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From sorbetières with a handle attached to the lid, to hand-cranked churns, from the first motorised machines to the refrigeration compressor: a brief history of the gelato machine, from 1500 to the present day.
The modern gelato was made possible once people learned to freeze liquids artificially. Around the turn of the first millennium, 1000 AD or so, the first gelato-makers are said to have added saltpetre (or potassium nitrate) to crushed ice to bring the temperature down below zero. This procedure was still followed throughout the 16thcentury and part of the 17th, until in 1626 a certain Signor Santoro achieved the same effect by mixing kitchen salt with snow in a ratio of 1 to 3. The invention of the thermometer by Galileo in 1597 made it possible to measure temperature more precisely, enabling gelato- and pastry-makers to use their ingredients in more exact proportions.
As well as saltpetre, another chemical they used was sulfur dioxide, capable of bringing the temperature of the ice down as far as -30°C. Meanwhile, potassium nitrate could bring it down even further, to around -40 °C.Starting in the 16thcentury, crushed ice mixed with these chemicals was – for many centuries to come – the only way of freezing things artificially.
This mixture of ice and chemicals was stored in hardwood half-barrels, inside which terracotta containers were placed. The gelato would gradually start to solidify on the edges of these containers, and the gelato craftsman would remove it with a wooden spoon. This operation was known as “spatulation”.
The terracotta containers were later to be replaced by others made out of tin, iron or copper sheeting. Later these recipients were given a lid with a handle on top which was used to rotate the container on its vertical axis, and this rotation helped create gelato with a finer grain, with less coarse crystals.
These containers gradually became taller and more cylindrical, and became known as “sorbetières”. Over time, many different materials were used: pure tin, tinned copper, heavy porcelain, before finally getting to the stainless steel mold (or “carapina”), the only one to have survived to this day.
Gelato production was carried out almost exclusively by hand until the early 1800s.
One of the first hand-cranked sorbetières was created in America in 1840. In Europe, a similar device was invented by William Fuller, made up of a wooden tub with double walls covered in insulating material, inside which was a pear-shaped copper or pewter sorbetière, which was rotated using a handle above the vertical axis of the recipient. Soon the handle was to be moved to one side of the tub, so that its horizontal axis was connected to the sorbetière’s vertical axis by a system of gears. The hardwood tub had a drain plug for the water which formed as the ice melted.
At the beginning of the 1900s, huge improvements had been achieved compared to Fuller’s ice tub. However, soon there came an opportunity to replace the hand-cranked rotation with an electric motor, located on the ground and connected to the handle by a drive belt. And the drive belt was itself soon outdated, by applying the motor straight to the sorbetière.
The “motorised sorbetière” was undoubtedly a great achievement. Spatulation remained a problem, as it was still carried out by hand. The introduction of a sorbetière with automatic spatulation dates back to 1927, and four years later, in 1931, it received an industrial patent from the Office of Intellectual Property at the Corporations Ministry of the Kingdom of Italy.
This new system, which is still in use, had replaced ice and salt with totally revolutionary refrigeration processes. The main feature of this machine was a bowl rotating at high speed, sitting in a glycol bath, which provided a large heat-exchange surface.
Over the course of time, various refrigerating substances were introduced, such as ammonia, sulphur dioxide, methyl, and today’s favourite freon.
The 1960s and 1970s were times of great innovation on the machinery front. This was a time when the vertical machines with manual extraction of previous decades were replaced by today’s horizontal ones featuring automatic extraction, which enable gelato-makers to save time and energy.
These new machines have a bowl for mixing and a cylinder for production, capable of churning, heating and freezing the mixture. More recently, towards the late 1980s, the vertical machine came back into fashion, but with automatic extraction.
Modern batch freezers are simple to use and no longer require specialists with outstanding manual skills. They also have the advantage of freezing twice or even three times as much mixture as the vertical machines with manual extraction and rotating bowls.
Together with modern batch freezers, the end of the 1960s marked the launch of automatic pasteurizing machines, which made the gelato-maker’s job even easier, by getting rid of another manual task. This type of machinery also guarantees a safe hygienic product, by getting rid of bacterial flora in the mixture, which is perfectly amalgamated by uniformly spreading around the fats suspended in the liquid. This also makes the gelato softer and creamier.
Modern machines have also made it easier to comply with hygiene standards. There was a time when the bowls on pasteurizing machines had difficult corners which were hard to clean perfectly. Even the lids did not quite fit the recipients, so the mixture could not be isolated from the outside world. Today, that probkem has disappeared, with lids which perfectly fit the edge of the bowls, which themselves are now made with rounded edges. Washing and disinfecting are now much easier, as each piece on the machinery can now be easily dismantled.
As regards workplace safety, in the last decade or so, the Italian law on preventing industrial accidents (626/97) has forced manufacturers to provide safety mechanisms for every machine that has moving parts that will stop the machinery in case of danger.
Technological advances have led to new materials and components, thus improving the performance of the machinery. Indeed, today’s water condensers provide 30% better heat exchange than the previous generation and today’s electric motors provide 15% higher yields for the same power consumption. This translates into water and energy savings, thus benefiting the environment and the gelato-maker’s wallet.
Finally, the evolution of electronics in the last ten years has given gelato machines the technology for transmitting cold, heat, slow and fast churning and electronics for handling product preparation cycles. The cycles are fast, saving plenty of time and energy.
All gelato shops now have accessories such as cream whippers, for decorating the gelato and making semifreddi and mousses in various flavors.
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