February 1, 1999

13 Min Read
Viva Tortilla

Viva Tortilla
February 1999 -- Applications

By: Ann Juttelstad
Associate Technical Editor

  The characteristic flat shape of tortillas belies the fact that the tortilla market itself is far from flat. In fact, this exploding category is really on a roll. When rolled around veggies, rice, cheese, beef, chicken or even buffalo, tortillas are making an impact in the marketplace that goes far beyond a Hispanic audience. Mainstream America has adopted the wrap and the tortilla as its own.

Market activity

  Tortillas topped bagels, English muffins and pita breads as the most popular ethnic bread in the country in 1997, according to the Tortilla Industry Association (TIA), Dallas. TIA estimates that Americans consumed more than 75 billion tortillas in 1998, not including tortilla chips, which continue to enjoy popularity as well. Even though tortilla sales flattened somewhat in 1998, producers see the market as far from mature, with opportunities in the frozen, HMR and foodservice arenas.

  Data from ACNielsen indicate that 44% of all U.S. households purchased tortillas in 1997, spending approximately $650 million on the product. New, maturing and established families are the biggest users, with younger couples coming a close fourth in the purchase of tortillas and tortilla products.

  As large as the home-consumption market is, however, the foodservice marketplace contributes $2 billion in tortilla sales as well, according to Elway Research, a Seattle-based market research firm. Such chains as KFC and Subway cater to this market with "wrap sandwiches" designed to be complete, portable meals. These products are intended to be eaten out-of-hand, with little mess or fuss.

  Additionally, according to TIA, consumers are using tortillas to accommodate fillings that have traditionally been seen far from the local cantina. Hot dogs, lasagna and pizza are all showing up inside the unassuming flat bread with the humble beginnings.

A look 'round the process

  Originally, tortillas were fashioned by heating corn, or maize, in a lime (calcium oxide) solution and then soaking overnight. After the lime solution was discarded, the kernels were washed repeatedly and then pounded into a paste known as masa. The masa was then shaped into thin cakes and baked on a hot plate.

  Corn was the only grain used in the original formulations, until the Spaniards brought wheat to North America in 1525. This eventually lead to the production of tortillas from wheat flours as well as corn. Now, wheat-flour tortilla sales outstrip corn-flour tortilla sales 2:1, says TIA, with white-flour tortillas leading the market over the whole-wheat variety.

  All this action in the marketplace has opened new doors for manufacturers, while forcing them to develop new techniques for manufacturing more tortillas at a faster rate. It has also spurred tortilla manufacturers to come up with new and innovative colors, flavors and sizes to accommodate the market, which quickly tires of the "same old thing" and seeks something new and different.

  Until recently, according to the American Institute of Baking (AIB), Manhattan, KS, most tortillas were manufactured in small, often family-run factories, or tortillerias. Now, however, corporations are producing tortillas at the rate of 4,000 to 6,000 per hour, and tortilla-making has become high-tech.

  Processing varies for different types of tortillas. Corn tortillas can be made from fresh, ground masa, or from masa flour (masa harina) that has been reconstituted with water. From the masa stage, corn tortillas are made by extruding or sheeting the mixture, followed by stamping out the shape, baking in a continuous conveyer oven, cooling and then packaging.

  Flour tortillas undergo more rigorous processing, due to formulation variables. There are three commercially viable means of production - the hot-press, hand-stretch and die-cut methods. Of these, the hot-press method is used most frequently, because it is most suited to automatically producing tortillas with consistent qualities. The hand-stretch method relies on a sheeter to roll the dough into a thin sheet, after which it is hand-stretched into the characteristic irregularly shaped round. This hand-finishing lends an artisan look to the product, but the method is slow. In die-cut processing, the dough is sheeted, then cut to shape. The remaining scraps are rerouted back to the sheeter to be used again.

Hot off the presses

  Most large commercial tortilla manufacturers use the hot-press method of mixing, forming and baking to produce flour tortillas. In this method, a smooth dough consisting of flour, water, fat, salt, baking powder or yeast, preservatives, gums, reducing agents, sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL) or other emulsifiers is mixed to a water absorption level of around 750 Farinograph units.

  High water-absorption levels produce a silky, smooth-textured dough, with many layers in the final product. However, excessive amounts of water can result in a dough that is too sticky to be machinable. Overmixing also can produce sticky doughs with machinability problems, while undermixed doughs can produce smaller blisters than properly mixed doughs. Blisters create desirable characteristics in the final product, showing up as lightly browned spots on the surface.

  Dough temperature also affects consistency, with lower dough temperatures increasing water absorption. This leads to a softer final product. Dough temperature also affects formulas incorporating yeast by influencing the rate of yeast growth, which affects the aroma and flavor of the final product. The optimum temperature for flour-tortilla dough is 90° to 100°F.

  After mixing, the tortilla dough is scaled to between one and two ounces, depending on the diameter desired, and then is allowed to rest. Relaxing the dough helps the pressing process - insufficient relaxation can result in a translucent finished product with less puffing. After resting, the dough pieces are moved under a disc-shaped hydraulic press that is heated to between 350° and 450°F. The press exerts 400 to 1,100 lbs. of pressure, flattening the ball of dough into the distinctive round, flat tortilla shape. The pressing process forms a thin skin on the surface of the tortilla, limiting the escape of steam and carbon dioxide during baking. This causes the tortilla initially to puff into a balloon shape, which deflates upon cooling.

  Baking is done in a conveyer oven that flips the tortilla over during its journey through the oven. Baking time is approximately 40 seconds in a 375° to 400°F oven. The tortillas are then cooled and packaged.

The right stuff

  Basic as the components in tortillas are, using ingredients with the right properties is critical to successful manufacturing.

  Flour should have a protein content of 9.5% to 11.5%. Flours with less protein or gluten yield tortillas that crack easily and split after overnight storage. Flours with more than 11.5% gluten, however, produce doughs that take longer to mix and that require longer resting periods before pressing and baking.

  Fat, in the form of shortening or liquid oil (used in the die-cut method of manufacture), improves machinability and reduces dough stickiness. High shortening levels also help prevent cracking when the tortilla is folded or rolled. Lard and partially hydrogenated vegetable fats tend to make tortillas hard, according to research done by Florian Ward, Ph.D., vice president, TIC Gums, Belcamp, MD. Blending liquid oil with lard, other shortenings or partially hydrogenated liquid vegetable oils helps plasticize the tortilla.

  Emulsifiers such as SSL condition the dough, making it easier to handle and improving the finished texture. Distilled mono- and diglycerides can help reduce shortening levels required. They improve tearing quality and help prevent tortillas from sticking to each other in the package.

  Leavening agents provide puffing during the baking process, yielding a tender tortilla. Baking powder and leavening acids such as monocalcium phosphate (MCP), sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP) and sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS) are all used. Yeast is also used in some formulas to provide the typical yeasty aroma and taste, as well as for leavening. Leavening ingredients can also help control pH. A high pH improves dough consistency and tortilla quality, but a low pH improves shelf life.

  Gums such as guar, carboxymethylcellulose, xanthan and gum arabic improve machinability, decrease dough stickiness, delay staling, improve rolling and folding properties, bind water, improve freeze/thaw stability and decrease moisture loss. Ward advises adding gum during dry-blending to assure a homogeneous mix. Water should be added in amounts of four to six times that of gum in the blend, due to the high water-absorption characteristics of the gum. Because of this water-binding activity, the effect on final moisture level and water activity in the final product is minimal, while the additional water in the formula helps increase yields substantially.

  Starches also add functionality to tortilla dough. Kathy Lewis of Penford Food Ingredients, Englewood, CO states that co-blending unmodified pregelatinized starches, such as potato starch, with monoglycerides can improve machinability of a tortilla dough, thus improving output. Monoglycerides provide anti-staling qualities and improve shelf life. Studies conducted by Penford have shown up to 44% improvement in shelf life using the co-blended product.

  Reducing agents improve dough quality and reduce resting time. L-cysteine, sodium bisulfites and sodium metabisulfites improve machinability and decrease elasticity. Oxidizing agents such as ascorbic acid and potassium bromide improve mixing tolerance and dough machinability.

  Milk solids can be added as non-fat dry milk, improving crumb color, flavor and dough handling. A level of 0.75% milk solids is recommended.

  Preservatives and acidulants inhibit mold growth after packaging. Sodium and calcium propionate, potassium sorbates, sorbic acid, fumaric acid, phosphoric acid, citric acid and monocalcium phosphate are all used as tortilla preservatives.

  Because preservatives such as propionates and sorbates lose their effectiveness above pH 6.0 to 6.5, scientists at Lallemand/American Yeast Division, Montreal, stress the importance of controlling the final pH of the tortilla. This also helps with finished product quality. Ward says that the optimum pH of a tortilla is 5.5 to 6.5. "A pH below this range results in a lighter color, while a pH above the range results in a darker color, a bitter taste, more browning and a soapy mouthfeel."

  Since sorbates are more effective than propionates from pH 5.5 to 6.5, using sorbates instead of propionates in this pH range is advisable. When baking powder is used in a formula, sodium propionate is better to use than calcium propionate, because calcium can interfere with the baking-powder salts.

Reducing the fat

  Various ingredients help facilitate the machinability, taste and texture of low-fat products. Gums can help control water activity and improve mouthfeel. Dough conditioners made from non-leavening dry yeast relax the dough, and can improve both machinability and shelf life, particularly the tortilla's rollability over time.

  Fat replacers made from oat, rice or wheat products can successfully mimic a fatty mouthfeel by forming a smooth gel when combined with water in the formula. Pacific Grain Products, Inc., Woodland, CA, manufactures Pac-Tilla, which was originally designed as a fat replacer for tortillas. This ingredient has also been found to have significant positive effects as a dough conditioner and in prolonging the shelf life of the product.

  While low-fat and non-fat tortilla chip sales accounted for only around 6% of total tortilla chip sales in 1997, according to the Snack Food Association (SFA) Alexandria, VA, this figure is still significant to the $3.4 billion tortilla chip industry. In the first six months after introduction, Frito-Lay's Wow! Doritos® chips, which contain olestra, pulled in $45.8 million in sales, according to the SFA. Clearly, non-fat tortilla offerings are here to stay.

Wrapping it up

  Tortilla manufacturers are expanding beyond Hispanic cuisines by marketing the oversized, flavored and sometimes brightly colored tortillas known as wraps, or wrappers, to various food industry sectors. Under this new name, tortillas enter the world of global cuisine, introducing the possibility for a huge variety of non-traditional flavors. The "wrap" moniker moves tortillas beyond being a strictly Mexican item to one that is more mainstream.

  Consumers are interested in wraps, but may be unsure how to use them at home. Therefore, while perhaps not flying off the shelves in the grocery stores, wraps have found acceptance in restaurants and other foodservice settings. Once consumers understand how wraps can be utilized using a variety of fillings, they will likely be more interested in using them at home. Meanwhile, opportunities beckon for food formulators to put the wrap to good use in ready-to-eat products.

  In their first introduction, wrappers were too thick and too large, at a 13-inch diameter, to be consumed in one sitting. There was simply too much bread for the diner to eat. Thus, the second generation of wrappers was born - thinner and smaller than the first.

  "What's simple for the producer may not be the best solution for the foodservice customer and their guest," observes Michael Tamayo, vice president of manufacturing for La Tortilla Factory, Santa Rosa, CA. "Thus it has become necessary for the producers of wraps to strategically align themselves with the customer and develop solutions for the different applications. Hence, the flavored wrap was born."

A flavored wrap differs from a traditional tortilla in four key ways: it is more extensible; it is thinner; it is less prone to moisture migration; and it is baked with the absence of toast marks. "Wrappers achieve two important factors," says Tamayo - portability and cleaner ties and blouses. Wraps were developed not only with the target market in mind but also with an eye to the need for fast assembly on the foodservice line and less waste on the consumer end.

  "Wrappers have become vehicles for fusion foods," continues Tamayo. Wraps going to the foodservice market represent 10% of his company's customers, he says. As with most new-product introductions, customer acceptance has a great deal to do with the manner in which the product is presented.

  As consumers become more and more aware of the versatility and convenience of the traditional corn and flour tortillas as well as the new and trendy wrap, the market for these products will continue to expand. "The popularity of the wrap style tortilla will continue to gain ground as long as the food service industry continues to add gourmet wraps to their menus and as long as car makers continue to make automobiles," says Tamayo.

Wrap formation

  Tortillas formulated to be used as wraps often contain additional ingredients, such as liquid and dry flavors added during the mixing process. Freeze-dried or drum-dried black and pinto beans, spinach, dried tomatoes, basil and other herbs add flavor and color to tortillas. Jeff Van Drunen, vice president of Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL, recommends using fire-roasted red bell peppers and freeze-dried super-sweet corn in formulations.

  Freeze-dried vegetables are individual pieces of vegetable material, while drum-dried products are flakes. Both are blended directly into the dry portion of the dough mix, in the last stages of mixing. During the first stages of mixing, says Ward, too many large particulates can interfere with the homogenous blending of gums and other minor ingredients, resulting in blends of uneven quality.

  The trick, say the experts, is combining complementary flavors, and staying away from wrap products that are too highly flavored or ones that compete with the filling flavors. Ginger-flavored wraps may be successfully teamed with chicken, green onion and water chestnuts with a soy dipping sauce, for instance, for an Asian-inspired wrap. Or, a tomato-flavored wrap may be teamed with barbeque beef and coleslaw for a Western slant. Whatever the food scientist imagines can be successfully incorporated into a wrap. Recipes for tortilla wraps are available by contacting La Tortilla Factory, and on their website, located at www.latortillafactory.com.

  Product possibilities range from flexible flour tortillas rolled around meat, rice or beans to crispy chips and colorful, tasty wraps. Opportunities abound for food product developers looking to satisfy consumer craving for convenience, portability and taste - all in the familiar form of a tortilla.

And that's a wrap, folks.

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