From naan and pita to lavash and focaccia, flatbreads are flourishing in popularity in the United States. The category’s dollar sales rose 4.8% to $365 million last year, according to IRI data for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2021, thanks in part to big players entering the space. Tortilla category leader Mission Foods, Irving, Texas, for example, introduced its popular Fresh Signature line of flatbreads to the United States last year after selling them globally for the past decade. 

“Our pita, naan, flatbread and roti signify an important expansion for the company, and I’m excited to help introduce US consumers to these new and already popular Mission flavors,” said company Chief Executive Officer Juan Gonzalez.

While many Americans are exploring the world of flatbreads for the first time, tortillas on the other hand have been a familiar staple of their diets for years. The category posted approximately $3 billion in sales last year, IRI reported, and there’s no shortage of innovation here either with bakeries introducing better-for-you (BFY) gluten- and grain-free options. Mission Foods debuted almond and cauliflower tortillas last year, becoming the largest tortilla manufacturer to introduce gluten-free alternatives. Ridgefield, NJ-based Toufayan Bakeries’ gluten-free tortilla wrap is its No. 1 seller online, and the bakery also offers a popular line of Smart Pockets, an American version of a pita bread made with sprouted grains.

Amid strong consumer demand and more varieties than ever before, many bakers may be looking to get in on tortillas and flatbreads. Established tortilla makers may also be looking to follow in the footsteps of other brands and diversify their product portfolio with flatbreads or healthier tortilla options. However, these breads pose unique processing challenges bakers must consider before leaping headfirst into the space. 

Tortillas and flatbreads are often lumped together when discussing baked foods, but there are key differences in how they’re made. Most tortillas, for example, are rounded into dough balls that are then hot-pressed into shape.

“That’s the rule of thumb. I’d say probably 80% plus are producing dough ball hot press,” said Ken Hagedorn, vice president, bakery sector, Handtmann. “There are people that do sheeted tortillas as well, but a lot of them say the quality isn’t traditional enough. The hot press things are the real, honest-to-goodness thing.”

While the dough ball and hot press reign supreme, there are benefits to making tortillas on a sheeted line. Many burrito makers opt for die cut tortillas because the line can run at a higher speed than a dough ball press system. These lines provide better shape consistency as well. 

“[A sheeted line] is a dedicated system where you’ve got either a straight sheeting line or possibly a two-section laminator that gives you some strength in that cross-directional part of the product,” said Nick Magistrelli, vice president of sales for Rademaker USA. 

Flatbreads, on the other hand, encompass a more diverse range of products, often requiring greater flexibility on a line to accommodate different ingredients. 

“There’s so many different styles of flatbread; the formulations are different, and the shapes are different,” Mr. Hagedorn explained. “Tortillas are basically a round circle, but you have some flatbreads that are rectangular or circular, it’s a more diverse product, so there’s more room to play with the formulation and how you’re going to produce it.”

Tortillas have been industrially produced for decades, but mass-producing many of these new flatbreads is uncharted territory for bakers, meaning additional research, development and testing is needed to find the most suitable process, said Alexander Weissbach, head of technology, product management and Rondo’s Dough-how Center. A big challenge is that flatbreads from different regions are made in different ways. 

“Lavash or Lebanese breads are not the same everywhere in the world, and this is why we like bakers to visit our Dough-how Center to find the most suitable process,” Mr. Weissbach said.

Because flatbreads include a wider range of doughs and ingredients than tortillas, a sheeting line can provide the flexibility bakers need. 

“The advantages [of a sheeting line] are the variety of shapes that can be made at a makeup table,” Mr. Magistrelli said. “It’s the same conversation you have when people start talking about processing traditional breads. On a sheeting line, you can do all kinds of interesting and creative molding, rounding, cutting.”

A dough ball press system could be modified for flatbreads, Mr. Hagedorn pointed out, but some sacrifices will have to be made. 

“If you’re saying, ‘I have a traditional tortilla line, can I do other style flatbreads on it?’ The answer is yes, but you’re going to be limited,” he said. “Your basic expense is going to be having to change your style of oven.”

Tortillas are typically baked on a triple pass oven, while flatbreads are usually baked in a tunnel oven. Flatbreads may also require a proofing or resting period that varies based on the specific flatbread being made.

In addition to these processing differences, flatbreads have a shorter shelf life than tortillas, which may require additional packaging investments, noted John McIsaac, vice president of strategic development, Reiser. 

“We have found that the use of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) greatly extends shelf life,” Mr. McIsaac said. “MAP also allows producers to remove chemicals used to extend shelf life. The chemicals are no longer needed. Producers can extend not only the shelf life of the product, but also the geographical range where they can sell their product.”

This article is an excerpt from the July 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Tortilla & Flatbread Processing, click here.