Artisan bread is often defined by everything conventional sandwich bread is not.

“Artisan implies unique, different, artistic, while high-speed production lends itself to repeatable, consistent and measurable performance,” said Daniel Habel, product team leader, specialty makeup solutions, AMF Bakery Systems.

For many years, automation did not seem like it could ever become a part of the artisan process. It seems to go against the nature of what defines artisan. However, when characterized by high water content, longer fermentation times and open-cell structure, artisan bread can be processed on automated equipment with the leaps technology has made. That doesn’t mean these baked goods don’t come with their own challenges, which are distinct from those involved with producing other breads.

“The whole process — pre-ferment, final mix, long floor times — creates a certain cell structure within the dough, and later in the crumb structure, it requires a gentle approach during the makeup to reach the desired final product,” said Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo, Inc.

All that work to create the perfect open-cell structure can be undone in a divider or moulder that is too rough.

“Artisan dough is not meant to be extruded,” he said.

And then there is the finished product shape. Artisan products are often identified by their irregularities while consumers expect commercial breads to be consistent shapes and sizes. Conventional rounders can shape dough into perfect round dough balls at high speeds, but that’s not what artisan bakers need. Today’s artisan moulders shape dough as gently as human hands and mimic the inconsistencies they create.

All that water in artisan dough creates a stickiness that does not lend itself to running on equipment. Among the high water content, delicate cell structure and consumers’ expectations, artisan bread requires some special accommodations for commercial processing.

Processing dangerously

Damaging the cell structure, or degassing the dough, is probably the biggest threat equipment poses to artisan breads. It’s why artisan bakers have been, and some continue to be, hesitant to incorporate automation into their process.

“Artisan bread is known and characterized by large cell structure and long fermentation,” said Eric Riggle, president, Rademaker USA. “If you run that through a divider, you tend to destroy all that you worked so hard for: pre-fermentation, irregular cell structure, gassiness.”

Every time it’s touched, or has too much pressure put upon it, the dough is de-gassed, and those open cells are lost. It’s important that from the beginning of the makeup process through the oven that the dough is handled as gently as possible. This philosophy does not lend itself to a high-speed operation.

“We have found that people try to rush the process,” said John Giacoio, vice-president of sales, Rheon USA. “They want to throw 1,000 lbs in a hopper and just process it, but you don’t want to do that because it’s not going to be a gassy, large dough structure anymore.”

Rheon designs its hoppers to handle smaller loads of dough at a time: 100 lbs rather than 10 times as much. This prevents operators from overloading the hopper, degassing the dough under its own weight. This also keeps the dough coming out the other end of the hopper at a consistent weight, too, which will help with weight and quality control later down the line.

Rademaker also starts with creating a continuous sheet of dough, using double-chunking sheeting and low-stress sheeting systems. The sheet is cut into lanes with circular knives, and then a guillotine cuts those lanes into pieces.

“It’s a fairly slow and gentle process,” Mr. Riggle said. “It’s not just a guillotine that hammers into the dough sheet. There’s a small point of contact with the dough, so you don’t see a lot of abuse or damage to the dough created by the guillotine.”

Decreasing compression and pressure is a theme in many artisan dough dividers. Reduce these elements, and the damage is reduced as well. AMF Bakery Systems minimizes damage to grain structure with its Flex metering pump technology. This technology reduces the pressure on the dough in the divider.

Werner & Pfleiderer TWS soft roller divider and rounder from Gemini Bakery Equipment was modified to divide with less compression, making it well-suited for high-absorption and fermented doughs.

“The rounding mechanism has also been modified to allow it to round more sensitive or stickier dough formulations,” said Ken Johnson, president, Gemini Bakery Equipment.

The machine also eases transfers with a height adjustable rounding drive that allows dough pieces to be removed directly from the dividing mechanism.

To allow the dough to recover after dividing, Koenig Bakery Systems separates the dividing and rounding processes with its Koenig Industry Rex divider/rounder.

“This way the dough can rest on an intermediate belt before rounding,” said Richard Breeswine, president and chief executive officer, Koenig Bakery Systems.

This resting time allows the cell structure to bounce back after any damage done by the divider.

“Optimal rounding is a result of the combination of rounding time, rounding speed, rounding eccentric, rounding pressure and the right piston size in relation to the dough piece weight,” he said.

Rondo’s Artisana soft moulding and RondoBOT offer bakers control over forming techniques.

“With the RondoBOT, we have the ability to manage the speed under which we round and also the pressure under which we round,” Mr. Murphy said.

While a conventional rounder produces the same dough piece by exerting the exact amount of pressure and speed every time, RondoBOT’s use of robotics and controls creates unique shapes and maintains open-cell structures.

The RondoBOT is suited to round products like rolls, while the Artisana can create a variety of loaf shapes. This soft moulder has a soft under structure on the moulding plates that allows operators to control the pressure being exerted onto the dough to prevent degassing.

Ultimately, moulders are replacing a hand process. Imitating the gentleness of the human hand is the goal.

“For anyone who has ever bench-rounded with their hands, you’re just making a circular motion on the bench with the dough with your hands,” Mr. Giacoio said. “That’s how our rounders work.”

Fritsch USA’s round molding system aims to mimic the rounding movement made by human hands as well.

Desirable irregularity

A hallmark of artisan bread is the fact that no two loaves or rolls look alike. A hallmark of automation is making every loaf and roll look the same. While artisan bakers need automation to meet capacity demands, they still want to preserve that irregular look that comes from handmade processing.

Dividing and rounding techniques can automate this handmade look. With dividers, it all comes down to dividing by weight rather than dimensions.

“You can get every piece looking completely different, but the weight is exactly the same,” Mr. Giacoio said.

Load cells under the conveyor weigh the dough as it travels across, and Rheon’s guillotine cuts the dough once it reaches the desired weight. This precision also assists in maintaining product quality.

“Operators can’t hit the exact weight every time, so they have to add smaller dough pieces or remove dough to achieve the proper weight,” Mr. Giacoio said. “That diminishes the quality of the dough when you’re dividing by hand.”

The variation of the structure of these high-absorption doughs can also make weight accuracy challenging, so a weighing system helps overcome that.

“Being able to get a closer tolerance on weight control is one of the other challenges the market throws at us,” Mr. Murphy said.

Rondo’s Artisana includes an integrated checkweighing system. The feedback from that system helps eliminate weight variations.

Rademaker’s guillotine also divides when it is satisfied with the weight registered by the scaling system tracking the lanes of dough. The system continuously weighs the dough stream until the desired weight it achieved.

Koenig’s pre-portioning hopper uses rotating star rollers to cut the dough by weight.

Once dough is divided, rounders and moulders will put the finishing artisan touches on the dough pieces.

“Rounding and moulding are both tools to get the final shape and feel of the product,” Mr. Habel said.

AMF’s flat-bed rounders are flexible. Operators can easily change out rounder bars to accommodate a variety of doughs.

Adjustability is key to finishing a dough piece irregularly.

“We have to include a lot of flexibility in our equipment to be able to adjust and lessen the amount of rounding,” Mr. Giacoio said of Rheon’s rounders. “We can still make it round, but no two will look alike.”

The RondoBOT gives operators the ability to adjust the pressure and the speed applied to a dough ball. This, in turn, gives operators more control over the shape of the dough ball being formed while still being gentle.

Moulding tools can be adjusted in addition to control settings to achieve just the right size or style. Fritsch USA offers different sizes, shapes and number of rows in its moulding machines that enable bakers to produce a variety of different artisan breads.

“The challenges of high-absorption doughs require some time to find the proper settings and the best design of moulding tools to meet the baker’s needs,” said Patrick Nagel, technical department, customer service, Fritsch USA.

Minipan’s proprietary technology the R_Evolution line gives bakers the flexibility to cut dough by weight or volume. It also allows them to choose to cut and shape consistent bread forms, shape each one uniquely or finish the dough pieces by hand.

The key to finding just the right set-up for a particular line of artisan products requires testing with, and input from, equipment suppliers. Cookie cutter solutions don’t cut it, according to Bruce Gingrich, vice-president of sales for WP Bakery Group USA. He suggested bakers approach the process with an open-book mentality to find the proper solution.

“WP has a strategy of using product/process information and testing to ensure we have provided the ‘right’ solution for the customer’s process,” he said. “We don’t fit the process to the machine; we fit the machine to the process.”

The company has a variety of dividers, rounders and divider/rounder systems and sheeting lines that bakers can test their products on, including a divider/rounder designed to handle soft doughs and large dough pieces.

The sticking point

Artisan needs a little extra assistance making it through processing equipment. At 75% to 85% water, artisan dough is very sticky, making even hand-processing difficult.

“People making these products by hands are using methods so the dough doesn’t stick to them,” Mr. Giacoio explained. “When they mix the dough and pour it into a trough, they will oil the trough, so the dough doesn’t stick to it after sitting there for two hours.”

Oil and dusting flour are common ways, even in automated systems, to prevent dough from sticking to equipment. Rheon features a drip device for oil in its hoppers. Mr. Giacoio said he commonly suggests that bakers shouldn’t be able to see the oil on the dough during processing.

AMF uses temperature control on the belt to prevent dough from sticking.

As artisan breads gain popularity, bakers will continue to search for ways to make more of it more efficiently. With today’s equipment and ever-evolving techniques and technology, the fear of losing product quality is quickly dissipating.