unifiller Systems’ open design depositors allow ­operators to visually inspect product contact surfaces. According to Martin Riis, product manager at Unifiller, Delta, BC, the company strives to build every machine with the fewest number of parts possible, which equates to less maintenance and easier cleaning.

Reading’s approach to sanitation also focuses on visibility. Beyond meeting OSHA requirements for safety, Reading believes the concept of open-frame design can provide peace of mind. “We believe that what is seen is cleaned and maintained,” said Shawn Moye, executive director of sales, Reading Bakery Systems.

In an effort to make its mixers safer, Topos Mondial equips them with dynamic brakes that prevent the agitator from coasting, therefore protecting the operators.

With wirecut systems and depositors, sanitation often gets more complicated. To simplify cleaning, Baker Perkins’ TruClean wirecut depositor can be removed from the top of the machine and taken to a washdown area.

Reiser’s double-screw dough depositor also helps with sanitation. Because the vacuum pulls the entire product out of the depositor, nothing accumulates inside the pump. The depositor also features tool-less removal. “Everything the product touches you have to be able to access,” Mr. McIsaac noted.

Looking for future flexibility

Switching between products with allergens and those without may cause bakers a sanitation headache. Ideally, proper production scheduling can reduce downtime, but sometimes changeovers are just the nature of the beast, especially for co-manufacturers like Oak State Products. “Customers demand fresher products more often,” Mr. van Laar said. “We have to change flavors and packaging, and if there are allergens, we have to clean.” Any extra time bakers can save on adjusting sizes, gaps and pumps is more time the line can be operational. Machines with multiple capabilities cut down changeover time.

A machine featuring an array of options allows bakers to produce many types of products of different sizes and consistencies. Reiser offers multiple attachments for its depositors, making them more versatile.

“All the machines have the essentially the same pumping system,” McIsaac explained. “So we have our pumping system that provides accurate portioning and maintains product integrity, and then we have the attachments.”

For many bakers and equipment manufacturers, the question is not only what can equipment do today but also will it be able to produce the cookies and crackers of tomorrow?

“We have to plan ahead to possible future products,” Mr. Morabito said. Building a line for only one type of product can keep bakers from realizing the full potential of their operation. “We engineer the line to be able to produce additional products in the future,” he said. That’s why many bakers are thinking ahead to avoid being handcuffed to their equipment in the long run.