Developing a new product is sometimes as simple as giving it a fresh-made appearance. Middle East Bakery, Lawrence, MA, just added grill marks to give its new 8-in. tortilla, sold under the Joseph’s brand, a distinctively different position in the market.

“We did it for aesthetic reasons to give the ­tortillas a rustic, char-grilled look with a slight smoky flavor,” noted Stephen Boghos, vice-president of business development.

On the other hand, Ozery Bakery took an Italian icon and converted it into a new flatbread called Ciabatta Thins. “It’s not actually a ciabatta, but our take on what a ciabatta would be if it were a flatbread,” noted Guy Ozery, co-president of the Vaughan, ON-based bakery.

It doesn’t matter if they’re square, round, rectangle, oval or oblong, overall sales of flatbreads remain strong. “I don’t know a flatbread out there that’s not doing well,” observed Ken Hagedorn, vice-president of sales and partner, Naegele Group. The Alsip, IL-based firm represents several international bakery machinery companies, including the Kaak Group of The Netherlands, in North America.

“The perception is that flatbreads are healthier,” Mr. Hagedorn added, “and whether they are or not, can be debated. They’re also perceived as more exotic, and many people are willing to explore these products because they’re tired of the same old white and rye bread.”

Once dominated by tortillas, pitas and wraps, flatbreads became a household product with the emergence of round sandwich thins in North America a few years ago. “Prior to that, the only time you ate a flatbread was when you purchased a gyro,” said Eric Riggle, vice-­president, Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH.

Although sales of sandwich thins have stabilized, other types of flatbreads keep the category humming. “Right now, naan is off the charts,” Mr. Riggle said. “It’s the new kid on the block. Naan bread has great eating characteristics. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it can have a lot of inclusions such as garlic or grilled onions.”

Barbari, lavash and taboon also are becoming more mainstream. “These are all products that can be made on the same processing line, but they are all classified as Middle Eastern or Indian types of bread,” Mr. Riggle noted.

More healthful alternatives are adding staying power to the category. “We are also seeing a surge in gluten-free tortillas,” said John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser, Canton, MA, “and staying power in the equipment for gluten-free processing.”

Don’t forget clean-label and ancient grain claims — flatbread producers are pushing all the buttons. As consumers become more educated about nutrition and concerned about their health, they look at not only at the calorie count but also the ingredients list — preferring products with all-natural ingredients and fewer carbohydrates, explained Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager, Handtmann, Lake Forest, IL. “Flatbreads are also being used much more widely to create handheld meals and in prepared home dishes, now adding more traditional and new, premium fillings,” he said.

Choices and challenges

Flatbread production can be automated in two fundamental ways: by conventional dividing and rounding dough balls, then sheeting or pressing them, or by sheeting bulk dough and die-cutting it. With the conventional approach, Mr. Hagedorn said, an intermediate proofer is often needed to relax the dough pieces, and the final product may be slightly more irregularly shaped. That’s not necessarily a bad characteristic, he added, especially if a baker is seeking a more authentic look. Also, hot-pressing doughs can give them a shiny appearance, which may or may not be what a baker wants.

With sheeting, no intermediate proofing is required, and the flatbreads tend to be consistent in shape. The process also can be easily adapted to create a variety of items on a single line, according to Fritsch, Cranbury, NJ. Fritsch’s line includes a five-roller sheeting unit, satellite head, laminating system, dough sheeting section, inline 60-minute fermentation system and cutting section. Dough thicknesses typically range from 0.5 mm to 5 mm.

The fermentation tunnel plays a decisive role in determining the final outcome of the flatbread, according to a Fritsch engineer. To achieve the required product quality, a uniform temperature (28 to 38°C, or 82 to 100°F) and relative humidity (70 to 80%) must be ensured to maintain the elasticity of the dough pieces.

Although sheeting is extremely flexible, bakers need to watch certain variables to ensure the line is operating most cost-effectively. “Because you are cutting continuous dough sheets, there are scrap and trim percentages that you have to pay attention to,” Mr. Riggle said. “You don’t want some shape that results in excessive trim or scrap that needs to be reworked. Fortunately for flatbreads, the formulas lend themselves to reworking that dough so it’s not categorized as waste. However, if you have a high percentage, it becomes problematic at the mixing area.”

Changing dough forming systems, however, could result in some unexpected consequences. “With stress-free methods, for instance, you only need a final proofer before you go to the oven. That’s a huge advantage,” Mr. Hagedorn said. “That said, if you want to go stress-free, be careful what you wish for. You could end up with a completely different product. It may even be better, but consumers are very loyal to their products. If it’s not what they expect, you may be going back to your previous process.”

Managing those challenges

Before entering the market or looking to further automate their operations, bakers need to consider a plethora of factors. In such a dynamic category — where yesterday’s niche flatbread has become today’s hot product — dividers need to handle a wide range of dough formulas, precisely manage a broad range of absorption levels and adjust to different doughs and finished product characteristics, according to Mr. Zelaya.

“Next, consider the ability of your divider to properly portion dough balls covering a very wide weight range with minimal adjustments required,” he said.

Reiser’s Vemag relies on double-screw pumping technology to produce accurate portion weights. “We are developing more Vemag dough dividing equipment for this market to help producers run a variety of products with the same weight control and reliability as our roll and bread dividers,” Mr. McIsaac said.

Handtmann’s short dough path and vane cell handling of the dough allow its systems to process preferments used in the production of flatbreads and pizza. Preferments, Mr. Zelaya said, can improve the flavor, texture and shelf life of the final products. “Also, by adding preferments to their flatbread dough, bakers may help reduce their production processing time without sacrificing product quality,” he observed. 

Designing a versatile system requires a significant amount of advance planning. “If you include a system that has multiple dough formers and multiple types of cutters, you can make almost any type of flatbread out there, depending on the oven you use,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery, Duluth, MN.

Using certain extruders, for instance, will result in tight-grain flatbreads such as lavash while low- or no-stress technology on the same line will create open-grain products such as naan or some forms of ciabatta. Additionally, Mr. Moline suggested incorporating stamping, rotary cutting and guillotine cutting on a single line to allow bakers to produce multiple stock-keeping units (SKUs). Moline has designed lines that can crank out more than 20 SKUs of flatbreads.

Mr. Riggle noted that cutting the dough pieces before or after proofing may result in different products. Cutting prior to proofing can result in more irregularly shaped products with flat edges as dough pieces tumble down multi-tiered or cascading proofers. Integrating systems to proof a continuous dough sheet and cutting after proofing may improve consistency and, in some cases, result in fluffier naan bread.

Also, some proofers allow bakers to bypass proofing on some products. If a bakery’s existing equipment doesn’t provide this option, Mr. Moline suggested adding a switching station before the proofer, which provides the option to proof cut products or divert them directly to the oven.

Creating more options

To develop signature flatbreads and gain brand recognition, bakers will incorporate new ingredients and flavors to create eye-catching products.

Other producers rely on herb- or spice-infused oils sprayed on the top, bottom or both sides of multi-­flavored flatbreads, noted Norm Searle, a member of the sales and marketing team for Amherst, NY-based GOE-Amherst Stainless Fabrication, which manufactures liquid spray systems for the baking industry.

Particulates infused in oils will plug nozzles, resulting in inconsistent applications on products or costly downtime to clear the plug. “Special considerations such as how large the inclusions are, how they will be introduced and mixed with the carrier, how the particles will be held in suspension, the temperature to be maintained, and how the equipment will be cleaned will determine the design of the spraying methods including the selection of pumps and what is done with the solution when the equipment is temporarily not spraying or shut down,” Mr. Searle said.

Mr. Hagedorn suggested that bakers look at the type of downstream equipment. Certain product styles such as tandoori, naan or even some pizza crusts may require extremely high heat — some pita ovens range as high as 1,000°F — and a short baking time. “I would get the most versatile impingement oven I could find,” he said. “I may not be able to produce certain types of pita bread, but I could make all others.”

Packaging also needs to be considered, according to Fritsch. Bottlenecks often occur at the end of the line, especially with the authentic, irregularly shaped flatbreads.

If switching from conventional makeup to sheeting lines, make sure to allocate enough space for the operation. “When conventional sandwich bread bakers ventured into the flatbread arena, they were taken aback by the size of the lines,” Mr. Riggle recalled. “They’re used to a conventional bread makeup line’s tight footprint — 40 by 40 ft — and now they need room for a 250-ft linear system in a straight-line process.”

Mr. Moline pointed out that bakers can install a compact, dedicated sheeting line, but versatility requires much more space. “If you are chasing a trend, add some extra space for your makeup system,” he said. “Consult with your equipment manufacturer and ask, ‘How versatile is this cutting system? What will the cost be of doing something different down the line?’

“In the makeup area, cutting a 1-in.-thick ciabatta versus a 1-mm tortilla can’t be done with the same equipment,” he added. “You can do it with similar equipment, and that’s easy to plan for upfront. Once that space is gone, however, it’s much more difficult to add flexibility. You have to be much more creative, and it’s much more costly after the fact.”

Nearly all vendors recommended that bakers visit a manufacturer’s technology center for test runs to ensure they can produce flatbreads that meet their specifications and expectations. “My perception of pita bread might be totally different from yours on what its taste and texture should be,” he said. “The most important thing is to select the system that gives you the flatbread that you are looking for.”