Eating out is all about getting an experience you can’t get at home: delicious food without having to cook it, attentive service, labor-free cleanup. One other special perk? Perfectly clear ice cubes in your drink.
Lately, fancy cocktail bars and restaurants have been upping their game and making sure that cocktails are served with clear ice that allows you to enjoy the look of the drink without it being marred by some cloudy white bits. Clear ice doesn’t just look better — it also works better. It melts more slowly, which keeps drinks from getting watered down before you can enjoy it. For gourmands and craft cocktail enthusiasts, clear ice is a win-win.
Unfortunately, perfect ice doesn’t often emerge from your home freezer — at least not without help. You may be so used to cloudy ice that it doesn’t bother you, but it is possible to get clear cubes at home. Here’s how to do it.
Step One: Work the Water
When perfectly clear ice forms in nature — think pond ice that you can see fish through or clear icicles on your eaves — it’s because pure water is left to do its own thing. However, your home’s tap water is treated with chemicals. That keeps it safe to drink, but it’s not great for making clear ice. There are also likely to be trace mineral deposits and possibly tiny bits of debris, all of which can lead to cloudy ice.
To get perfectly clear ice at home, start with distilled water. Bottled water may or may not be distilled, so be sure to check the label. You want purified water that has been rid of mineral deposits and microscopic debris by the distillation process. This will increase your odds of making pure ice instead of cloudy ones.
Next, it’s also crucial to get rid of as much air as you can. Tiny air bubbles that become trapped in the ice as the water freezes will also make your ice cloudy, and it’s this imperfection that causes cloudy ice to melt faster than clear ice. To allow most of the air to escape, boil your water — whether you use tap or distilled water.
Boiling water twice is the best way to make sure you start your ice-making journey with the best possible water. Let the water cool after the first boil, and consider covering it with a lid or clean aluminum foil to prevent any dust or other bits of dirt from spoiling your project. Once your water has cooled to room temperature, boil it again and allow it to cool down before beginning the freezing process.
Step Two: Practice Directional Freezing
It’s possible to get decent results just by pouring your double-boiled, distilled water into your standard ice cube tray and popping it in the freezer, but you’re still likely to end up with a small cloudy part in the center of the ice cube. This is because the water in your ice tray freezes at the outside of the cube first, as that’s the first part to cool down in the cold air of your freezer. As the water freezes it pushes any impurities into the still-wet — that is, unfrozen — part of the water. That means that any cloudiness is concentrated in the center, the final part to freeze when you make traditional ice cubes.
Directional freezing, on the other hand, is the art of getting your ice to freeze on one side first so that the cloudiness is pushed all in the same direction. For example, if you can get your ice to freeze from the top down, all the cloudless would end up on the bottom, where it could be chipped off. This method can result in very clear ice, and there are several ways to accomplish it.
Method One: Slow Freezing
The more slowly ice freezes, the longer any air bubbles and impurities have to escape into the air instead of being trapped in the ice. Think of this as the lazy person’s version of directional freezing. Simply use your prepared, fresh water to fill your ice molds and place in your freezer, which you will crank up to the highest possible setting — about 30 degrees. It will likely take all night for your cubes to freeze this way, and it’s not a good choice if you have a freezer full of food, but the result should be clear ice balls or cubes, depending on the shape of your mold.
Method Two: Igloo Cooler Freezing
For this true directional freezing method, you’ll need enough free freezer space to hold a small insulated cooler. The rigid plastic kind works best, and you’ll want one that you can keep open during the freezing process. Fill the cooler no more than halfway with your prepared water and place in the freezer with the lid off. This allows the top surface of the water to come in contact with the cold air of your freezer, while the bottom portion remains insulated in the cooler. As the ice freezes, the impurities will be pushed to the bottom of the cooler.
The trick is to remove the cooler from the freezer before the ice has frozen completely so that you can harvest the clear ice block and pour away the impurities with the remaining unfrozen water. Allow the cooler to sit at room temperature for a half hour or so, or until you can lessen the block of ice. Use an old-fashionedice pick to chip off bits of ice for drinks, or use a serrated knife to score the block into large cubes before using a mallet and chisel or your ice pick to break it up.
If you prefer regular ice cubes or ice balls made in your favorite mold instead of a giant block of ice, fill your ice trays with prepared water and place them in the cooler. Then surround your molds with more water to keep them insulated and allow the same top-down freezing method to work as noted above.
Method Three: Small-Scale Freezing
If you don’t have room for a whole cooler in your freezer, you can hack an insulated holder for silicone ice cube trays using a baking pan or freezer-safe casserole dish. First, poke a hole in each cube of a flexible ice mold. Then prop the mold an inch up off the bottom of your baking dish, making sure the tray is centered in the pan. Fill the tray and surrounding pan with water to the top of the ice tray and freeze. This allows impurities to be forced out of your ice cubes and into the water tray. Allow the contraption to sit at room temperature until you can remove ice from the mold.
Method Four: Salt Water Freezing
This directional freezing method forms your ice from the bottom up instead of the top down and is also a good choice for small spaces. Use the same materials as above, but this time you don’t need to punch holes into your ice mold. Fill your baking dish with tap water and stir in a half cup of salt. This will lower the freezing temperature of the water to make it very cold. Place the dish in the freezer for several hours. Next, add prepared water to your mold and place the mold in the baking dish of very cold salt water — it will float. Place the whole thing in the freezer until your ice cubes set. In this case, impurities will rise up out of the ice cube as the water freezes from the bottom.
The Shortcut to Clear Cubes: A Home Ice Maker
Of course, the easiest way of all to get crystal clear ice is to get your hands on a professional-quality ice maker like they use in restaurants and bars. Luckily, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars for a commercial machine. The NewAir Countertop Clear Ice Maker is an affordable version that can make up to 40 pounds of clear ice a day — far more than the small-batch methods noted above. It works by moving water over chilled coils to remove air bubbles and impurities mechanically, so you can skip the water distillation and boiling steps.
If you want a steady supply of clear ice without the hassle, a permanent kitchen appliance is the most efficient choice. For occasional fun playing bartender or to show off your home science skills, experimenting with directional freezing in your kitchen can be a fun, if time-consuming, way to go.