It’s Friday night and you’ve invited the guys over for a round of your special recipe Old Fashioneds.
Let’s see… Woodford Reserve Batch Proof bourbon. Check.
Angostura traditional and orange bitters. Yep.
Your homemade Demerara syrup. Got it.
And… You hold your Waterford crystal double old fashioned glass against the lever labeled “Ice” on the refrigerator door and fill ‘er up!
If you care at all about presentation, and anybody reading this most likely does, the ice you use will either show you to be a cocktail aficionado who cares as much about what their drinks look like as how they taste…
If you have any experience with cocktails, you certainly understand the beauty of a drink served with a good-sized block of crystal-clear ice, which seems to be a rarity even at many quality cocktail bars. How many times have you had your cocktail experience ruined by a giant scoop of bar ice that looks lousy and melts too fast?
What This Is and Is Not
First, this is not intended to be the final word on ice. There are a ton of places you can go to get all kinds of scientific information about the physics of creating and using ice.
In fact, we recommend you take a look at the book Liquid Intelligence to learn more about the science of drinks.
This is intended to be a practical, how-to guide to creating presentation worthy ice in your own kitchen.
That being said, it helps to have a little background on why you can’t get clear ice from those trays in the freezer.
Why Your Ice Is Not Clear: The Basics Of How Water Freezes
With a traditional ice tray or ice maker, ice is frozen relatively equally from all sides toward the middle, trapping air and impurities in the center of the cube which creates cloudiness.
Fundamentally, creating clear ice requires slow, directional freezing, allowing air and impurities to be forced away as it freezes. This allows the top surface of the water to begin freezing while the bottom portion remains insulated and stays liquid.
As the ice freezes, the air and impurities will be pushed down into the unfrozen portion of the water leaving a clear block on top.
The trick is to create a space that will accommodate a block of ice on top while keeping a liquid layer below.
There are lots of variations on how to do this including some “off the shelf” systems you can buy on Amazon that I think are too expensive and/or make too few cubes at one time.
Luckily, we’re here to show you how to do it (relatively) easily, on the cheap and make bags full of beautiful clear ice at one time.
Fake News: Things That Will Not Make Clear Ice
Before we get started, here’s a quick summary of ways you cannot create clear ice (contrary to often repeated claims):
- Use boiled water.
- Use distilled water.
- Use boiled, distilled water.
If it makes you feel better you can certainly use any of these in the process I’m about to describe but they won’t help make your ice any clearer.
How To Make Clear Ice In Your Very Own Kitchen: Things You’ll Need:
In order to accommodate the directional freezing we talked about, you’ll need a small insulated cooler that will become a giant Ice tray of sorts. This allows for the water on top to freeze faster than the “insulated” water on the bottom and give us the clear layer we’re looking for.
A small cooler
I’ve found that an Igloo 9-quart Island Breeze Cooler is perfect for the job. Prices seem to fluctuate on Amazon a bit but I got mine for 10 bucks. I’ve found this to be the best balance of size and practicality, although the only real requirement is to use an insulated cooler that will fit in your freezer.
A 10” serrated edge bread knife.
You’ll need a 10” knife in order to create a scored line from edge to edge on your block that allows it to be sectioned off. Here’s one option:
I’ve found a metal hammer works better than a rubber mallet… It just seems to deliver a sharper impact when you’re cleaving the ice. Other than that, any hammer should do the trick although you might want to get a new one and keep it dedicated to this. After all, we’re fundamentally doing food prep here and that nasty construction hammer you’ve got in the garage isn’t exactly approved for culinary purposes. Something like this will work just fine:
Some means of holding your ice in place while you cut it. I use a Winco ICH-9 Ice Chipper. Although it probably has a variety of functions in chipping and separating ice that’s frozen together, I primarily use it to help keep my hands from getting sliced up by the bread knife..
Creating Clear Ice for Cocktails: The Process
Step 1: Fill The Cooler
Fill the cooler about ¾ of the way with water. Tap water will work just fine but here’s your chance to use that triple boiled, twice distilled, Nepali glacier water if you think it will help (it really doesn’t).
Step 2: Freeze For 17 Hours
The amount of time you leave it in the freezer will involve a little trial and error depending on the specifics of your freezer and how thick a slab you want.
In my freezer I’ve found that around 17 hours gives me the size I like to work with.
Step 3: Release The Clear Ice Block
Once frozen, remove the cooler, turn it upside down in your sink and wait. You can just leave it on the counter if you want but be aware that when the ice releases, all the unfrozen water in the bottom will end up on your kitchen floor.
Resist the temptation to “hurry” the process along. Almost anything you do to try and speed up releasing the ice from the cooler will create problems. In 20 minutes or so you’ll hear a loud THUNK and the ice will be ready to carve up.
There will probably be a hollow “ice ring” on the bottom of the block at this point. Just tap it with your hammer to break it up or use your knife to scrape it away.
At this point your block of ice will be clear but it will be uneven and not very pretty. Think of it as a blank canvas to show off your ice carving artistry.
This is where creativity and personal preference come into play. You may be a person who prefers large jagged chunks of ice. If that’s the case just grab an ice pick and have at it.
If you’re looking for something more in cube form, it’s time to break out that knife and hammer.
Step 4: Cut Into Slabs Then Cubes
Be advised that if what you’re really after is a 2” perfectly square cube with nice smooth edges, all of this may not deliver the results you’re looking for. The process of “slicing” the ice into cubes can be hit and miss at best and you won’t always get nice even edges or uniform cube sizes.
Personally, I like a rather large “squarish” cube with lots of rough edges. I think it just adds more character to the presentation and can catch the light in interesting ways.
First, you’re going to cut the large piece into long “loaves” of ice. Start by sawing into the slab across the short side of the block. I usually start 2 or 3 inches from one side and work my way across but some people prefer starting in the middle and working from there. Again, trial and error and personal preference come into play here.
You only need to score the surface with the knife. Depending on how thick your slab is, you’ll want to saw down maybe an eighth of an inch into the surface.
While leaving the knife in the line you just created, tap the back of it with your hammer. If all goes well, a couple of sharp raps should do the trick and a nice slice will break off. Sometimes, again mostly depending on how thick a slab you’re working with, it may take several taps of the hammer to get it to break. You shouldn’t ever have to take a full swing at it.
Once you’re finished cutting into strips, just repeat the process to section into smaller cube sized pieces.
Finishing Up: Clear Ice Afterglow and Bonus Tips
- Using the Igloo cooler I usually get around 25-30 good sized cubes from one batch.
- You can use gallon Zip-Loc bags to store them. After a while in your freezer they may start to look a little cloudy on the outside but don’t worry, once you pour your favorite liquor over them they’ll clear right up again.
- The cubes may freeze together a bit while in storage but should separate pretty easily with your bread knife or ice chipper.
- I have no scientific information to back this up, but I’ve found if you turn the ice upside down from the way it was in the cooler and score the bottom of the ice block it tends to cut more cleanly.
- When you pull your beautifully clear cubes out of the freezer to make a drink, let them “rest” for a few minutes on the counter or in the glass before you pour any liquid on them. More often than not if you make a drink with the ice right out of the freezer the cubes will fracture and ruin much of the effect you’ve worked so hard to create. By letting them sit for a bit you lower the chances of this happening.
Lazy? Try a Clear Ice Cube Maker
One final thing, too lazy to go through this process and make your own clear ice cubes? There’s a wide variety of clear ice cube makers out there for the home bartender, for various degrees of budgets.
We recommend this one on the budget side of things (it makes clear ice spheres, rather than cubes and I use it at home as well):
So there you go… Everything you need to know to impress your friends and up your home bartender score! Not everyone will be compelled to expend the extra effort to create first class ice but I promise that people will notice if you do. Attention to the details always pays off!