The cost of malt is going up. Boo! But using malt will actually save you money. Yay! As paradoxes go and the baking industry has enough of them when you consider that supermarkets are driving down prices when they’re becoming more expensive to make that’s one of the more palatable ones.

The fluctuations in barley prices closely follow those of wheat (although with malted wheat, there is a micro-market within that for a specific grade, which commands a premium). In September, when we visited malt supplier Muntons’ base in Stowmarket, malted barley was being bought in at £180 per ton close to the £200+ peak of 2007. Contrast that to 2009, where it cost between £90-£100. Farmers were selling barley at £20 per ton below cost, which means they sowed 30% less that year the effects of which have now filtered through.

"The crop cost is exceptionally high this year, and we have to pass that on," says marketing manager Andy Janes. "For some strange reason, our customers don’t like price increases! It does go both ways and we would very much like to introduce more stability into our cost structure by engaging our customers in the buying process all the way down to the farmers. Everybody in the baking industry who buys wheat, anybody who buys barley, is having the same problem."

Good job you only need to use malt in small quantities in bakery. In fact, one of the reasons Muntons invested in a recently opened innovations centre was to develop malt ingredients to drive value and profit through bakery products. Technical sales support manager John Pritchard says this has sparked a flurry of activity around malt ingredient applications for bakery, with 50 ongoing projects across its food and beverage NPD.

Previously Muntons had a single test bakery tucked away in its plant, which doubled as a brewery and NPD kitchen. Now, those facilities have been split and given a new home with new technology; there is a sensory assessment and product analysis facility on-site; a photography room; and space for visitors to get packaging advice, training and technical support. What’s more, the firm can now produce small test quantities of 25kg for trial purposes in bakeries; previously, the minimum quantity they could produce was a ton.

Co-operative effort

"Customers increasingly want co-operation from us on product development. The ability for us to do test work for them or get them on-site means we can progress much more quickly," says Pritchard. "We have so many ideas that we’re having to prioritise. We already have around 200 ingredient products and some of those are subtly different. So you have to taste, see and smell the product to appreciate the difference, and that’s one thing we can offer here."

So what of this miracle cost-cutting, you cry? With the price of cocoa tripling and problems of availability rife, a recent breakthrough heralds one antidote to spiralling cocoa prices: a new ingredient designed to enhance chocolate baked goods, while also reducing raw material costs. Maltichoc is a blend of roasted malt flours and dried malt extracts, which allows you to make, for example, a 20% cocoa reduction in a brownie using 2% of the ingredient; cocoa could be reduced by up to 50% in a chocolate biscuit, it is claimed.

Andrew Fuller, Muntons’ product development technologist, says: "A reduction of up to 50% in cocoa powder is possible while seeing no loss of product quality." Janes adds that it boosts the cocoa flavour and substitutes the colour, while extending shelf-life. "Even if people are using basic commodity cocoa powders, they can bring them up a level in darkness and richness," he believes. "I actually think it gives more intensity of chocolate flavour using a small percentage." The ingredient has a clean label of ’Barley Malt Flour, Barley Malt Extract’.

Another key ingredient under development is gluten-free malt. "We’re very close to achieving that, and it’s a product we originally developed for brewing," says Janes. There is a lot of crossover between brewing and baking; in recent years, a hopped spray malt extract, developed for home brewing, found its way into bread as a means of reducing salt levels. "We found that it enhanced the perceived salt flavour in the taster the bittering hops confused the palate into thinking it was salty when it was actually bitter. It moves the goalposts quite significantly from low-salt bread being bland, to being tasty. There is a little way to go yet, before we can use it as a direct salt substitute, but it can be part of a solution to reducing salt."

Boosting cheese flavour

Another unexpected result of playing around with malt in the lab was discovering a cheese flavour-boosting usage especially for biscuits and crackers. "People think malt has a generic flavour, but we’ve got cereal flavours through to toffee, caramel, roasted, bitter and burnt flavours, fruity flavours and even cheesy flavours," says Pritchard.

It’s not just about colour and flavour either. Malted wheat or barley flour finds its way into some less-than-obvious places, including most of the ciabatta, focaccia and croissant products on the market. It is used at a very low level for the high enzyme activity it produces during fermentation. This can make a big difference to the texture, such as a very open crumb in ciabatta when used on a high throughput sheeting line, mimicking hand-stretched wet doughs. Malt extract also goes into bagels as a clean-label means of improving volume and crust colour.

Janes says that a move in the industry towards batch processing with natural ingredients has led to a "big swing back towards malt in baking". "The baking industry has a heritage and tradition of using malt," he says. "The Chorleywood Bread Process was a pain for us, as malt enzymes are more resilient than fungal enzymes in the oven, which was a problem for people using a high-speed process." While malt manufacturers evolved non-diastatic ingredients without the detrimental effects of the enzyme activity, he says, "We’ve gone through that cycle and people are again beginning to recognise the importance of natural ingredients in a natural product like bread".

How do you make malt extract?

A simple analogy is making a pot of tea. You roller-mill malted grains to a fine powder and infuse them in water at controlled temperatures for a set time. The starch is broken down, and you strain the liquid. The resulting liquid is called wort. This is evaporated into a more stable malt extract syrup, made up of around 20% water and dissolved solids. By using different colour grains such as a small amount of roasted grains mixed in with non-roasted grains you can produce darker extracts. So depending on the blend of grains, there is an almost infinite variety of syrup colours and strengths that can be extracted.
These syrups can be spray dried to make powdered malt extracts. The partially evaporated syrup is sprayed through an atomiser and forced through a heated chamber, drying as it falls through a cyclone before the particles exit as a very fine powder. Another way of doing it is band drying, where a band moves across hotplates under vacuum. Syrup is trickled onto the band, which bubbles up like a honeycomb cake that is later coarsely milled. This can lead to a more intense flavour suitable for chocolate products, rather than the more gentle spray-drying method.