When it comes to hot new crackers, it’s about all or nothing when adding a crispy crunch to the snacking or meal accompaniment eating occasions. The market seems to have an insatiable appetite for everything that’s ancient, upcycled or whole grain to plant-based options that contain no grains.

Take Milwaukie, Ore.-based Bob’s Red Mill, which rolled out a new line of Oat Crackers that are Non-GMO Project verified, gluten-free and loaded with oats, almonds, flaxseed, brown rice and quinoa. Or check out HighKey, the Orlando, Fla.-based producer of low-sugar and -carb snacks that introduced gluten- and grain-free Almond Flour Crackers.

While surging in popularity, however, these specialty crackers made with rice, almonds, chickpeas or cauliflower require equipment that can adapt to different processing and strict formulation requirements.

“Alternate ingredients for crackers are very trendy these days, which creates challenges in mixing and forming where the equipment has to have much more flexibility in terms of adjustments built-in,” observed Kevin Knott, technical sales manager, Bühler Inc. “Bakers need to be able to mix and form doughs with various types of viscosity and consistency.”

Automating these new-style products isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Crackers made with alternative flours often need special attention just to get the dough from the mixer to the oven on many high-volume lines.

“The difficulty in sheeting a dough using alternative flours or doughs without gluten requires the ability to create a product that holds up through the sheeting process,” noted Randy Kelly, applications specialist for Fritsch, a Multivac company. “Not only can these doughs be sticky, but they can also be delicate and break apart easier.”

From the mixing standpoint, alternative flour doughs are not that much different from conventional ones.

“It may take a little longer or less time in the mixer to get a homogeneous batch, and the water is going to vary considerably versus a wheat-based dough,” said Ken Zvoncheck, director of process technology, Reading Bakery Systems (RBS). “Some formulas just require more water to hydrate the grains, but others are more challenging because they’re clean label and require better-for-you (BFY) ingredients.”

Typically, non-wheat flour doughs will yield a harder, denser textured product that might not be as appealing to some consumers who expect a lighter, crispier one.

“To combat that, we can do it with formulation by changing up the amount of fat that’s added,” Mr. Zvoncheck explained. “Generally speaking, the more fat you add to a product, the more tender it will be. But, of course, if bakers are trying to make a healthy cracker, that’s not the avenue that most customers want to go.”

Another alternative involves adding modified starch to bind the grains and hold the dough together during the makeup process. Mr. Zvoncheck said RBS often collaborates with bakers and starch suppliers to run trials on these gluten-free products at its Science & Innovation Center.

“With the right combination and correct starch in the right amount, you can yield anything from a crispy hard-biting cracker to a very tender cracker and anywhere in between,” he said.

To create a repeatable and consistent dough sheet made with alternative flours, Mr. Kelly pointed out that Fritsch has removed the falling heights between the sheeting sections to reduce the stress with its branded SoftProcessing makeup process.

“All Fritsch cracker lines work on the basis of a dough sheet, which is gently sheeted, according to the SoftProcessing principle,” he said. “Afterward, the crackers are cut or punched out of this dough sheet.”

Mr. Zvoncheck said traditional cracker lines typically rely on fixed differential speeds through the reduction process, which means the operator cannot adjust the top roller vs. the bottom roller. On these older-style lines, the bottom roller is usually set to run about 5% faster than the top roller so that the dough sheet sticks to the quicker-moving lower one.

On newer flexible lines, all those rollers are independently driven, which allows bakers to adjust the speed differential and tailor the process to a specific dough’s viscosity and final texture.

“Every one of these doughs has a sweet spot where it will sheet smoothly, so the advantage of this technology is that it gives the product developer a lot more flexibility,” he said. “The dough doesn’t have to be sheeted in a very tight range that mimics a wheat cracker dough very closely.”

Gluten-free and alternative-flour baked snacks also require a lot more sheeting pressure. Often these products follow a straight dough process and require no fermentation or lamination.

“You may be going from a final dough sheet that is 2 mm thick, and now you’re reducing that in half to 1 mm prior to baking,” Mr. Zvoncheck said. “There is a much more intense amount of pressure at the nip point of the final gauge roll.”

With so much pressure on the dough, the dough sheet could stick to either the top or bottom roller.

“We always want the dough to stick to the bottom roller, and the dough sticks to the fastest roller, which is why in a traditional line, the bottom roll is typically running at only a 5% faster rate than the top,” Mr. Zvoncheck explained. “With these new doughs on a newer line, we can punch in numbers to adjust the rollers’ speed. Maybe 12% is the proper differential or 18% between the top and bottom rollers. We’ll find a sweet spot where that dough crosses over the rollers smoothly. Without that processing flexibility, you wouldn’t be able to process many of these doughs at all.”

Accuracy is the biggest factor when it comes to sheeting and laminating dough for any type of cracker, noted Dan Christie, sales manager, North America, Spooner Vicars Bakery Systems, a Middleby Bakery company. Because crackers are so thin, even a small amount of side-to-side product weight variance on a 1.5-meter-wide production line can make a huge difference during the baking process.

“The crackers will be dark on one edge of the oven and undone on the other,” Mr. Christie said. “It’s the accuracy of the line that enables you to create consistent products.”

With gluten-free products, sanitation plays a vital role, especially during changeovers. During the past few years, Mr. Christie said, Spooner Vicars updated its ProSeries laminating and sheeting lines. Now called the Apex-400 series, the line follows the latest standards in hygienic design with sloped surfaces, updated materials to withstand rigorous cleaning and easy-to-change endless belts.

The redesign also eliminated direct frame bolt-ons to eliminate the sandwiching effect, which are areas that cannot be accessed for cleaning, limited use of threads and other hard-to-clean components that could harbor microbes or bacteria.

“If it’s a gluten-free or allergen product and a baker needs belt changes, that’s where endless belts and quick tooling replacement pays off,” he said.

Moreover, direct-drive motors replaced chains and sprockets, which also reduces downtime for sanitation and reduces spare parts inventory for maintenance.

“If we use a specified motor for one machine on the line, we’ll use the same type for other machines on the line,” Mr. Christie said. “We also use similar sheeting rollers. Many production lines start with gauge rollers of one diameter and finish with ones that are a different size, which means from a spare parts standpoint, the end user had to keep both. We’re one diameter now, so they need to keep one set in storage in case they need to replace it.”

PLC recipe controls and other automation are also available on upgraded lines.

“The payback is in labor costs, and less downtime is money saved,” Mr. Christie said. “If you can change over an hour quicker, you will pay for that extra automation.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Cracker Processing, click here.