The idea of baked goods without gluten is an out-of-the-box concept, which means they require out-of-the-box thinking when automating production. If bakers are making conventional bread, they can choose a sheeting or dough ball system, and the equipment decision is pretty straightforward. With gluten-free, the decision is not so cut-and-dry.

“You can’t make blanket assumptions,” said Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH. “You have to understand what makes each product and process unique and customize the equipment to it.”

Whereas conventional bread dough is pretty predictable, remove the gluten, and things become less so. Building an automated production line for gluten-free requires bakers to work closely with equipment suppliers to figure out what their dough needs in order to come out the other end intact with consistent quality.  

First up, the most important thing bakers need to determine is what their dough is like. Typically, gluten-free doughs come in two forms: batter-based or a developed dough that looks and functions more like a conventional dough. This is the starting point and will decide which direction a baker goes as far as equipment. Even bread dough, which traditionally is not flowable, can function more like a batter. Recognizing that condition frees up bakers to explore other equipment options such as depositors for portioning instead of traditional dividers. 

“We normally try to ask what their dough is like, and then we can steer them to what the best solution is,” said Ken Hagedorn, vice-president of sales, Naegele, Inc., Alsip, IL, which is the exclusive representative for The Kaak Group in the US. “The best thing is to test it to make sure you can machine it.”

Testing is key because every gluten-free dough is different with specific needs and challenges, and it’s important that bakers understand how their dough will operate on the machines and under that stress.

“Gluten-free by nature lacks strength,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery, Duluth, MN. “You want to make sure you can verify that the processing equipment works for your dough.” Many equipment suppliers either have testing centers or pilot plants to allow bakers to test their fickle gluten-free products on the equipment.

Many bakers in the gluten-free category started out learning to make baked goods without gluten to satisfy their families after a relative developed celiac disease or a gluten intolerance. From there, these small bakeries have grown, and to keep up with demand, they must expand. A once hand-made process becomes semi-automated and then fully automated. Part of the trick in scaling up isn’t just understanding the dough’s characteristics but also replicating the handmade process. According to Mr. Riggle, the challenge involves maintaining the characteristics that made the product successful in the first place and consistently keeping up that quality.

Communicating closely with equipment suppliers to understand their dough and processing needs, bakers can select the proper production line to keep up with growing demand and maintain quality.

Remaining intact

The lack of structure in gluten-free baked goods means that the dough mass generally has a hard time staying together, and this is exacerbated by unfeeling equipment. “When I was first introduced to gluten-free, we saw the doughs were flowing without much structure, and they were difficult to manage on equipment,” said Andrea Henderson, vice-president, Rondo Heritage, Rondo, Inc., Moonachie, NJ. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen it evolving into a solid dough that makes it more manageable and thus able to use traditional equipment such as sheeters, makeup lines and panning systems.”

Formulators continue to tinker with gluten-free to improve taste and texture, but of course, formulation impacts how the dough behaves on the machines as well. “This is a constantly evolving market where R&D is very active,” said Stefano Bruni, area sales manager, Minipan, Massa Lombarda, Italy. “Minipan cooperates with technologists and engineers to develop new machine parts able to handle innovative formulations smoothly and gently in order to automate the process while maintaining all the product’s characteristics.”

These formulation breakthroughs are making gluten-free easier to machine, but with the plethora of formulations out there, bakers still struggle with delicate dough sheets. “The most common thing you hear is, ‘My dough sheet is really sticky and hard to handle,’ ” Mr. Hagedorn said. Suppliers are addressing those challenges with gentler machines and tricks to better release dough from the equipment and move it on down the line.

 “The challenge of gluten-free is that it can tend to be a delicate dough sheet,” Mr. Moline said. “The thinner the dough sheets, the more delicate the dough sheet, and that’s where you need proper automation.” The main issue, he said, is using the right dough feeder and monitoring the tension of the sheeting line. Moline Machinery offers a variety of dough feeders to meet different doughs’ needs and a dough tension monitoring system to ensure that the dough sheet isn’t under undue stress.

Rademaker’s sheeters also enlist dough flow technology throughout the process. “We don’t push or pull or create unnecessary tension, which gluten-free doesn’t like,” Mr. Riggle said. The technology constantly monitors if the dough sheet is being over- or under-fed so it isn’t put under any stress, and the equipment automatically adjusts if that happens. “You’re not supposed to see it working because the line is constantly looking at how the dough is flowing and adjusting — faster, slower, more dough, less dough,” he explained.

The lack of elasticity without gluten means the dough sheet is vulnerable to tearing. Conveyors with height changes or drops at transfer points can be an issue. Fritsch USA, Cranbury, NJ, kept this in mind, so the dough sheet is supported throughout the sheeting process.

Rondo also took this troublesome predicament seriously and eliminated elevation drops from its sheeting lines configured for gluten-free products. “Twenty years ago, the equipment was very different,” said Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo. “You had very large drops from one sheeting roller to the next.” Today, Rondo’s equipment makes straight-through reductions without dangerous elevation changes.

Letting go

Stickiness has always been — and continues to be — an issue for gluten-free dough. Some new ingredients and formulations seem to make dough more machineable, but some make it worse. Although ancient grains may enhance taste and nutrition in gluten-free baked goods, they don’t help with the stickiness. 

“The incorporation of certain ancient grains into the formula seems to be adding to the problem of the dough sheet sticking to the gauge rolls,” said John Eshelman, director, pretzel and snack machinery sales, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA. “Some of these grains are milled to a fine flour, and some are ground so you get these coarser grinds. Holding it together during the forming process can present some real challenges.”

To keep a gluten-free dough together, bakers must rely on starch, gums or other ingredients for binding. However, these ingredients are stickier than gluten, creating a dough that has a hard time releasing from the equipment. “That is the challenge we come across, ‘How do we handle it without it sticking to everything?’ ”

Mr. Hagedorn said. Bakers can address this stickiness in myriad ways, whether it’s the material the equipment is made from, roller speed and temperature, or relying on gluten-free-friendly dusting flour to keep dough off the equipment.

Rheon USA, Irvine, CA, discovered that gluten-free was an easy category for its co-­extrusion technology because it was initially designed to produce mochi, a Japanese cake made from a sticky rice flour dough. “When the machine was first developed, it was made with that consideration,” said John Giacoio, national sales director, Rheon USA. “How do we handle this extremely sticky product?”

Given gluten-free’s sticky nature, it was a natural progression. The co-extrusion unit can create hot dog buns, sandwich rolls and any other bread product that needs to be formed into a dough stick or ball. The cutting mechanism in the extruder is made of a plastic material that discourages sticking. Mr. Giacoio said it also wraps the dough ball or stick, preventing air from getting inside and creating an inconsistent dough piece.

When using sheeting lines, the dough must go through a set of gauge rolls to be reduced to the appropriate thickness. “When doing so, the high-energy required to form the dough sheet creates heat, which in turn, is transferred from the gauge rolls to an already warm dough sheet oftentimes creating further problems in getting the dough to release from the forming rolls,” Mr. Eshelman said.  “In certain cases, it may be necessary to chill the rolls in order to dissipate the heat generated during the sheet reduction process.” This is accomplished by circulating either cold water or glycol through the roll bodies, which is a big help in processing.  In addition, all Reading Bakery Systems’ sheeting systems include independently driven gauge rolls for a wide range of roll speed differential control. “Having these processing tools available on a sheeting line can make the difference between success and failure in developing a new product and process,” Mr. Eshelman said.

Reading Bakery Systems has also found chilling to be helpful in gluten-free extrusion lines. By chilling the extrusion housing, bakers can accomplish a consistent pressure to achieve accurate raw dough piece weights.

If all else fails, bakers can go to the old standby of dusting flour. Of course, because they are dealing in gluten-free, conventional flour is out of the question, but flour milled from gluten-free grains such as rice, corn or ancient grains all do the trick. However, such dusting flours are more expensive than conventional wheat flour, and some of them can be quite abrasive to the equipment and, in the end, will compromise its life cycle.

Flexing for the future

As gluten-free bakers continue to invest in technology, they cannot help but think about the future. They have to ask themselves how much growth is left in this category. It is commonly thought that gluten-free is here to stay to support those affected by celiac disease, but what about the explosive growth brought on by fad diets? Bakers wonder how sustainable that growth is and when it will plateau.

“Bakers aren’t sure where their line is going to be in two years,” Mr. Riggle said. “We’re getting near the plateau, but we’re not there yet. I see a tremendous number of gluten-free producers now being located out west, but they’re gradually going to have to move east to save on distribution costs. [Another factor is that] we’re trying to meet the gluten-free needs of every traditional category.” Yes, the growth in gluten-free, in the US at least, continues.

To accommodate their future growth, Handtmann, Lake Forest, IL, recommends its gluten-free bakers specify additional capacity when buying new equipment. “Commonly, gluten-free products require a longer bake time compared with conventional, so Handtmann designs its gluten-free system with extra capacity in the makeup process for when those baking times will be reduced or extra baking capacity will be added,” said Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager, Handtmann. The company also has a program that allows bakers to trade in older Handtmann equipment toward newer and larger equipment when their production needs increase.

When bakers think about the future of their production lines, they inevitably look for new avenues for growth. “With increased competition, just being gluten-free is not enough,” said John McIsaac, vice-president, strategic business development, Reiser, Canton, MA. “Gluten-free bakers need to produce higher quality and more varieties to differentiate themselves in the market.” Bakers who start out in bread or cookies will eventually expand their portfolios to include rolls or muffins, he said.

 To help bakers make their gluten-free portioning equipment as versatile as possible, Reiser offers interchangeable attachments that can handle a wide range of viscosities without having to invest in an entirely new piece of equipment.

“We have learned that one size does not fit all,” Mr. McIsaac said. “Product and bases tend to vary, so we have developed double-screws to suit our customers’ different requests.” The double-screw design allows bakers to create a very tight crumb on a hamburger bun while giving them the flexibility to achieve an open crumb on bread.

“Gluten-free bakers are asking equipment suppliers for more flexibility to maximize the number of different products they can produce on one line,” Mr. Zelaya said. To meet that need, Handtmann developed a universal makeup system that can accommodate multiple gluten-free products along with quick changeovers. With this versatility comes the ability to deposit different dough sizes, weights and shapes. “After a couple of years, the gluten-free market may change a bit, and the demand for new product may take over the current high volume items,” he went on. “We want to minimize the risk by incorporating flexibility.”

This flexibility and collaboration will help gluten-free bakers as their specialty settles from a skyrocketing trend to an established category.