I t could be said that the smaller bakery revolves around its mixer, dire pun though that is. Apart from the oven, the mixer is probably the piece of equipment most vital to day-to-day production. Strange, then, that it is a piece of equipment that the modern age has passed by in many artisan operations.

Anthony Kindred, of Kindred Bakery in Herne Hill, London and director of the National Association of Master Bakers, says that, like most of his fellow craft bakers: "I bought one I liked and I have kept it forever."

For bread dough mixes he bought a spiral mixer in 1984 and replaced that with a bigger version 11 years ago. For smaller bread doughs and cake mixes he has a planetary mixer, a Hobart, which is "probably older than I am!". The only upgrade that it has required is a safety guard.

Kindred says no-one has ever made the argument to change for energy-saving or efficiency reasons. A timer might be useful, he says, but that said, it is in the nature of a craft baker to want to give the mixture some extra stirring at the end to get it right. So is there a whole brave new world of mixers out there, passing the craft sector by?

David Marsh, managing director of Benier UK, is not pressing anyone into hasty action. He tells British Baker that a good mixer, sourced from a reputable supplier can last up to 20 years if it is properly serviced and maintained. "The most common reason why bakers will change their mixers is because their business needs change, either through growth or product mix," he says.

For a baker planning to change his mixer, the key criterion is that it is the appropriate size to meet the requirements of the business. "Too small and it will hold back your business, too large and you are spending money unnecessarily," says Marsh.

The other main criterion, particularly given the longevity of this product, is "to buy from a reputable supplier who has a proven record in service, repairs and maintenance," he advises. But, he suggests, it is worth upgrading, particularly for reasons of hygiene, to a mixer made with stainless steel surfaces, for example.

Variable speeds and cycles

Whereas older mixers may only have two speeds, many modern mixers also have optional variable speed drives, which means they can also mix the dough more gently or more robustly, as required.

Another development is programmable mixing cycles, which can stop and start the mixer at intervals to allow the dough to rest or other ingredients to be added. And interchangeable tools are now available; one example might be a spiral mixer toolfor bread dough, which can be quickly and easily replaced by a tool that will beat butter/fat into the dough to make a Scotch pastry paste.

Supplier Mono Equipment’s marketing manager Claire Roberts suggests that extra capacity or the fact that your current mixer doesn’t comply with safety regulations are the two main reasons for a mixer to be replaced. The advantages of newer models over older ones include advanced programming, more mixing programmes, up-to-date safety features guards and automatic bowl lifting and lowering plus increased capacity, she suggests. Again, reliability is the most important criteria for this sort of purchase, whether spiral or planetary mixer.

Strength, processing times and hygiene, such as that offered by a complete stainless steel model, are also major factors in the decision-making process. How user-friendly is the model? Does it have a wipe-clean control panel and additional equipment such as hooks, whips, scrappers? These are also questions that the baker should ask when making a purchase. Finally, is the bowl size right for the volumes of doughs passing through the bakery? Mono stocks the new Ergo Bear range of mixers, Roberts says, the advantages of which include a digital timer, soft bowl lowering, a stainless steel beater and shorter processing times.

Looking to the industrial sector to see what the future might hold, supplier Baker Perkins’ Tweedy range of mixing systems for high-output plants now includes a pressure/vacuum mixing option, which can be retrofitted. The benefits of pressure/vacuum mixing include: increased yield as dough is more machinable at a higher water content; improved crumb colour and softness hence improved shelf-life; and a reduction in expensive ascorbic acid normally used to aid oxidation.

The pressure/vacuum process involves the application of pressure and vacuum sequentially to the mixing bowl. The pressure and vacuum stages of the cycle can be adjusted, so that the full range of structures can be produced, from open-structured breads such as baguettes to pan breads, says marketing manager Keith Graham.

Meanwhile, supplier European Process Plant supplies a mixer to the industry that it claims stays cleaner for longer. MD Keith Stalker explains: "VMI’s new Expert mixers are incredibly easy to wash down, because the materials used are stainless steel and some high-density polyethylene. Its profile has been designed without any zones of retention."

Outside the core bakery sector, food-service suppliers are developing commercial thermo-blenders, such as the EasyPro by Hotmix, manufactured in Italy by Vitaeco. This can chop, purée, grate, grind, mill, mince, knead, liquidise, mix, stir and emulsify. It will also heat and cook food creams, sauces and jams, for example at temperatures ranging from 25°C to 130°C, while continuously mixing at variable speeds. Another option is the Thermomix, a power mixer that also weighs, cooks, steams and grinds.

But whatever the features available on a modern mixer, some will always prefer to nurture an old friend. It’s a similar argument to the one that rages between the classic car brigade and fans of a more modern ride. It’s often not just about getting from A to B in the craft baking sector either.