To meet the demands of the booming tortilla industry, manufacturers are moving toward increased automation for tortilla production lines. New advancements in equipment, especially in the mixing, cooling and inspection areas also are inspiring some tortilla makers to refit recently purchased lines with the latest equipment pieces.
Lawrence Equipment’s in-house analysis shows 95 to 97 percent of tortillas now are being produced by hot press method. “If you’re going after the ethnic market [hot press is] closer to handmade, and it is the only method used in Mexico. As far as the foodservice market goes it handles better,” says John Lawrence, president, Lawrence Equipment Co., South El Monte, Calif.
Nick Scheurer, bagel and tortilla products manager, Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, Kan., agrees most stable quality tortillas today are manufactured on hot press lines. “The consumer wants a tortilla that allows them to pack ingredients into it without having it split, and a hot press can provide a strong surface on the tortilla that allows that,” Scheurer says.
In addition, Lawrence says the bar for presses has been raised with companies producing better quality, higher speed presses that offer a better return on investment.
Deciding what works best for a given tortilla company can come down to a matter of personal preference. “Handmade is the way things originally started out,” notes Tim Sieloff, baking instructor, AIB International, Manhattan, Kan. “As far as the characteristics go, there’s a personal preference for every type. You’re going to find there are people that like handmade. They like the shape and symmetry aspect of handmade,” he adds.
The die cut process does not offer the same heating characteristics as the hot press, Sieloff notes. “After the processing and pressing aspect, [the hot press] actually has a better layering concept to it. It changes the mouthfeel of that product. Die cut can end up having, in some cases, more of a flour aspect or more of a dry aspect because of having to use dusting flour to run through the process. Hot press does not deal with that; it eliminates that dusting flour component,” Sieloff says.
In addition, die cut tortillas do not offer the pillowing aspect the hot press achieves. “The hot press has a tendency to seal things and give you a little bit more pillowing, which changes the textural aspects of the product. You’ll find some people like the characteristics that come from die cut, although
I would say hot press is the most popular,” Sieloff adds.
Tortilla cooling has evolved in the past three years. “Most of the lines we sell have an encapsulated room around it that controls temperature now. That means we’re dropping the temperature of the product down into the 50’s before they discharge. Now 98 percent of the lines we sell have that,” Lawrence says. In the past Lawrence Equipment used an ambient cooling system where the tortillas sat on a conveyor to cool. The cooling room allows for a shorter cooling conveyor while accommodating today’s higher through-put.
The biggest change in tortilla production has been in the mixing process, Lawrence says. Vertical mixers allow for higher volume batches, quicker turn around, less labor and a better mix, Lawrence says.
Old school tortilla makers looking to stay with the mixing method they know best, often choose horizontal mixers, Lawrence notes.
The Peerless Group manufactures horizontal roller bar mixers and sells about 15 percent of its mixers to the tortilla market, says Matthew Zielsdorf, vice president sales and marketing, The Peerless Group, Sidney, Ohio. As more fast food companies abroad offer wraps and tortilla products, the company is receiving more mixer orders from overseas, Zielsdorf says.
Peerless usually sells its heaviest duty bowl and frame design to tortilla manufacturers to support the stiffer consistency of tortilla dough compared to bread dough. Zielsdorf adds that 95 percent of the time, when Peerless sells a tortilla mixer it also sells a chunker. Another common combination is a mixer and tine dough feeder, which breaks the dough used for corn tortillas into manageable chunks.
Inspection systems are another innovation for the tortilla line. The inspection system uses an electronic camera and software to check products for any inconsistencies, such as off color, a hole in the product or incorrect diameter, Lawrence says. Such systems are becoming more common. Lawrence Equipment Co. introduced its inspection system 2 1/2 years ago, but did not actively market it until last year because it needed to train enough employees to support it. Three other companies also have introduced inspection systems in the last 18 months, Lawrence says.
The indexer, another new advancement now offered by several equipment companies, makes a large difference for ultra high speed lines by reducing the need for manual labor, Lawrence says. It removes air from the product and discharges all of the products from several rows into a single line before they move into the packing machines.
From mixing to indexing, these new advancements are helping efficiency to such a degree that Lawrence Equipment is retro fitting new equipment into lines that are only two to five years old. “[Manufacturers are] refitting late models of various production equipment because it speeds up production and increases quality,” Lawrence adds.
More advancements to tortilla systems are on the horizon. “[Putting] the product into the box from the counter stacker is going to be refined in the next two to three years. Good systems will just [need] a retro fit with software and a couple of trinkets. New designs will incorporate those [changes] of course,” Lawrence says. In addition, Lawrence says he foresees many manufacturers opting for European-style vertical mixers.
“I believe there’s going to be a lot of innovation with other companies currently working on hot press systems. Manufacturers will have more choices in the future of who to buy their hot press from,” says Caravan’s Scheurer. When it comes to corn tortillas, Scheurer says corn tortilla consumers want products with the same functionality found in flour tortillas. “I think you may see more hybrid products that combine corn and flour made on hot press lines, but with the design and functionality a flour tortilla has,” Scheurer adds.