Consumers today find themselves busier than ever, but now in many different ways. Although many of them still don’t have the daily commute, households are preparing more meals in between errands and longer hours on Zoom calls.

That’s why they keep reaching for convenient, microwaveable and bakeable handheld snacks and meals ranging from calzones to Caribbean meat patties and Indian naan toasters filled with a variety of street food flavors from their well-stocked freezers. IRI reported that handheld entrees like frozen burritos and Hot Pockets grew 4.9% to nearly $3.2 billion, while handheld breakfast items jumped 13.5% to $2.2 billion, and appetizers surged 13.5% to $3 billion for the 52 weeks ending May 16, 2021.

Operationally, bakers and other food manufacturers have met the challenge.

“Sheeting and laminating lines offer the flexibility required to create many of the handheld snacks and appetizers in the industry,” noted Nick Magistrelli, vice president of sales, Rademaker USA.

However, filled handheld products provide a host of difficulties ranging from creating them in a USDA-compliant facility to processing applications.

“Leaking is one of the major challenges to this process, so the equipment has to be robust enough to create ample pressure to properly secure the seal,” Mr. Magistrelli said. “Also, a major point in the process is to have ventilation. Otherwise, the product will blow up in the oven and create leakage issues.”

The demand for better-for-you (BFY) handheld snacks and entrees — ranging from clean label and gluten-free to wholesome grains, added protein and vegan — tosses additional complexity into the process.

“Whole grain and gluten-free doughs don’t have the flexibility of traditional doughs,” noted Alex Weissbach, head of technology and product management, who also oversees Rondo’s Dough-how Center. “That makes it difficult to stretch out the dough. Over the last few years, several modifications have been realized on Rondo equipment to ensure that this difficult dough can be sheeted out and processed nicely. In addition, you have to make sure the dough is matched with the moisture level of the filling.”

David Moline, vice president of sales and marketing, Moline Machinery, suggested that bakers handle BFY doughs with care.

 “With ancient grains, especially if it’s an open-grain product, we definitely place our focus on maintaining the cell structure of the bread, which means gentle sheeting dough technology like you would do with ciabatta and other breads like that,” he suggested. “With gluten-free, you’re dealing with a dough that doesn’t have a lot of strength, so you’ll have to use gentle sheeting principles to process those products successfully.”

Dino Cantore, senior master baker and technologist at Minipan, pointed out that gluten bonds enhance the strength and elasticity that provide structure to the dough sheet. Moreover, lamination may protect whole grains and other inclusions without damaging the product. Additionally, he said, bakers need to adjust the quantity of water in these types of doughs because many grains require more moisture.

Mr. Cantore also provided advice in overcoming the challenges with other BFY products.

“As far as vegan laminated dough is concerned, if fat is being used, it is best to use a solid vegan fat and ensure it is as cold as possible,” he advised. “The longer the fermentation time, the better. Gentle cooling after each folding stage will help achieve the lightest texture.”

Mr. Magistrelli said spelt and gluten-free products typically require custom-built equipment and paying special attention to the process. Thorough research and development allow food producers to tailor their production lines to the product and ensure a smooth startup.

“Some of the tricks to being successful is engineering the sheeting heads a certain way to handle these dough types, and even the flour dusters should be specially designed to handle the dusting requirements on the line,” he said. “Most of the time, an equipment vendor cannot use its standardized solutions to manage these products. Therefore, there have to be specific guidelines to follow to properly manufacture the system to be successful when making these products on an industrial scale.”

Some solutions are easy, such as using rice flour to prevent gluten-free doughs from sticking, Mr. Cantore said.

However, Mr. Moline noted, gluten-free doughs typically require much more monitoring because they aren’t as resilient as conventional flour-based products.

“Gluten-free doughs have no strength, so if there is any stretching or tension in the dough, the sheet will tear,” he said.

Rheon relies on its stress-free process to handle whole grain and gluten-free items in the same way it handles other high-hydration sticky doughs.

John Giacoio, vice president of sales, Rheon USA, admitted he was initially skeptical about automating gluten-free production until the testing showed how a no-tension process provided the results food manufacturers wanted.

“Bakers have been moving to whole grains for years so this is not the challenge it used to be,” he said. “We have been designing equipment with more versatility. Because we only make stress-free sheeting lines, the sheeters handle the dough so gently. With gluten-free doughs, our systems actually seemed to be designed for them.”

Randy Kelly, applications specialist for Fritsch, a Multivac company, said the company relies on its SoftProcessing technology for gluten-free and other difficult-to-handle doughs.

“It allows a top degree of automation and high throughput at the same time minimizing the stress on the dough over the entire production process,” Mr. Kelly explained. “It also enables bakers to set up production lines that are optimally configured for their respective ingredients and products.”

With conventional doughs, Mr. Moline said, laminating — without adding fat in between — will add strength to products, such as tortillas and flatbreads that often carry a host of high-moisture fillings in a handheld format.

“Laminating adds strength in all directions,” he said. “You can roll up a laminated tortilla, and it’s not going to break.”

However, whole grain and other weaker BFY doughs require cut-sheet laminating, where the sheet is sliced and stacked before this process.

“That’s because if you try to pull and fold it over, it’s going to tear,” Mr. Moline said. “A cut sheet allows you to have a more consistent sheet that isn’t going to break as easily.”

This article is an excerpt from the July 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Sheeting & Laminating, click here.