Did you order pizza on Super Bowl Sunday? Just before the big game, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted 4.4 million pizzas would be eaten that day. Americans do like pizza and not just on game day. US consumers chew their way through about 100 acres of pizza on any given day, and 93% eat pizza at least once a month.

That amounts to a lot of pizza crust, too. Manufacturers of crust processing equipment report interest in larger and larger lines with enhanced flexibility to manage the proliferating variety of crust styles. “The trend today is to higher volume systems,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery, LLC. “It’s not uncommon to see 30,000 to 40,000 lb per hour on our systems.”

Dough type, especially long fermentation or high-hydration, affects equipment choice as well. Bringing such artisan-like qualities to industrial pizza crusts involves longer processes taking more time than is customary for today’s conventional crusts, according to Stephen Bloom, vice-president, Allied Bakery Equipment Co. This approach has yet to surface in the US. “But in Europe, at least one company — the market leader in Spain — has gone in this direction,” he said. “And I believe people here are thinking about it.”

One processing trend already present in the US market is use of flexible equipment. It’s not that one type of processing system is better than another, noted Jim Cummings, president, Tromp Group Americas. Rather, “customers are looking for flexibility with regards to bite, chew and texture. Having a thin-and-crispy crust that snaps on eating is only good if you can produce the snap but still have a tender bite.”

Another need on the spec list for today’s buyer of crust lines is washdown capability. Federal food safety regulations make that a necessity.

Divided in approach

Like many other baked foods, pizza crusts can be formed by either dough ball or sheeting methods. Some equipment vendors carry both line types, but it’s more common for them to specialize in one or the other.

Rick Hoskins, president, Colborne Foodbotics, summarized the differences. “We offer two systems depending on the customer’s preference,” he said. “One is a scrapless press system, and the other is a sheeted process. To maintain good dough cell structure, the sheeting method is more suitable, but there is more complexity in handling of trim dough in this process. The advantage to our press system is the ability to form a crust with a single dough ball without creating any trim or scrap.”

Dough ball lines operate much like conventional bread and bun lines. The first step divides bulk dough into individual pieces that go through rounding and intermediate proofing. Then makeup operations flatten the ball, with or without the use of heated platens, into a round, thin crust.

“The general rule is that dough ball technologies are considered to create high-quality pizzas,” Mr. Bloom said. “This method may also be more amenable to long fermentation doughs.” He noted that sheeting lines must deal with scrap dough reincorporation.

Such methods can yield good numbers, according to Bruce Campbell, vice-president, global product technology, AMF Bakery Systems. “Some styles of pizza crust preparation start with just making a round dough ball,” he explained. “With accuracy being very important here, the AMF Vector technology delivers dough ball weights within ±0.5% tolerance. This allows downstream processing of the crust to be more efficient.”

These systems can accept dough mixed in batches up to 3,200 lb and supplied to the makeup line through extrusion or volumetric dividers at rates up to 300 pieces per minute.

While high-speed, high-volume lines capture a lot of attention, they don’t suit every crust processor. Engineers at Colborne considered the needs of the mid-size processor and introduced a rotary 11-plate system for making pizzas. It has a small footprint, approximately 7-ft in diameter. “From dough-ball forming and placing, to pressing, sauce and topping application, we can automate this complete process at rates in excess of 20 per minute,” Mr. Hoskins said.

Sheeting in ascendency

For many crust processors, speed and capacity top their list of needs. These operations are more likely to adopt sheeting methods, noted Ken Hagedorn, vice-president, sales, and partner, Naegele, Inc. “Those with established products that use the dough ball press method continue to buy those sorts of lines, but with new products, the trend is to sheeting lines,” he said.

“These lines are faster, more flexible and do a variety of products other than just flat pizza crusts,” Mr. Hagedorn continued. “Once you form a continuous dough sheet, you can produce items such as calzones and stuffed breads with the addition of forming tools and depositing equipment. This is not so easily done from a dough ball line.”

Mr. Moline explained, “What makes sheeting especially applicable to pizza is that, one, its flexibility allows handling of small personal-size pizzas to large family sizes on the same line and, two, the cost per unit is much lower than other makeup technologies.”

To make American-style pizza, Fritsch USA, Inc., starts with a continuous dough sheet that is cut by a roller or punching die, explained Matt Zielsdorf, the company’s president. “The general advantage of a sheet-and-cut system is the very precise shape of the pizza base and the flexibility in shape,” he noted. “[These lines] can cut all shapes from rectangular, triangular, octagonal or whatever the customer wants.”

When a proofing chamber is incorporated into the line, possibilities abound. Explaining that Italian-style or thin-crust pizzas usually start with dough that is prefermented by bowl rest, Mr. Zielsdorf said the next step turns the dough into continuous sheets. “The dough sheet is proofed for about 15 minutes in a belt proofing chamber and then cut or cut-and-pressed with a die-cut system,” he explained. “[The line] can also use heated pressing tools.”

Thin, cracker-style crusts have other challenges, observed Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker USA, Inc. “[They] often require an extruded dough process, simply because the dough is so stiff that it requires a lot of force and pressure to bring the sheet together,” he said. “Also, these thin crusts often require a more robust design — larger diameter and solid rollers — to ensure consistent thickness and weight control.”

Low in stress

Almost always, extrusion systems feed dough into sheeting lines, or these lines can employ low-stress methods to handle the dough. The low-stress approach is particularly helpful for soft, high-hydration and prefermented doughs when the baker wants an open cell structure for the crust’s crumb.

Rademaker credits the introduction of its DSS double-chunker sheeting system, a form of low-stress sheeting technology, with the ability to handle and process such doughs without degassing them. “This results in a crust that has a more open cell structure as well as more volume in the final product,” Mr. Riggle said.

Mr. Hagedorn observed, “Stress-free has been around for a long time, but bakers are going more toward it. The door is wide open.”

Sheeting technology also enables lamination, should the process call for it. Mr. Zielsdorf noted that by creating four to 16 layers in the dough sheet, the resulting crust becomes flakier. Additionally, he cited improvements in inline belt proofing that allow crust lines to work with soft doughs and ones that receive longer periods of prefermentation.

Other texture adjustments are possible. Mr. Cummings said, “Sometimes we incorporate laminating with overhead resting or proofing as well to provide tighter crumb or more open crumb for ciabatta-style crusts.”

Testing in centers

With such a wide difference in opinion about one style of processing over another, equipment manufacturers encourage bakers to take advantage of their test centers.

When deciding equipment parameters, “it starts with the crust,” Mr. Moline said. “Moline lines are all sheeted systems and produce different forms from original, thin crusts to recessed-edge styles, small homemade types and very thin and flakey crusts. These lines can be configured for layering or laminating. The exact style is determined by the customer’s specs or by testing here in our 20,000-sq-ft test baking center.”

Pizza line customers are of two sorts: those seeking to duplicate an existing process and those wanting to bring a new product developed on the bench up to industrial scale. “That’s where the technical center comes in,” Mr. Moline explained. “It can help determine the line configuration to mass produce a crust now being done by hand or semi-automatically. It helps the customer select the proper equipment to make the crust they want, within the perspective of dough sheeting.”

Mr. Riggle confirmed the need to explore different processing methods. “It is difficult to say that a certain crust style can only be manufactured by a certain method,” he said. “There are many things to take into consideration that are tied into the total crust attributes: interior crumb, bite, shape, rim or no rim, flavor, not to mention capacity questions.

“That is why with Rademaker we recommend validating the product and process in our Rademaker Technology Center,” Mr. Riggle continued. The facility’s technologists work with the crust producer to validate the crust and the required process.

A good number of equipment manufacturers have similar innovation centers that they make available to customers for testing and pilot plant runs.

There’s another place to encounter new technologies: the International Baking Industry Exposition set for Oct. 8-11 at Las Vegas. “Exciting improvements involving the natural stretching of pizza doughs are right now in the prototype and patent stages,” Mr. Bloom said. “These could be ready to discuss at IBIE 2016. Look for them at the show.”

United in cleanability

The Las Vegas event will also introduce new sanitation features for Rademaker equipment, Mr. Riggle explained. “At IBIE 2016, we will be showcasing our latest designs in quick releases of conveyor belts coupled with open conveyor designs; technologies to clean and dry the equipment faster and more thoroughly; ways to take apart and put back together our equipment quickly but also correctly and consistently so that, as end users, our clients spend more time making and selling the highest quality product,” he said.

With the Food Safety Modernization Act regulations coming into effect, the ability to wet-clean equipment now figures into user specs for nearly every new processing line. Even for equipment manufacturers that have built such lines for many years, the technology continues to evolve, Mr. Riggle noted. “Our latest designs incorporate full washdown capability along with maintenance features to allow the line to be cleaned and maintained quickly in order to get back into production faster,” he said.

Cleanability plays an important role in equipment design today. Mr. Cummings attributed this emphasis to “more stringent requirements from our customers and their willingness to work with us and maintain continuous improvement with regard to sanitation and ease of maintenance.”

Mr. Moline cited the company’s experience with USDA-inspected processes as fostering its ability to design equipment with easy access and open-frame designs that are fully washdown. “Lines can be built with various levels of washdown capability,” he said. “It depends on what the user needs. Such design does come with a price tag for the electrical components and construction materials that can be wet cleaned.”

Many pizza plants already come under USDA inspection because they handle raw meats. “But even those not inspected by the department are requesting washdown,” Mr. Hagedorn noted. “Operators who don’t think about sanitary design will be left in the dust. Washdown is coming; it’s inevitable.”