They’re sticky, tacky, lumpy, clumpy — oddball-shaped at times, even a little flaky and delicate in nature.

No doubt, spices, particulates, inclusions and other toppings and coatings come with a lot of character — don’t call them “issues” — that makes them difficult to dispense. Applying them can be incorrigibly frustrating because they tend to wreak havoc and cause all sorts of issues — there’s that word again — ranging from costly waste to sanitation insanity.

However, when applied properly, toppings and coatings certainly enhance the personality that premium muffins, cakes, buns, chips and a host of high-value snacks and baked goods bring to the market.

Sometimes you just have to accept the good with the bad.

Take streusel for starters. Do you love it or hate it? “It tastes delicious because fat tastes good,” said Lance Aasness, executive vice-president, Hinds-Bock, Bothell, WA.

But fats can be like problem children who simply don’t do what’s expected of them. “Because of the fat content, streusel wants to pack like a snowball,” Mr. Aasness explained. “To deliver it onto the batter or finished cake, we have to accurately portion it, but then we need to distribute it accurately on the product. Oftentimes, that means targeting the product, so you don’t make a mess outside of the pan, and distributing it so you have a good-looking product.”

Moisture in raisins or coconut can act up and become a tad of a nuisance. “Anytime you have toppings with high-moisture content — typically more than 1% — there will be challenges achieving consistent and accurate depositing,” said Ty Sarajian, president, Axis Automation, Hartland, WI. “Even if you are able to meter the product, it does not guarantee uniform, even or visually appealing dispersion. These two things do not automatically go hand-in-hand.”

Specifically, moist and high-fat cheese or even cheese- and barbecue-flavored powdered seasonings can be especially tricky, according to Neil Anderson, director of business development, Axis Automation. Dispensing them may seem easy at first. “But after 7½ hours, are you adding the same amount as you were at the beginning of the shift?” he asked.

Likewise, a combination of ingredients can create a multitude of challenges. “Often, the most difficult toppings are the blended seasonings such as the popular ‘everything’ bagel-style topping,” observed Vince Pasquini, pretzel and snack technical sales engineer, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA. “Many dispensers have issues with this, and the ingredients tend to separate rather than evenly distribute due to the various particulate sizes. Seasonings with high oil content also are challenging because they can build up over time and cause variations in the dispensing rate and distribution.”

Reading offers four different applicators suited to different material types: pocketed roll, dispensing mesh, vibratory and belt. “We find that what works best for one material may pose a challenge for another,” Mr. Pasquini said. “Unfortunately, there is not one machine that is best for all material types.”

All plugged up

Spraying on coatings flavored with bits of herbs and spices can be particularly problematic. “Any particulate, for example, whether it be garlic pieces or parsley flakes, represents a challenge for spraying technology,” said Norm Searle, a member of the marketing team at Amherst, NY-based GOE-Amherst Stainless Fabrication. “The simple fact that you are dealing with a potential obstruction to the traditional spraying mechanism itself represents a major difficulty in spraying herbs and spices and, to a lesser degree, the ongoing potential for blocking smaller diameter supply lines.”

Mr. Searle noted large pieces and mixtures heavy with salt tend to settle more quickly. High-melting-point oils require a significant amount of additional heating. Another consideration involves the degradation of the particulate. He described that condition in one word: “Unacceptable.”

Moreover, any baked foods with significant depth — 1 in. or greater — require special attention to spraying the sides, according to Mr. Searle. “The same is true if the products are densely arranged on the conveyor, making it difficult to spray ‘in between,’ ” he observed. “Slug-packaged products require very even coverage, and the orientation must be maintained for packaging. Increased spray velocity could disrupt the orientation.”

From a snack perspective, the challenge comes from items that do not have natural tack for adhering a dry coating. The solution is not difficult. “Oil- or water-based starch or gum solutions are sprayed on the product to fulfill this function,” said Dave Homeyer, president of Spray Dynamics, a Heat and Control company, Hayward, CA.

Depending on the product, additional oil- or water-based solutions can be applied in multiple stages. If a water-based coating is sprayed, the products must be dried to remove the moisture, or shelf life may be compromised. “To be successful, process knowledge about temperature, base product porosity and the general plant environment is required,” Mr. Homeyer said.

He stressed that seasoning and particulate applicators for baked goods differ from those used for chips and other snacks. That said, they have one thing in common. “Difficult-to-apply spices and flavors generally do not flow well,” he pointed out. “This is typically true for hygroscopic — those that absorb moisture from the air — seasonings such as barbecue with sugar, salt and paprika. Seasonings with different size particles and densities in the same blend also can present application problems.”

Getting a bit salty

Salt — especially coarse, irregularly sized sea salt — befuddles bakers and snack producers, according to Randy Fielding, owner and president, Christy Machine Co., Fremont, OH. “It’s hard to apply uniformly because of size and shape variation and its low application rate,” he said.

Accuracy and uniformity also are critical for a number of reasons. “We all know labeling guidelines and health concerns are important, but salt is one of those particulates that can be detected when not applied in the right proportions or concentrations,” Mr. Sarajian explained. “Not all salts are created equal when it comes to application, either. Flake salt, flour salt, sea salt — they all have different challenges.”

With the recent egg shortage, many bakers are using synthetic egg wash, which applies a nice shine on brioche and other baked goods. But it can be difficult to apply because of its viscosity and texture, said Mitch Lindsey, technical sales, Burford Corp., Maysville, OK.

In addition to salt, minimizing waste and sanitation concerns poses ongoing challenges. Burford’s Smart Seeder features automated, one-touch setups that result in accurate topping coverage and reduced seed waste. “Many bakers run the same pan size, but the pan configurations may change,” Mr. Lindsey said. “With software and program changes, we streamlined changeover time to less than 30 seconds.”

In most bakeries, introducing water can cause a myriad of problems. Burford’s pulse width modulation (PWM) spray system improves the seed and topping adhesion on proofed products yet cuts down water usage. “With PWM, you can cycle 50 times across the pan instead of once, so you conserve water,” Mr. Lindsey noted.

GOE incorporates variable profile liquid spray (VPLS) systems that use non-clogging dispersion drums to provide uniform spray coverage without the drawbacks of spinning disks and nozzles. “The drums are very forgiving to particulates since distribution is based on flooding the drum’s interior and distributing the liquid by centrifugal force to the drum’s circumference where the particulate-infused liquid is atomized,” Mr. Searle explained.

Mr. Homeyer suggested three solutions to apply ingredients successfully. “Agitators that condition the spices can yield a consistent feed to the dispensing mechanism, most often a screw device,” he said. “Flexible walls for the seasoning supply hopper, driven by mechanical means, can provide a consistent feed to the screw. Meanwhile, periodic vibration applied to rigid walls of the seasoning supply hopper will collapse bridges or columns of spices.”

Waste not, want not

Mr. Sarajian observed a strong correlation between enhancing taste and avoiding excessive waste. Often bakers and snack producers feel the only solution is to flood the belt. They overfeed the toppings because they’re afraid of starving the product from the proper amount of ingredients. “Our philosophy is to put on only what you need where you need it,” he said.

Proper dispensing involves a three-part process that includes separation, accurate metering uniform dispensing. That’s easier said than done. “That’s the challenge,” Mr. Sarajian said. “If you are not gently separating the product, you’re damaging it. If you’re not accurately metering it, you’re not getting the right consistency. If you’re not uniformly dispensing it, the finished product won’t look appealing, and the taste will be off.”

Hinds-Bock relies on advances in servo-driven technology for dispensing moist ingredients such as streusel. “We drive extrusion augers with servo motors and extrude the streusel through a cutting-blade discharge-chute assembly,” Mr. Aasness said. “Then, we target it onto a muffin, snack cake, cake or pie.”

For many systems, performance accuracy involves proper system maintenance. That’s just common sense, but it’s always good to remember. “If the systems are not cleaned on a scheduled basis, accuracy will be affected,” Mr. Searle advised. “Proper cleaning setup and operation within limits of equipment and slurry specifications provide continuous ‘within spec’ performance. Slurry can change over time; with accumulation of crumbs, it is imperative to limit oversized debris from entering the system. Make sure the screens and filtering mechanisms are properly maintained.

“Verify ingredient specifications from the supplier. Know the time, temperature and cleaning cycle limitations of the solution,” Mr. Searle continued.

Reading’s Mr. Pasquini suggested several options for quick changeovers. “One way is to have separate filling bins for each material, thus eliminating the main source of cross contamination,” he said. “A properly designed system that allows quick evacuation of the material in the use-hopper is another way. We generally recommend quick-release couplings for transport piping that are dedicated to a particular seasoning. The key is in the initial design and getting it right from the start.”

That often requires custom solutions — something that vendors do on a regular basis. “[We] do unique designs because [the systems] are custom formulated per order to resolve different problems of applying various toppings,” Mr. Fielding said.

Mr. Sarajian also noted difficult-to-handle ingredients often involve designing propriety solutions for customers. “Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the variety of particulates in the baking and snack world, but we have managed to refine our approach to a narrow range of highly effective solutions,” he said.

 As is always the case in life, stubborn situations are not easy to solve.