In the current trading climate, there is no error for margin when it comes to recipe cost control. Quite literally, if you go by a market report by Plimsoll (March 2011), which stated that 56% of bakery companies saw their gross margin fall in the last year.

Over the past two years, the average profit margin in the baking industry fell to just 3%. Meanwhile, bakers have been reluctant to pass on price rises to consumers, and with good reason: the recently published Food Standards Agency Biannual Public Attitudes Tracker found that the main food issue concerning people was price (54%). Pressure has never been greater to chip away at the bottom line.

Step forward improvers, which are being touted as one solution amid a renewed focus on the cost-in-use of every ingredient in the recipe. “There are bakers who do not use improvers, and I have no problem with that at all. But for those bakers who do use improvers, they need to be sure that they’re getting the best value in use,” says Sara Autton of Fermex International.

“What improvers do is help bakers get the best out of their other ingredients. So that might mean they’re looking to make the best use of the flour; it might mean that, by using a specialist improver that controls the way the dough behaves on the line, they’ll get less wastage; or if you improve the way a dough behaves in a machine, you don’t need so much rework. It is more important to consider the cost in use of the improver than the pence per kilo price.”

For example, a small to medium-sized bakery might only want to handle one quality of flour, which might be suitable for some products but not others. So the improver would be used to help modify the behaviour of the dough, so that you can make different products from it. This helps with inventory and allows economies of scale in buying one type of flour in bulk.

For larger bakeries that can handle more than one improver, the “one-size-fits-all” improver will work out more expensive. For example, improvers may contain soya flour to make white bread whiter or dough conditioners for longer shelf-life. But why use that for wholemeal bread or shorter shelf-life products if it just wastes money?

More and more improvers are being customised for a particular application, specifically tailored to the flour and process, which means bakers buy the functionality they need, no more and no less. “The cost and quality of the bread can be changed by optimising the combination of a particular flour and improver,” says Marie Parnell of GB Plange. “Plant bakers can now say that they want their flour supplier and their improver supplier to work together to make sure they have the best quality at the best price.”

While it may be limiting to only use one improver, there are ways around this. “There are a few tricks of the trade that mean craft bakers can extend the functionality of a multi-purpose bread improver to create a bespoke formulation that is normally only available to industrial plant bakers,” says Dr Deb Kaszuba, of CSM (United Kingdom). “Using some simple tweaks, the craft baker can maintain the element of craftsmanship that puts him in control of the final product.”

For example, using its Arkady Diamond at 1-2% on flour weight, the addition of 0.2-0.5% of soya flour would increase crumb brightness, while 0.5-5% of fat would improve organoleptic properties. Other ingredients can be added to prevent mould, relax the dough or extend shelf-life, Kaszuba adds. “By using a proven standard improver bakers obtain all the benefits of cost-effective all-round use, excellent performance and simple stock control.”

Also, how concentrated is the bread improver you’re using? Smaller doses make them more cost-effective in use as they’re cheaper to transport. And how the improver is “carried” into your dough can make a big cost difference. “If you look at what commodity prices are doing, wheat has gone through the roof and fats and oils have gone mad,” says Parnell.

“Liquid improvers almost always come in fat-based carriers. With the cost of fats and oils rocketing by around 50% in the last 12 months, that’s a huge oncost. Say you started at £800 a tonne [for fat] and now it’s £1,200 a tonne, that’s a £400 increase. With flour, which could be used as a carrier for powder-based bread improvers, the cost may have increased from £250 to £350 a tonne. Fats and oils are inherently much more expensive than powder-based options.”

For this reason, some major plant bakeries have recently moved, or will soon be moving, back to powder improvers – not that this has proved a widespread industry change yet. “In general, we haven’t seen a significant shift to powders. Liquid improvers tend to be more concentrated and less labour-intensive, in terms of manual handling and weighing in the bakery. Therefore it is a cost-effective solution for most large bakeries,” says Richard Hall of Cereform.

Its answer has been to develop a patented water-based system rather than oil, that has a number of advantages over oil-based systems, not least of which is a cost saving. These include consistent, accurate and dust-free dosing and reduced packaging waste. “We believe our Aqua 4+ product offers the craft baker a 30-40% cost-in-use saving over traditional powdered bread improvers,” says Hall. “It uses the latest enzyme technology and produces highly concentrated, cost-effective liquid improvers, and is aimed at the craft market.”

The shift to emulsifier-free improvers is the major trend in the industry. While some bakers will always turn to datem and SSL for high-fat, high-sugar morning goods, ingredient suppliers are seeing a big drop in demand for emulsifiers and a significant part of the market has already shifted over to clean labels.
One major selling point of Bakels’ new “clean label” improver, Quantum, is that it can absorb between 2-4% more water, which will increase the batch yield and provide economy in use.

“It’s the only bread improver that we’ve ever come across that gives the baker an increased water absorption,” says British Bakels’ technical manager Gary Gibbs. “Why is that important? Water is free, give or take. So you’re getting more bread out of what is the cheapest ingredient in your recipe. And the more water you get into the dough, the softer it is. It’s also giving you strength and development, as you would expect from a bread improver. You get resilient, butterable bread – very straight, well-formed loaves, without any collapsing of the side walls, which is one of the issues in making super-soft UK bread.”

Should any mooted salt reduction target rises over and above the 2012 government targets already in place – which are already proving a challenge for some bakeries – then that will present a big industry challenge for those bakers needing emulsifier-free systems.

“One of the things that emulsifiers do, of course, is to keep the dough in a stable condition for processing,” explains Autton. “If we cannot use them to stabilise the dough, and we cannot use salt for its dough stabilisation properties, then I think there is going to be a big challenge to the industry to find ways of producing bread where they’re not shocking their dough in any way – for example during a prover-to-oven transfer – so it doesn’t collapse.”

“Salt reduction is a major issue and coming up with improver systems that work well in reduced-salt doughs are certainly one of our focus areas,” concurs Hall. “I can see improvers playing a role in helping with dough rheology and stability in reduced-salt doughs.”

Bakeryinfo extra: How can you reduce improver costs for sweet doughs and parbaked breads?
Sugar, dextrose and skimmed milk powder (SMP) have dramatically increased in price in recent times. They are used in bread bakeries to deliver colour and sweetness to bread products. Special enzyme systems are being developed to create dextrose from starch within the dough, thus delivering sweetness and crust colour in situ and allowing the reduction or removal of added dextrose and SMP. In addition this technology can be used to reducing baking time, which saves energy and hence money.

“If you can add sweetness and colour with an enzyme that breaks down the starch that’s present in the flour to release the sugars, with the prices of sugar and dextrose where they are today, you can save yourself quite a lot of money,” says Marie Parnell of GB Plange.

“This could be suitable for par-baked products, where dextrose is sometimes used to impart colour during the bake. The other benefit you get in crusty par-baked products is potentially reducing the baking time. The more you bake a product, the crustier it becomes, and the crustier the bread, the more it ‘shells’ [the crust flakes] in the freezer.

“If you use specific enzymes at a certain level, you can actually reduce your bake time, which saves money through saving energy and increasing throughput, and reducing waste through shelling.” This could save anywhere from 20-50% on the cost of dextrose versus enzymes, the latter of which is a much more expensive ingredient, but is used in tiny doses.