Summer is here, and that means you'll be spending a fair amount of time trying to stay cool.
One of the quickest ways to cool off is from the inside out: There's nothing like an ice cold drink to bring down your temperature and help you feel refreshed on a hot day.
The best way to get that cold drink is with ice, of course. Cubed, shaved or crushed, ice has long been a not-so-secret weapon for beating the heat. If you haven't shopped for a new ice cube tray lately, you might be surprised by all the options available. Freezing water is a fairly simple task, but there are all kinds of different ways to get the job done, from traditional plastic ice trays to new-fangled silicone and stainless steel cube makers.
So which ice cube source is best for you? We did the research to find the answers to all of your most pressing ice making questions. Here's what you need to know.
1. Are Plastic Ice Cube Trays Safe?
The short answer: It depends on when you bought it. If your plastic trays are more than a few years old, there's a good chance they have bisphenol A (BPA) in them. If they're newer and made with BPA-free plastic, you should be good to go.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), BPA is currently found in many food packages, including plastic containers and the linings of some cans. This substance leaches into food and is then consumed, where it stays in the body. Though most people have at least some traces of BPA in their bodies, the FDA says that it's safe at current levels and therefore nothing to worry about — for adults.
Modern plastic items have a number on the bottom that tells you what kind of plastic it is. Though we usually think about these in terms of whether it can be recycled or not, that number can also tell you about the amount of BPA likely to be found in a given item. Avoid ice cube molds and food storage containers with the number 3 or 7 whenever possible, as these are the most likely to contain BPA in fairly high amounts. Of course, if your trays are so old they don't have a recycle symbol at all, they almost certainly have BPA in them.
2. What Is BPA?
Bisphenol A is a chemical additive used to make hard plastics harder. Specifically, it's used to make polycarbonates that are found in water bottle and plenty of food containers. The chemical has been around since the 1960s, so if you've eaten anything since then, you've probably been exposed. The chemical leaching happens in very minute amounts, and there's no evidence that anyone has been harmed by the chemical over the years.
Though nothing has been proven to be harmful about BPA so far, some studies have provided cause for concern. In particular, animal studies suggest that BPA could cause hormonal changes and disrupt development of babies and young children. There's also concern about brain development and behavior problems, as well as cancer risk.
Even though the FDA maintains that BPA is fine for adults, it's no longer used in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula containers due to these concerns. The government also recommends taking steps to reduce your exposure when possible. For these reasons, seeking out BPA-free ice trays is a good idea, especially if you have children.
3. Are Silicone Ice Cube Trays Safe?
Probably! Silicone doesn't contain any BPA, so you're good on that front if you choose silicone ice trays as an alternative to plastic. While plastic is a type of polymer, silicone is a flexible resin made with silica — better known as sand to the average beach junkie. Silicone ice cube trays are soft and pliable, and they don't appear to leach any chemicals into food or water at cold temperatures. While there have been scattered reports of silicone leaching into foods at very high temperatures — think baking trays and muffin molds — this is inconclusive, and wouldn't affect your ice making activities in the slightest. If it's BPA you're worried about, silicone ice cube trays are a safer choice than plastic ones.
4. Should I Look for BPA-Free Silicone Trays?
All silicone is BPA-free, so that kind of label is akin to labeling table sugar as gluten-free. Sure, it's true, but it's not like it's special or somehow different from other similar options because of that designation.
BPA-free plastic, on the other hand, is somewhat unique. Many rigid plastics do contain the substance, so looking for items that are certified BPA-free is a great way to protect yourself and your family from having additional chemicals leach into your diet.
5. Are There Drawbacks to Silicone Trays?
Yes, but they're more about convenience than health. Many people find silicone ice cube trays too flexible for comfort. When the tray is likely to bend, it's often hard to keep a water-filled steady on the way to the freezer, and this can result in messy spills — and perhaps even slip-and-fall accidents in the kitchen. A good solution is to look for covered ice cube trays with a plastic or silicone lid that helps keep the tray rigid and keeps water from dripping out if the tray should warp while you walk. A no-spill ice cube tray is a great invention, even if you're not too concerned about BPA, and the lid keeps freezer burn and off-flavors at bay for bonus points.
The other main reason people end up dissatisfied with silicone trays is because their flexibility can make it difficult to pop the ice cubes out. Instead of the easy release that comes with a semi-rigid plastic tray — just twist and they all pop up! — silicone ones require quite a bit of twisting and pushing, sometimes to the point of having to turn the tray inside out to get to ice cube inside. Running a little warm water over the bottom may help, but typically you're only going to get one ice cube out at a time. Still, if you love fun shapes, silicone is what you'll need to add plus signs, hearts or the Death Star to your drinks.
What Are the Other Options for Making Ice?
If you're looking for a non-plastic ice cube tray but don't love silicone's ultra-flexible features, you could try going old-school with stainless steel ice cube trays. These used to be par for the course back when people were still used to calling their new-fangled refrigerators "ice boxes," and they don't have any chemicals in them at all to worry about. Stainless steel trays are basically just like loaf pans with a grid inside. To get the ice out, you flip a switch that turns the grid and pushes the ice cubes out. This is the best ice cube tray for people who like to buy something once — it will last forever. The one drawback is that the metal gets so cold that your hands are likely to freeze to it, at least temporarily, which means your fingers will stick to the tray.
Of course, you could always retire your ice cube trays entirely and upgrade to a countertop ice maker instead. These portable appliances are highly efficient and can make up to 50 pounds of ice per day — that's much more than you could ever get by filling trays with water and waiting hours for them to finish freezing. Portable ice makers are a great choice for anyone who loves to entertain, and you can even choose a model that makes crystal-clear ice cubes for the serious mixologist in your life.
Can I Freeze Baby Food in Ice Cube Trays Safely?
Making your own baby food and freezing it an ice cube tray is a great way to divide your healthy, homemade goodies into individual portions. Putting warm puree into a plastic ice cube tray can speed the leaching of BPA into the food, so in this case only BPA-free plastic or a non-plastic alternative should be used. Silicone trays are ideal for this application. The flexibility that makes it hard to remove regular ice cubes actually works well for food, which doesn't tend to freeze as solid. It's much easier to remove baby food cubes from flexible silicone trays than rigid plastic ones, and using one with an airtight lid will keep food fresh and tasty for weeks.
The Bottom Line
There are many safe ways to make ice this summer, so be sure to research your options before you hit Amazon to order something. Whether you choose BPA-free plastic, silicone or opt for a shiny new ice maker to do the work for you, it's easy to make a healthy choice when it comes to icy cold drinks this season.