Renee Boeckman, Manager of Experiment Baking, originally took her bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition science to work as a laboratory technician in a hybrid wheat research facility. Ten months later, her resume still on file for an internship for which she had earlier applied, she received a call from AIB International asking if she would be interested in interviewing for a position in the Experimental Bakery.
“I was really excited after I learned what they did in the labs here,” Boeckman said. “During my coursework at Kansas State University, I discovered that my interest was more in science than nutrition. The idea of working with ingredients and conducting controlled bake tests to see what happens really appealed to me.”
Decades of New Experiences
Twenty four years later, Boeckman is still excited about her work. “I think the most enjoyable aspect of my job is that the work we do is always changing,” she said. “We are not just conducting routine flour tests in bread—we bake and fry a variety of products and change ingredients in those formulations. In the past couple of months we have worked on tortillas, crackers, frozen pizza, yeast raised doughnuts, and white pan bread. This month we are making pan pizza, bread, and rodent food bars.” Experimental baking also conducts outreach by assisting BS&T participants, demonstrating equipment to seminar participants, and testing products from external bakeries.
Commercial vs. Test Products
The variety of products produced and tested in experimental baking differ from those being prepared for commercial sales. “One thing that some people may not understand about experimental baking is that our formulas tend to be very lean, containing minimal ingredients, so they may not produce great baked goods,” Boeckman said. “We just need to be able to detect changes that may occur when ingredients or processes are changed. Commercial formulas are developed to tolerate changes, but in research we want to be able to observe and measure differences when we swap out ingredients.”
Precision is Key
Given the highly technical, research-oriented nature of the work, experimental baking requires precision and great attention to detail. “We go to great lengths to in order to conduct controlled bake tests. From the way we set up scale sheets, to scaling ingredients, to the actual mixing and processing and all the follow up work, attention to detail is critical to good research. Our group takes a lot of pride in being detail oriented.”
Responding to Trends
Industry demand dictates the types of products produced, tested, and scored by the experimental baking staff. “For example, if companies are trying to reduce sodium or extend the shelf-life of their baked goods, our projects will reflect those changes and trends,” Boeckman said.
A typical week in the experimental baking lab might start with creating scale sheets and weighing the proper ingredients. After the test bake is complete, baking products are scored and digitally photographed with data collected for reports. “Because of the follow up work required 24 hours after production, we usually do not bake on Fridays. The exception would be for products that require same day evaluations,” she said.
Experimental baking requires photographic records, and the photography aspect of her work is particularly appealing to Boeckman. “I have a passion for photography and I incorporate it into most of our research projects. I take pictures of production lines running dough, equipment, finished baked goods, BS&T students working in the labs, and AIB activities.”