Bakery engineers and the vendors supplying wholesale baking equipment can be justly proud of current breadmaking technology. It reliably outputs loaf after loaf of consistent quality bread at speeds that can exceed 180 pieces per minute. With the addition of automation and computer controls, such proven technology fits the needs for low-labor input and the low-margin, high-output products that populate the bread aisle.

Yet the rising popularity of “thins” in sandwich bun and bagel formats, plus coiled-dough “swirl” breads and the attractive margins for artisan-style specialty loaves prompt the question, “Is it time to re-think breadmaking technology?” The consensus of baking technology experts recently consulted by Baking & Snack was “yes,” although they acknowledged that considerable institutional challenges exist. The opportunities are out there, particularly for highmargin and value-added products.

“As an equipment manufacturer, we are always discussing new ways to handle our customer’s products,” said Merle Cooper, the Chicago, IL-based Midwest regional sales manager for Adamatic of the Belshaw Adamatic Bakery Group, Auburn, WA. “And many of those ideas become reality as we design equipment for our clients. As our customers’ product lines change, so must the equipment that produces those products.

“Should we be constantly searching for new technologies? Absolutely,” she stated.

SETTING THE STAGE. Why now? Bakers have been making bread for a couple of thousand years, as pointed out by Terry Groff, chairman, Reading Bakery Systems, Robesonia, PA. “Only now are we really beginning to unravel the chemistry and the physics associated with this genre,” he said. “We are finally beginning to understand the relative influence that radiation, convection and conduction [heat] have in the baking process, especially as it relates to flavor development.”

New research tools and instruments such as the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer enable a better understanding of the process, he observed. “All this means we can bake bread and bread-like products with better texture and flavor, and we can use specific techniques to reduce the formation of undesirable compounds like acrylamides,” Mr. Groff said.

Yet other thinkers find concern in a lack of progress. “We have been at the same technology level for too long already,” said a knowledgeable industry consultant who asked not to be identified. “Ram-and-shear dividers as well as extruders had their time. As an industry, we are not doing enough R&D on new production processes.”

Part of the problem may lie in the product under consideration. “You see testing done for products with long shelf lives such as snacks or frozen doughs, but not for fresh bread,” stated Terry Bartsch, vice-president, sales, Shaffer, Bundy Baking Solutions, Urbana, OH.

DRIVING THE CHANGE. The dilemma is that consumers want new products, but they want their staple foods, too. Bread, as Mr. Bartsch observed, is just such a staple. “But there are exceptions,” he added, “and the new ‘thins’ are a good example. They seem to have ‘legs.’ ” He also noted that tortillas were once ethnic novelties but have now earned a solid place in the American diet.

“It is the product that determines the change,” Ms. Cooper stated. “We think about the technology going forward all the time, but that’s not so easy to put into action. As customers’ product lines change, so will their technology.”

The bakers’ customers play a big role, too, because they are driving new product innovation to an even greater extent now than ever before. What bakers need is flexibility to help their customers satisfy the growing sophistication of the American palate, according to Mark Rosenberg, president, Gemini Bakery Equipment Co., Philadelphia, PA. “The industry is being driven by our bakery clients’ food service customers,” he said.

Mr. Rosenberg described recent requests from bakery clients that demonstrated how relationships between bakers and their customers are shifting and how these changes impact breadmaking technology. In a growing number of cases, bakers “no longer show their clients what they have to offer,” he observed. “Instead, they are being told by their clients what they need.”

For example, a bakery that was making 95% of its product as hearth breads and rolls was asked to produce a new but similar product in a pan. “Our client had never needed to produce on pans until now,” Mr. Rosenberg explained. The answer was to modify a current system to make it a combination pan and hearth line.

When the company originally came to Gemini for that system, managers were convinced to buy a line with potential for pans. The bakery also selected a matching oven that could handle both hearth and pan products. To accommodate the client’s need, the bakery purchased a new oven unloader and some depanning equipment, but the rest of the equipment could be upgraded to pans with only minor costs. “Luckily, the client had enough foresight to make sure they had the ability to use pans if and when the time came,” Mr. Rosenberg added.

REVIVING THE TECHNIQUE. Another trend driving change in breadmaking technology is the interest by bakeries in producing a hybrid version of specialty breads and rolls, Mr. Rosenberg noted. “The crusty bread and roll bakery is being forced to produce a product with a greater shelf life, and the soft bread and bun bakery is being forced to develop a line of specialty breads and rolls for the food service industry,” he explained.

With the resurgence of specialty products has come an interest in reviving retarding to produce better products, according to Mr. Rosenberg. (Retarding is the practice of holding dough pieces at low enough temperatures to slow yeast growth over a period of a few hours to overnight.) “For many years, retarding of rolls or breads before baking was a ‘must’ to produce a flavorful crusty roll,” he explained. “Many bakeries got away from retarding because of the additional handling and the added space needed.”

Recently, however, Gemini Bakery Equipment has been involved with four projects with retarding. Mr. Rosenberg said the bakers putting in these systems were prompted to do so by customer demand “to produce a better or different product.”

MANAGING THE MIX. “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile” or your father’s mixer, for that matter, when it comes to the continuous mixing systems now being advanced for breadmaking. Having proven its worth for crackers and pretzels, this new technology stands ready to revolutionize dough processing for bread and other yeast-raised items.

This new approach to continuous mixing — different from the style that dominated the 1960s and mostly disappeared in the 1980s — has the potential “to change the bread industry for the better,” Mr. Groff said, observing that the ability to stabilize inputs will stabilize outputs. “I think that’s going to lead to greater profits for the industry and happier customers in the market,” he added.

Reading Bakery Systems has been working with continuous mixing of bread dough as an internal research project, started a number of years ago. It has progressed from soft pretzel doughs to pizza doughs. “Now, we are extending that research to bread dough by building on what we’ve learned working with other high-gluten doughs.” Mr. Groffexplained.

During the past year, the company introduced this technology to the cracker industry, resulting in what he described as a resounding success. “Not only are the crackers better, they are flowing into the packaging systems much better, and packaging efficiency is being dramatically improved,” he said.

“Bread bakeries are going to see the same benefits from real continuous mixing but perhaps on a greater scale given the large scale of their production,” Mr. Groff stated. Compared with previous continuous mixing systems, only the name remains the same. “Beyond that, just about everything is different,” he added.

CONTROLLING THE PIECE. Many years ago, someone described bread and bun making as: “Once the dough is divided, the baker spends the rest of the process — and most of his capital dollars — trying to regain control over that piece.”

Obviously, such control relates to traceability, never an easy subject for bakeries. Regaining control over the piece enables tracking of ingredient lots and dough batches. Technologies that group and regroup individual dough pieces have the potential to disrupt first-in, first-out sequencing.

Sheeting methods, because they tend to maintain constant flow and position, tend not to rearrange the order in which products move through the process. More importantly, the gradual transition from bulk dough to individual piece takes place over a more extended time than conventional dividing and moulding, yet the gradual reduction is just as effective at developing the dough.

“The sheeting process can reduce final proofing time by up to 50% because it does not degas the product as conventional dividers do,” observed Ken Schwenger, sales manager, Americas, Fritsch, Cedar Grove, NJ. Fermentation gases are retained during the sheeting process.

Sheeting mimics the pinning of hand methods. The dividing step, accomplished by a guillotine and/or cutting roller, is essentially a no-stress method. Although most early uses of sheeting technology in breadmaking were for focaccia, ciabatta and other high-absorption doughs, Mr. Schwenger noted that sheeting lines are capable of running stiffer doughs and sending the dough pieces along to be moulded by conventional methods.

“Progressive artisan bakers are choosing sheeting lines,” Mr. Schwenger said about trends in this bellwether industry segment. “Our technology can satisfy their output needs, achieving high throughput on high-margin products.”

However, the question of scrap is always a concern with sheeting methods. “Fritsch has found a way to eliminate 100% of scrap,” Mr. Schwenger said. “It is returned to the supply hopper. It does not get remixed but goes in on top of or below the next chunk of dough.”

Capacities on such systems continue to improve. “Higher capacity continuous sheeting/moulding lines can produce so much more than a battery of single-file moulders,” the industry consultant observed. Feeding products into the double- and triple-strap pans, some with as many as 10 pans per strap, means the lines run slower and more quietly yet bake as many if not more loaves.

AUTOMATING THE PROCESS. Wholesale bakers require two things of their processing lines: reliability and repeatability. The latter, demonstrated by consistent results time after time, has been substantially improved by application of the electronically controlled mechanization approach better known as automation.

“The basics of breadmaking technology haven’t changed much over the past 50 years,” Ms. Cooper said. “What has changed, and continues to move forward, is how we automate that process.” She observed that the use of high-speed equipment has become more commonplace in large and mid-size production facilities. “Developing new innovative machines to streamline that process is likely to be the future,” she predicted.

There is also the matter of matching processing stages. Mr. Groff commented on the difference between integrating continuous and batch methods. “When it comes to process control, there is nothing more basic than matching a continuous process like baking with another continuous process like mixing,” he said. “Trying to match up batch mixing techniques with a continuous baking process is like mixing oil with water. The interface is just fraught with problems and winds up transferring the inconsistencies of the batch process into what otherwise would have been a simple, stable, continuous baking process.”

LIMITING THE PROGRESS. “It is always time to rethink and push the technology forward, but in reality, most customers have to play it safe,” Mr. Bartsch said. In other words, institutional conditions hamper adoption of new breadmaking technologies.

“For example, many bakers are captive to their buildings,” Mr. Bartsch said, “and unless you’re building a new plant, the physical space required for new technologies may not be available.” Most automated lines require more floor space than non- or semiautomated lines. Additionally, older facilities may lack suffi cient headroom to allow installation of automated batching equipment or high-rise trough moving systems. “We have seen bakers actually go back to older technologies to get them to fit into the bakery,” he noted.

Also, proven technology yields known results, and it doesn’t require a “bet the farm” multimillion dollar decision. A system that reliably makes products of consistent quality at plant No. 1 can be counted on to reliably produce the same products when installed at plants No. 2, No. 3 and so forth — an important consideration for multi-plant baking companies.

“Is it time to rethink?” Mr. Bartsch asked. “It’s always time, but will the industry do it? The investment can be prohibitive because of the baking industry’s traditionally low margins and large investment already in place.”

“It comes down to this: 25 years ago, we were working with dough,” Ms. Cooper said. “Today, 25 years later, we’re still working with dough. The baking industry is not like other industries such as computing where the product changes radically all the time.”