It is no surprise that flour and corn food products, including tortilla chips, are so popular with consumers: They’re fresh and flavorful when served at your favorite restaurant or purchased from your local market. The high quality of today’s tortilla products is made possible by modern production machinery and processing techniques. New equipment enables manufacturers to improve the taste, appearance, and consistency of corn and flour tortillas, tortilla chips, flat breads, pizzas, and other similar products. Some equipment uses the latest advancements in infrared (IR) temperature measurement technology to optimize the performance of gas-fired ovens used in flour and corn food production operations.
Let Them Eat Cake
In the growing U.S. snack food market, tortilla chips may soon overtake potato chips in total sales. According to the Snack Food Association (Alexandria, Va.), Americans consume 1.54 billion pounds of potato chips annually; tortilla chips are close behind at 1.43 billion pounds.
The Spanish first coined the term tortilla (from the Spanish word “torta,” meaning cake) in Mexico, where it was used to describe flat corn and flour cakes. All tortillas were originally made from the pulp of ground corn. Later, when wheat was brought to the New World, white flour tortillas became prevalent.
After tortilla products were first introduced in the southwestern United States, the popularity of the new food item spread rapidly. Today, tortilla chips can come in many different sizes and shapes, such as triangles, rounds, and rectangular strips.
The basic methods involved in tortilla and tortilla chip production have changed little since ancient times. Traditional tortilla preparation involves cooking and steeping (soaking) the corn, pouring off the cooking liquor, and washing the nixtamal (the end product of the cooking, steeping, and washing/draining process). The nixtamal is then dried and ground into corn flour, or masa.
But some things have changed. Today, automated tortilla and tortilla chip factories use gas-fired ovens to bake the formed masa. Tortilla chips are baked at temperatures ranging from 500 to 554°F (260-290°C), with baking time varying from 35 to 50 seconds. Baking enhances the alkaline flavor of the chips and reduces moisture and oil absorption during frying. The tortilla chips are cooled to produce a more uniform consistency and to reduce blistering.
The next step involves frying the chips in oil at temperatures ranging from 338 to 374°F (170-190°C). Salt and seasonings are applied immediately after frying, while the chips are still hot. The chips are then conveyed into an inclined rotating cylinder, where a liquid seasoning mix is sprayed on them. Upon cooling, the oil crystallizes, forming the seasoning coat.
Ensuring a Quality Chip
As in other food production settings, the quality control aspects of tortilla and tortilla chip production are essential. Among the parameters controlled during the production process are the cooking, quenching, steeping, baking, and frying times and temperatures; the moisture content of the corn, nixtamal, masa, and the end product; and the operating condition of the equipment (including the cooker, oven, fryer, and cooling rack).
For Casa Herrera (Pomona, Calif.), a leading supplier of production machinery for flour and corn food products, temperature control is key to ensuring a consistent, high-quality manufacturing operation. Casa Herrera is behind many of the current gas-fired oven designs used for tortilla production. The company’s product line ranges from individual production machines to entire automated assembly lines, including ovens, flour presses, “sheeters,” and other specialty equipment.
Tortilla chip factories utilizing gas-fired ovens are concerned about “toast points,” small brown burn spots on the tips of the tortilla chip that occur during the production process. Maintaining the desired toast point hinges on the proper measurement and control of temperatures in oven heating zones.