You may not know its name, but it's out there. A silent protector of all that is rich, smooth, and delightfully melty.
We love ice cream in part because of its old-fashionedness. Think: rich, slow-churned, and handmade; lovingly scooped by an old-timey ice cream parlor lifer and deposited into a freshly folded waffle cone. If we're real lucky, it starts with a local dairy cow named Bessie or perhaps Daisy, the creamy milk lovingly hand-expressed from her swollen teats.*
*or maybe we don't want to think about it quite that much.
Ironically, the ice cream I've had that tastes the most old-fashioned—the creamiest, richest, and smoothest—is made by the most modern method. We're talking stuff made in fancy-pants kitchens that champion contemporary techniques and gizmos. We're talking ice cream made in a Pacojet.
While the Swiss makers of the Pacojet insist that it's designed for a variety of purposes both sweet and savory, most folks in the industry know it simply as "that $4,000 ice cream machine."
So what does it do that a regular ice cream maker can't?
See, regular ice cream—old-fashioned ice cream, that is—is made by creating a base of sweetened, flavored dairy (sometimes with the addition of eggs), that's slowly frozen in a super-chilled container while being constantly churned. The idea is that by churning it as it freezes, you prevent the formation of large ice crystals, leaving you with an end result that is frozen yet smooth, spoon-able, and creamy.
A Pacojet works on an entirely different principle. Resembling a countertop espresso machine, you start by filling a special 1 liter metal canister with your ice cream (or sorbet) base, which you then freeze solid to at least -20°C (around -5°F). Pull it out of the freezer, and you've got a rock-hard block—absolutely impossible to eat.
This frozen canister then gets attached to the Pacojet, which is fitted with a proprietary blade that spins at over 2,000RPM as it slowly lowers itself into the canister, breaking up the ice into crystals far smaller than can be created even with the best traditional churning methods. What emerges a few moments later is ice cream that is smoother and creamier than any ice cream you've ever had in your life (that is, assuming you've never eaten ice cream from a Pacojet).
The ice cream rolls on your tongue like silk. Impossibly smooth, luscious, and creamy, even before it begins to melt.
Here's their promotional/instruction video. I personally have never seen a Pacojet used to make pâté as they suggest is possible:
Of course, you're probably thinking but the damn thing is $4,000. Who the heck would buy it? and yes, it's not a practical tool for a home cook. For a pastry chef at a restaurant, on the other hand, the thing is a godsend.
If you're using a traditional ice cream machine, you'll achieve the best texture when the ice cream is slightly warmer temperature than what you'd fine in a standard freezer—the ice cream needs to be a little bit soft. Achieving this ideal temperature is not easy in a restaurant. You either need a dedicated service freezer in which to store ice creams throughout service (ice creams which then need to be melted and re-churned the next day to prevent the ice crystals that form when re-freezing warm ice cream), or you need to anticipate exactly when you'll need a particular ice cream and pull it out of the deep freeze far enough in advance to let it thaw sufficiently before scooping.
With many customers ordering many different desserts at many different times, this is not an easy task.
With a Pacojet, on the other hand, the task is simple. You just pull out the canister you need from the deep freeze, fit it to the machine, churn out as many portions as you need, and in under a minute you have ice cream or sorbet at the perfect temperature, ready to be served. Many a modern pastry chef has been pulled out from the weeds thanks to this device.
I know that the Pacojet is on Scooped columnist and Serious Eats New York Editor Max's wishlist, though I personally can't see devoting the counter space to a device that only makes ice cream, no matter how good the ice cream.
Still, I'm glad that the Pacojet is out there, quietly doing its job, improving our ice cream and saving pastry chefs from headaches one churn at a time.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.