Better-for-you (BFY) baked goods like gluten- and grain-free options are more popular than ever, and tortillas and flatbreads are no exception. But these healthier alternatives can cause processing headaches for bakers.

“That’s the big risk when you start talking about gluten-
 free stuff, because a lot of your traditional equipment can’t handle gluten-free,” said Ken Hagedorn, vice president, bakery sector, Handtmann. 

BFY doughs contain alternative flours that are more difficult to process due to the varied consistency of the dough mixture, which can range from fluid and sticky to stiff and viscous, noted Jeff Zeak, national development manager bakery, Reiser. Bakers can custom engineer their processing to combat this, however. Specialized systems can transfer doughs to the divider or deposit and form doughs with different consistencies, he added. 

Gluten-free dough, for example, is sticky, requiring processing aids like oils and corn starches. It also lacks strength and elasticity. 

“You have to be extremely gentle with the dough,” said David Moline, vice president of sales and marketing, Moline Machinery. “You cannot do a lot of work to this dough at any one time. It’s subject to tearing, weight control and a laundry list of issues that can produce a poor product if you don’t process it the right way.” 

Dough monitoring systems can help manage these doughs, he added, automatically adjusting the line as needed. 

Gluten-free tortillas and flatbreads will also require different portioning equipment than standard wheat-based products, said John McIsaac, vice president of strategic development, Reiser. 

“Gluten-free generally does not need to be rounded after dividing,” he said. “The key is to accurately divide and place the product for the next step in the process, the press. Reiser has developed specialized equipment that not only accurately scales the dough, but accurately — and consistently — places the product.”

Reiser’s Vemag 500 single lane and multi-outlet dough dividers are well-suited for these BFY doughs. 

Handtmann also offers a series of systems, such as its SE 442 cutting unit and VF 600B dividing machine for doughs of various consistencies. 

Bakers will also need to adapt the flour dusters on their line to a suitable gluten-free option. 

“They have to be designed in a specific, special way to be able to handle the different rice flours and the processing aids that are necessary to sheet dough,” noted Nick Magistrelli, vice president of sales for Rademaker USA. “One of the other key areas that, through experience, Rademaker has learned is that we have to design the reduction units in a special manner to be able to handle the gluten-free doughs in a marketplace.”

Automation is one of the hottest trends in the baking industry in response to the ongoing labor shortage. When it comes to tortilla and flatbread processing, bakers can automate most if not all of their production, saving on labor and reducing costs, but should consider potential bottlenecks, such as product changeover, before committing to new automation. 

“Changeovers are often the enemy of efficient production,” Mr. McIsaac said. “We have spent many of our resources developing equipment that can change from one product to another quickly and cleanly.”

The easier a changeover, the less time and labor required. Handtmann offers change carts for heavier pieces of equipment that would otherwise require multiple people to change out. 

“If we have a heavy attachment on our line, say a dough flow divider, you can back the change cart up, slide off that heavy piece of equipment, take it away from the line to be cleaned and have another changeover cart that just slides back onto the line,” Mr. Hagedorn explained.

Changeover often requires sanitation, another critical component to account for when automating. 

“In today’s world, equipment needs to be easy to change over and easy to clean,” Mr. McIsaac emphasized. “The product path must be accessible and easy to inspect. Our Vemag dough dividers and depositors have a short product path that is 100% accessible for easy inspection, disassembly and cleaning.”

While quick changeover of production is important, it won’t matter if there isn’t adequate space in the bakery for the line in the first place. Mr. Magistrelli pointed out that flatbread lines require lots of linear space to make automated solutions possible. 

“The mixing gear could be offset a little bit, but the moment you start sheeting dough, it goes through a linear belt proofer, these huge extended cascading water style belt proofers, and then you have an oven, all in one line,” he said. “So one of the biggest things that these producers have to find is a plant that can support this type of automating. You can’t be in a landlocked area; you really can’t be in a box set-up in your plant; the square footage really has to be laid out in a linear format, because once that dough starts being sheeted, you essentially have to work through the whole process linearly.”

Regardless of the automation a baker plans to add, Mr. Hagedorn stressed the importance of testing before committing to a solution. 

“[Bakers] know their product the best, they know what they’re looking for, so don’t buy anything on a whim or a salesman promise,” he said. “If you have a really good company that you’re dealing with, listen to them, ask a lot of questions. That’s always the most important thing to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. Find out the positive things they say they can do, and let them prove it to you.”

When bakers look to upgrade their equipment or add a new product, Mr. Hagedorn said they must ask themselves what’s more important: the product or the process? A tortilla maker expanding into flatbreads could try to do so with their dough ball press system, for example, but may sacrifice the quality of the product when investing in new equipment would have been best. 

“They have an idea of a product they want to make, but they use the existing equipment that they have, so it’s not actually the product they really want to make,” he said. “They’re making a product that’s better for their equipment.”

This often results in a final product that bakers aren’t satisfied with, leading them to “Rube Goldberg” their equipment and risk further complicating the process, Mr. Hagedorn continued. 

“They try to do minimal changes to see what they can get away with, and it becomes a longer process when they might have been better off biting the bullet and getting the equipment that’s going to make their new product,” he said. 

Of course, investing in new equipment can be a costly undertaking that’s easier said than done. But the benefits to a final product when it’s done right, as well as the potential labor savings of an automated solution, often make these investments worth it. Bakers that understand this, and the processing needs of these various breads, can successfully dive into the growing world of tortillas and flatbreads.

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