If you want to start a lively debate, put a savory chef and a pastry chef in a room and bring up Pacojets.
Invented in Switzerland in the 1980s and made available to the U.S. market in 1992, a Pacojet is “a dynamic professional kitchen appliance that makes it easy to prepare high-quality dishes while saving time, labor and reducing food waste.” In most kitchens in this country, though, it is simply a $5,000 ice cream machine. Whereas traditional machines rely on a liquid base, a frozen chamber, and a sharp, horizontally rotating blade, a Pacojet vertically shears a frozen base into ice cream or sorbet.
The metal containers the liquid base is frozen in are referred to as beakers and each safely holds 1 liter of product. At $50 apiece, however, most kitchens freeze their base in plastic pint delis, then transfer the puck to a beaker when needed. N.B. If you ever find yourself on the phone with a representative from Pacojet, the answer to “do you only freeze your liquid base directly into the beakers?” is always “yes.”
It should be clear from the preceding paragraph that Pacojets are not practical for restaurants with high nightly cover-counts. If you’re blowing through 4 quarts each of several different kinds of ice creams and sorbets a day, a traditional upright machine is the way to go. Pacojets, therefore, have found a home around the world in fine-dining and tasting-menu-only restaurants.
The control panel on a Pacojet allows the user to select the number of “layers” of base they want to spin. (For reference, a pint deli of base knocked into a beaker usually reads as six layers, so one layer is roughly a third of a cup of spun ice cream.) In an enclosed kitchen, this means that the pastry station can spin ice cream to order, or nearly to order, and serve diners a product that is incredibly dense and smooth. And for kitchens with a minimal or non-existent pastry staff, there is no risk of over-spinning and buttering an ice cream base.
Both the older and newer Pacojet models have two settings for the amount of air they incorporate into an ice cream. On the older Pacojet, there is a small blue button that when held down while the product is spinning sets the overrun to zero. Conversely, if let alone and only used at the end of the spin cycle to release the built up pressure, the ice cream will by default be somewhere in the ball park—this can depend on how sharp your blade is, whether or not the blade’s RPM have started to slow down, and how rusted the machine’s shaft is—of 80% overrun (meaning 40% air). If you’re in a restaurant where the executive chef has a fetish for absurdly dense ice cream (so, most restaurants) and don’t want to spend the time mid-service holding down a button, there is a small hole below the pressure release that a paperclip or similarly thin/sturdy object can be inserted into to lock the machine on zero overrun.
I personally prefer ice cream and sorbet made via the common turbine method, but the Pacojet, like hydrocolloids or liquid nitrogen, is excellent for creating components on a dessert that can’t be achieved in any other way. The most well known example of this in the U.S. is probably Matt Tinder’s lime marshmallow from Coi. Back in 2012, Tinder developed a technique that involved making a gelatin-set marshmallow, blending it into a liquid with lime juice and salt, freezing the liquid in a Pacojet beaker, and then spinning on full overrun. He served this in a bowl with sorbet and used a white-hot piece of charcoal to singe the top. The dish, predictably, blew people’s minds. No one had ever eaten something that was the texture of marshmallow base before it set and also freezing cold. The Pacojet was an integral part of this dish, because the “marshmallow” had to be served within minutes of being spun, or the gelatin would re-set the mixture into a chewy puck. We’re doing a variation on Tinder’s technique at Smyth, replacing the marshmallow with a Swiss meringue and lime juice with yogurt. It’s delicious, and while it isn’t ice cream, it is something I just couldn’t do without a Pacojet.
Two other hacks I’d be remiss not to point out. First, for staff meal, Pacojets are excellent as instant-whipped-cream makers. Fill a beaker halfway with cream, spin, release the pressure, and spin a second time. Done. Second, Pacojets can turn a beaker of neutral ice cream base into a flavored one. Chopped fruit, herb purees, chunks of honeycomb—you can spoon a few tablespoons of almost anything onto a frozen beaker of base and spin it. (If you want strawberry ice cream on your menu I strongly suggest making a strawberry ice cream base, but on-the-fly this is a good technique to know about.)
This same fact—that a paco can paco anything—has led to a lot of ice cream and sorbet “recipes” that in no way, shape or form resemble traditional ones, but work within the confines of this specific machine. While staging I’ve come across sorbet bases stabilized entirely with gelatin or guar, ice creams that have such a high amount of brown butter emulsified into them that they would instantly break in bench-top machines, and all manner of recipes that were created “to taste” by savory chefs and have absolutely no regard for fat/sugar/milk solid ratios. “Keep adding xanthan,” is a line I’ve heard one too many times. But if it (a) tastes good and (b) spins nicely, it goes on the menu.
If you work with a Pacojet that hasn’t broken yet (it will), here’s a quick tutorial on remedying the situation. At some point your Pacojet will either a) process a beaker all the way to the bottom layer and then inexplicably stop or b) start processing a beaker and stop mid-spin. Both of these scenarios can happen because of the density of the product you’re spinning (too dense), the temperature of the base (too cold), or because the planets are simply out of alignment. First, grab a Philips head screwdriver and remove the four screws holding down the black plastic panel on top of the Pacojet. You’re now at the choose-your-own-adventure portion of this tutorial: you’ll be looking at a secondary metal panel, held in place by six screws. Five of these are visible—the sixth is covered by a small red piece of plastic. By breaking the red seal, you are voiding the owner’s warranty on the machine. I’m going to assume that you’re in a situation where you need to say “f*ck it” and go on with your day and have broken the seal and removed the sixth and final screw. Remove the metal panel. Below, among other things, are two gears that have a thick rubber band stretched around them. Remove the band and begin rotating the larger gear counter-clockwise. There’s also a white, rectangular piece of plastic above the gears—if for any reason this is spinning, hold it in place while rotating the larger gear (this is an RPM counter and letting it spin while manually bringing up the shaft is a bad idea.) Once the larger gear locks into place, your blade will be fully raised. Congratulations!
To prevent the above from happening for as long as possible, clean your Pacojet! Even if the restaurant you’re at decided to buy a used one that didn’t come with the cleaning parts (a green rubber seal that stands in for the typical black one, a plastic, three-armed blue brush apparatus) you can still go through the three part cycle once a day or week or month. First, paco a beaker of hot water. Second, paco a beaker of soapy water. Finally, paco one last beaker of hot water to rinse the shaft. Here’s the VERY IMPORTANT part: during all of these spins, you MUST hold down the blue pressure release the entire time. Any pressure that builds up in the beaker while you’re spinning a liquid will force that liquid up into the body of the machine, rusting everything it comes in contact with.
Over the years I’ve also seen chefs try a few techniques that in hindsight were just terrible ideas. You should not make large batches of chicken liver mousse, freeze it in pint delis, and then paco a deli each day for service. The smell and taste of the liver impregnates itself into the plastic Pacojet components and is almost impossible to wash out. You should also not fill a beaker with chopped scallops, freeze it solid, and then paco it three consecutive times in an attempt to make a spreadable scallop paste. On the third spin your Pacojet blade will lock up in the dense, frozen, sticky scallop blob you have created and will fry the machine’s hardware. Finally, upon returning from a trip to Canada, you shouldn’t paco a beaker of frozen water that has been doused in liquid nitrogen. Spinning this extra-cold ice one layer at a time will result in an edible powder that, once drizzled with maple syrup, may remind you of your snowy vacation, but will also break two Pacojet blades and cause the machine to scream while spinning at a pitch and volume that is legitimately terrifying (looking at you, Shewry).
Finally, this is my go-to Pacojet-specific ice cream base. Make it as you would any other base, cooking to 85 C, and the result is perfectly quenelle-able right out of the beaker. If you have a blast freezer, this base is best spun when it’s between -10 and -15 F. For sorbets, use any recipe you like, but make sure to check it at the end with a refractometer and adjust it to 28-30 brix, which I’ve found spins nicely and holds well during a single service.
2000 g milk
700 g cream
560 g sucrose
140 g atomized glucose
200 g nonfat milk solids
360 g egg yolks