As the world continues to shrink and the U.S. population diversifies, bakery products from around the world have made inroads into the mainstream American diet. Croissants are an unassuming breakfast sandwich carrier. Tortillas are as pervasive as a loaf of bread. Flatbreads from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia are seeing an opportunity to achieve staple-status.

“Flatbreads in general are gaining popularity also due to the still growing demand for convenience foods,” said Henk Hoppenbrouwers, sales director, Tromp Group.

The flatbread category includes a wide variety of products, including innovative sandwich thins. And though sandwich thins initially spurred growth for this segment, ethnic flatbreads are picking up that baton.

“The flatbread category as a whole has remained popular even after the initial trend of ‘thins’ has somewhat stabilized,” said Eric Riggle, president, Rademaker USA. “What we see now is a growth in wraps: flatbreads that can be wrapped around a filling and put on a sandwich press. The key being a stable product that can be wrapped and not fall apart.”

Instilling that kind of flexibility and strength into these bread varieties remains one of the goals of commercial processing. The dough also must be sheeted very thin, which comes with its own challenges that must be addressed on the equipment. 

Issues with thin
The most identifying feature of flatbreads is the obvious fact that they are flat. It’s in the name. That characteristic typically is achieved by sheeting the dough, sometimes to less than 1 mm. Reducing these doughs, often dry and with higher gluten content, can be tough on the sheeters.

“One of the processing challenges to thin products is always that, the thinner you go, the more deflection you can see in the sheeting process, which results in possible thickness variations,” Mr. Riggle said. “When you are typically sheeting products at less than 1 mm, any deflection or deviation in the sheeting process can result in unwanted weight variation.”

Rademaker addresses this issue with larger rollers that can reach up to a 16-inch diameter and are made from solid stainless steel. The sheeters also can adjust the gap to compensate for these forces and improve weight accuracies, Mr. Riggle explained.

Another strategy to accommodate these doughs is to sheet in multiple steps with different kinds of sheeters, relieving each station in the production line from being overwhelmed.

“You can’t rely on the sheeting equipment to do too much,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery. “It’s critical when you design these kinds of systems to build in the necessary sheeting capacity.”

Mr. Moline suggested using cross sheeting and multi-roll sheeters and finishing the dough reduction with traditional smooth sheeting stations.

“Cross sheeting gives you control over the stresses in the dough sheet and, thereby, the product shape when you cut it,” he explained. “Multi-roll sheeters are critical to have in the process because they are capable of the most reduction while still being gentle on the dough.”

This strategy enables bakers to get the dough reduction and weight control they need without putting too much strain on any one piece of equipment.

Instilling strength
A thin dough sheet does not equal a delicate dough sheet. Flatbreads require strength to perform the way consumers expect. Imparting strength into the dough sheet can happen in the processing, rather than the formulating.

“Straight sheeting processes can result in a product that does not have the required strength to wrap around the filling and not split or break,” Mr. Riggle said.

Laminating can deliver that structure.

“Rademaker delivers flatbread sheeting lines with in-line lamination in order to create strength across all axis so that when the product is flexed or wrapped around the filling it does not break,” he said.

Laminating requires additional capital expense and floor space, but bakers can see a return in certain flatbreads in the strength it imparts to the dough. It builds this by ensuring that the stresses on the sheet are even.

“Without laminating, products tend to be weaker and susceptible to tearing if they’re made into a finished good,” Mr. Moline explained. A laminated flatbread can be used as a sandwich carrier or a wrap without tearing.

This strength also enables the dough to be sheeted better. Mr. Moline recommended fitting a laminator into the line between sheeting stations.

While the category is diverse, sheeting systems have the versatility to meet the needs of most flatbreads.

“Of course, all equipment has its technological limitations,” Mr. Hoppenbrouwers said. “But if you compare sheeting equipment with traditional bread equipment, the variety of doughs and appearance of the final products with a sheeting line seems unlimited.”