Empanadas, Chinese dumplings and the deliciousness that is the fried risotto ball are all wonderful when they’re homemade. But when stuffing by hand becomes tiresome, let a Rheon encrusting machine take over.

The Japanese company’s automatic encrusters make snack food all over the world, in factories owned by huge multinational food corporations and in mom-and-pop bakeries in small neighborhoods. PopSci talked with Jon Thompson, national sales director for Rheon in the U.S., about machine-handled dough, stuffed-crust pizza and something called a coxinha.

The company builds monster cookie dispensers, stuffed-crust-pizza extruders, automatic croissant folders, pastry guillotines and more, and it has equipment in 112 countries. It’s usually recognized for its encrusting machines, which do just what it sounds like — envelop tasty meats or cheeses inside a shell, maybe made of potato, pastry or meat. An outer casing and an internal nozzle extrude two products at once and then click together to squeeze it out. It’s best understood by seeing it in action:

You can get balls, logs, rolls, twists, buns, croissants, pizzas —basically any shape of processed food you want. Rheon’s machines are all highly customized, but they universally spew foods at a breakneck pace: 90 pieces per minute for the popular KN550 “Cornucopia” model, 24,000 mini Scotch eggs per hour on the 4-Row Encrusting Machine, and so on. Rheon customers include small bakeries up to the largest food producers in the world — your Nabiscos, your Nestles, etc. Thompson wouldn’t divulge the company’s customers, but he also wouldn’t say who its customers aren’t.

“If I’m sitting on an airplane, if somebody asks me what I do for a living, I say ‘I’m the Keebler elf. I make the cookies,'” he said. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

PopSci: How do I use a Rheon encrusting machine? Do I just drop in my dough?

JT: Usually the dough is mixed in a mixer, and it would go into the hoppers of our machine or into a trough, and then would be put on a hoist and dumped into our machine. Or they can have continuous-feed conveyors going into our hoppers.

We treat the dough gently; we’re not stressing the dough out. You don’t have to add additional chemicals to make it stronger because we’re not damaging the dough. We were the pioneers in the study of rheology, and equipment based upon that philosophy. That’s behind the name Rheon. Rheology is the movement and flow of product, the viscosity of it, how it’s treated.

Our system doesn’t damage the gluten structure. Using a stress-free system, and our stress reducing heads, you can use a thinner dough sheet, so the water is able to bind the gluten. If you’re going to freeze something, the water is not able to migrate in there and make ice crystals. It binds the water, so you get much more what we call “oven jump.”

All these products can use our V4 dough feeder. Whether it would be a pizza line, a croissant line, or a bread line, we alway try to start those with our V4 feeder.

PS: What does a Rheon do? Could I get one if I wanted?

JT: We can have a major international company, the large multinational manufacturers, all the way down to a small mom and pop who start out of their garage or their kitchen. It really depends on the product.

In Germany, we have equipment that makes a knödel, a potato ball. In other countries, we can make a tamale, or a filled upscale cookie. It could be confectionery, ethnic foods; it makes Italian arancini, it makes pierogi. We make a piece of equipment that is a single-head machine, which smaller customers would use, and it goes all the way up to multi-heads, 10 to 20 heads producing at 20 times the speed.

On our plant side, you can produce 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of products an hour. It depends on the type of product. We break it down into bread lines and sweet goods, which are things like croissants, danish, puff pastry. The croissants are automatically shaped. We also have separate lines that do nothing but pizza. Usually you’d have a base machine, like our KN500, and then a makeup table where various options would be added, like croissant cutters, a guillotine to cut something, something to fold it over, deposit filling and then fold it.

PS: Can you make stuffed crust pizzas with a Rheon?

JT: Here, we call it an “inside-outside pizza.” You can have filling inside the crust — whether the crust goes around the outside, or it may be the whole crust itself. You have meats or cheese inside it, and you build it up on top. You would use our encrusting machine for that. It has a nozzle and an outer ring that will give you a certain diameter crust. The nozzle in the middle will give you a certain amount of filling. That’s called co-extrusion, or encrusting.

You could do a calzone, you could do a Hot Pocket, you could do a pierogi, a knödel, filled cookies, there’s tons of stuff you could do. We make a product in Guatemala and El Salvador called a pupusa, which is a flour tortilla dough, stuffed with beans and flattened and fried at home. In Brazil, we make a coxinha [a chicken croquette], which has a mashed potato casing, with chicken, spices and cilantro inside, and it’s breaded and fried. It comes out as a teardrop or a drumstick. It’s a very popular item in Brazil; it’s in every bar and appetizer menu. In the UK, we make an item that has a whole hardboiled egg inside a pork casing, a Scotch egg.

PS: So do you have some favorite ethnic foods you’d never know about if you didn’t work for Rheon? Do you get to try all these things?

JT: Absolutely. I like mini pizzas the best. If you go to drugstores and see those mini bagels, that’s made on our Open Top Shutter. You leave the top of the product open so you see the filing. I like that kind of stuff.

People will give us a call and describe their products, and maybe send us a sample. We have a lab in New Jersey and in Irvine, Calif., where we invite people into our labs to test our equipment. People send their ingredients, we invite them in, do our formulas and make the product.

PS: What’s the efficiency increase you’d get with a Rheon machine, rather than folding pastry by hand?

JT: If somebody starts out doing it by hand, making a couple hundred pieces per day, they really don’t need a machine. But when they start getting a clientele where people want their product on a mass scale, then they need some equipment. There is a point where you just can’t add enough people there to meet demand.

PS: What’s the top speed of a Rheon encrusting machine?

JT: That really is size-dependent. If somebody wants a 1-ounce cookie with filling, it would be X, but a 3-ounce cookie would be Y, based on speed of the machine. Our Multi Confectioner can do between 120,000 and 140,000 cookies an hour. That’s forming the dough, cutting and shaping. With pizza crusts, it depends on the size. You can do a 5-inch individual pizza up to those gigantic ones you get at Costco or Sam’s. Size does matter.

Rheon Pastry Line

A section from Rheon’s catalog shows some of the extruders and the finished products.