Cornu immediately recognised that this basic research into dough offered the potential to optimise his gluten-free products. Gluten is a long-chain protein that can be shaped into elastic strands under mechanical pressure, for example through mixing or kneading. When the dough is baked, these strands ensure that the expanding vapour bubbles inside retain a relatively intact porous structure, thus enabling the bread to rise properly.
If there is no gluten in the dough, the bubbles burst sooner, leading to significantly reduced expansion. The finished product is nowhere near as voluminous as it should be and its irregular porosity makes for a hard texture. Previously, this problem was partially alleviated by adding emulsifiers and polysaccharides (thickening agents) to the dough – but this came at the expense of natural, healthy nutrition, as well as diminishing the flavour of the finished product. Windhab’s research offered a possible way out of this dilemma. Working hand in hand with Cornu, the researchers came up with the idea of aerating the gluten-free dough using Windhab’s extruder in order to deliver most of the desired foam structure and volume to the rusks before baking. The subsequent baking process would then serve merely to lend the foam the required firmness and to extract moisture.
“Cornu is an unconventional businessman,” says Windhab. “If, after careful examination, he likes an idea, he simply says: ‘Let’s do it!’” From the researcher’s point of view, this is the key difference between partnerships with SMEs and those with large corporations: “The latter generally offer much greater scalability for jointly developed technologies. But the decision-making processes are far quicker in SMEs.”
Windhab and Cornu launched a project entitled TopGlu0 and submitted it to the Swiss Innovation Agency (Innosuisse) in the hope of receiving funding. The Swiss government approved funding for a three-year research partnership, enabling Windhab’s group to build the first pilot extruder in 2013. The extruder initially had a production volume of up to 50 kilogrammes of micro-aerated dough per hour, but was subsequently scaled up. For the shift to large-scale production, Windhab got Bühler – a Swiss mechanical engineering company – on board.
Windhab convinced Bühler’s management team that the planned extruder had a future in the food technology industry – one that went well beyond Roland. If they succeeded in producing gluten-free rusks for Roland using aerated, highly viscous doughs, there would be nothing to stop them launching the process in the market for fresh-baked goods and other foodstuffs. “Innovations usually have far-reaching consequences,” says Windhab. He argued that the new extrusion process could, in the future, be coupled with other novel baking processes currently being tested at ETH. “That could reduce baking times more than fivefold,” he said, emphasising the potential benefits of shorter baking lines, reduced power consumption and lower costs.
Bühler were impressed. In 2016, the three partners launched Glu-0-Z-Tec, another Innosuisse project, which was funded by the Swiss government to the tune of some half a million francs. Bühler initially provided a standard pasta extruder, which Windhab’s technicians adapted – and successfully tested – for the production of microfoams. The process has now reached throughput rates of 300 kilogrammes of dough per hour, and the production facility is set to come on stream in the Roland factory in spring 2019.