There are a surprising number of options out there when it comes to ice trays, from traditional trays to ice ball makers to molds shaped like Lego blocks. Plus, there are several types of ice machines. Discover the different kinds of ice trays and some creative uses for them.
Ice trays are a great thing to have on hand, especially when you don’t have an ice maker. You can have cold cubes at the ready for that glass of water or iced tea.
Even if your freezer is equipped with a built-in icemaker, it’s still not a bad idea to have ice trays around in case your ice machine stops working.
There are other uses for ice trays too. For instance, you can chill fruit juice in them for a tasty, refreshing treat.
Here’s a look at the different types of ice trays, as well as some creative uses for them. We’ll also look at how this often-overlooked, (usually) low-tech items can help you save money.
Table of Contents
- How Did Ice Cube Trays Come to Be?
- Types of Ice Trays
- Commercial Ice Makers
- Ice Ball Maker
- Benefits of Using an Ice Ball Maker
- How to Use an Ice Ball Mold
- Test Out an Ice Ball Balloon
- Can You Carve Ice Balls Yourself by Hand?
- Storing Food In Ice Cube Trays
- Other Creative (Non-Food) Uses for Ice Trays
How Did Ice Cube Trays Come to Be?
There’s no consensus on who actually invented the ice tray. But here are some theories. And we do know a bit about how ice trays have evolved over the years.
The first one may have been used as early as 1844. John Corrie, an American doctor, built a refrigerator to provide cooler environs for his patients stricken with yellow fever. Records documenting that he also gave them iced drinks suggest that he may have invented the first ice cube tray.
Fast-forward seventy years to get to the next big development in icemaking, attributed to Fred Wolf. The year 1914 saw the advent of the DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator (also known as the DOMELRE). While his invention never took off with consumers, one feature of it — an ice tray included with each unit — caught on with subsequent appliance makers.
They, too, stocked their refrigerators with them. By the 1920s and 1930s, it was becoming standard fare for manufacturers to turn out refrigerator-freezer combos, complete with ice cube compartments and, you guessed it, ice cube trays.
In 1933, Guy Tinkham came up with the first flexible stainless steel ice tray. Users could flex the tray sideways to release the ice cubes. When this little gadget first made its appearance on the market (which was the same year it was invented), it came with a price tag of $0.50. It was called the McCord.
Over the next few decades, ice tray makers created a variation of the McCord. This metal device was constructed with aluminum and had a removable ice cube separator and handles. These were eventually phased out and replaced with simple plastic ice trays.
Types of Ice Trays
This type of tray is made of a rubbery material, food-grade silicone. Since these are so flexible, it’s really easy to get the cubes out. A silicone ice cube tray tends to absorb odors, unfortunately. Another drawback: silicone material has a sticky feel, making it more prone to trapping residue. Silicone trays require more frequent cleaning than some other types. But they are dishwasher-safe.
The simplest type of traditional ice cube tray is the plastic kind that comes in one piece (no lid). These are the cheapest and are easy to clean. They are lightweight, too. But having uncovered ice cubes leaves them open to absorbing weird odors from the freezer.
And if you’ve ever owned a plastic ice cube tray, you have probably had your share of wrestling matches trying to get the cubes out. When I had one, I had to bend it every which way to release the ice. Sometimes the cubes went flying in all directions. Plastic is known to trap freezer residue too.
Another caveat about plastic: Some trays contain chemicals that pose some health risks. Your best bet is to look for a plastic tray that is BPA-free.
Standard Ice Tray with Removable Lid
This is my favorite kind of ice tray because of the plastic lid. Too often, placing an uncovered tray in the icebox results in spills. And it is really tedious to endure the frigid environs of the freezer while cleaning them up. Another annoyance with “open” ice trays is that the ice cubes tend to absorb the freezer odor, leaving them with a flat taste. These unpalatable cubes will also affect the flavor of whatever you’re chilling them with.
Metal Ice Cube Tray
Stainless steel or metal ice cube trays are heavier and more expensive than most other types. But by default, they are BPA-free, which gives them a big advantage over some plastic products. Another plus: they not a magnet for odors as plastic and silicone are. But, with metal trays, getting the ice cubes out can be a Herculean task if the device isn’t equipped with a lever.
Extra Large Ice Cube Tray
If you like the idea of a larger ice cube, then you’ll want to stock your freezer with extra-large trays. These make cubes measuring almost 2″ wide. These are great not only for storing ice but other foods and DIY ingredients too. (More on that in the section “Creative Uses for Ice Cube Trays”).
Extra Small Ice Cube Tray
These trays make little 1/2-inch cubes. They’re great for times when you want something bigger than ice chips but smaller than conventional cubes. These trays are ideal for storing small quantities of food, such as when preserving herbs in the freezer.
Ice Cube Mold
If you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional ice cube tray, consider using a silicone mold. Unlike traditional ice trays, these come in a variety of interesting shapes and designs, like stars and shells. With a sphere mold, you can make iceballs for alcoholic beverages. Because of their flexibility and fun patterns, cube molds are popular for other types of projects, like cake balls, candles, and soap-making. An ice mold is fun to use for festive occasions like kids’ birthday parties.
Ice Cube Maker
And, of course, there are ice cube makers, like the ones built into some freezers. Some of these are inside the freezer section. All you have to do is reach in and scoop the ice, or remove the tray that holds the ice cubes. There are also external ones accessible from the front of the refrigerator door. These ice cubers are set up like ice dispensers at fountain drink stations. Many of these units dispense ice cubes and crushed ice.
You can also get stand-alone ice cube makers. These produce and store larger quantities of ice than your average home freezer.
Commercial Ice Makers
When you’re looking for a commercial ice maker, there are several types to choose from. We’ll take a look at what they have to offer.
Cube Ice Makers
These generally make full-size ice cubes, although there are some on the market that makes larger ice cubes and others that make half-cubes or similarly-sized ice chunks. These machines are frequently used by bars and restaurants because of their high ratio of ice to water. While often added to soft drinks and other beverages, they’re also used in bulk cooling.
Nugget Ice Makers
These are the ice machines that supply the ice chips you see in fountain drinks. This type of ice is sometimes served in cocktails, too. This kind is drier than flake ice, so it absorbs drink flavors well. Ice nuggets are incredibly popular because people like to chew on them.
In fact, they’ve gained so much traction over the years that even the Wall Street Journal has written about them. Since you can pack a lot into a cup, you can stretch your drink supplies further. However, some customers won’t like this, complaining that they’ve gotten more ice than a beverage. Because of the tiny size of the chips, they tend to melt faster than other types of ice cubes.
Crescent ice Makers
Only one company actually makes this kind of ice maker (Hoshizaki). Nonetheless, crescent ice is gaining a small following. These ice pieces have a lot in common with half-cubes. However, since they have rounded sides, they fit better in glasses. That means more ice per glass. Although they produce uniquely-shaped ice, crescent machines use the same ice-making process as standard ice machines.
Flake Ice Machines
Flake ice is best used for cooling foods in display cases or on buffet tables.
It’s not used in drinks as much as other kinds of ice are, but you will sometimes find it in frozen beverages. While this ice is light and chewable, it melts quickly, so it needs to be replenished frequently when it’s being used for medical purposes or food displays.
In healthcare settings, this kind of ice is often put in patients’ drinks because it eliminates the possibility of choking. Clinicians also pack ice flakes around injuries when making cold compresses. Ice in this form is ideal because it doesn’t have sharp edges that would irritate skin and sensitive areas around a wound, break, or sprain.
Gourmet Ice Makers
These are a staple at upscale restaurants and event venues. Some bars utilize these ice makers too. Considering ice is nothing more than frozen water, you might be wondering what could make it gourmet. These sophisticated machines produce octagonal cubes. These cubes are larger than most other kinds, so you don’t need as many of them to achieve the desired effect.
They also last longer because they’re not chewable, so they’re not as readily consumed as nuggets or flakes. Plus, these machines produce crystal-clear, solid pieces of ice, so they add a lot to the visual presentation of choice beverages.
Ice Ball Maker
These can be an indispensable addition to any restaurant or bar owner’s establishment. Ice ball makers produce spherical pieces of ice, which make for a better presentation when serving drinks. (We’ll cover more benefits of using an ice ball maker in a later section).
Ice Ball Mold
To make round ice for cocktails and other drinks, you can get spherical molds designed for this purpose. They usually come in two forms: a two-piece plastic mold or an aluminum press.
Ice Ball Press
An iceball press consists of a mold (aluminum or metal) that carves a ball out of a larger block of ice. The press uses force to create a perfectly-shaped ice sphere. Even better, it requires you to put in very little effort. If you want to make a large number of balls, though, you will need to have plenty of ice blocks on hand.
Once you get to work, you can make as many as 30 iceballs in as little as one hour. You can get ice presses in other shapes too. But they may not produce ice exactly the size you want. Another drawback is their high cost. But they can really save you a lot of labor if you’re running a bar or restaurant.
Plastic Ice Ball Molds
These molds typically cost about as much as your average conventional ice tray, so they’re a practical choice for at-home use. They consist of two parts. Some are single-ball makers, while others make 2-6 balls at once. With some models, you can take out balls one at a time as they freeze. With others, you’ll need to take all the balls out at once.
Because they require a higher water volume than regular cube trays, iceball molds take twice as long to freeze as their conventional counterparts. For best results, let them sit in the freezer overnight. In an extra-frigid freezer, they may completely solidify in just five hours. To expedite cooling time, place molds in the coldest part of the cooler or freezer.
Also, keep in mind that these molds come in different sizes. The standard two-inch-ball size works best for optimal drink-cooling efficiency.
Benefits of Using an Ice Ball Maker
Investing in an ice ball maker may seem like a luxury or a frivolous purchase. But if you own a bar or restaurant, it can be a big asset to your business. Here are some of the bonuses of having an ice ball maker.
It’s Good for Your Brand
You can purchase ice ball-making machines with your brand on them. But that’s not all. You can even have the equipment customized so incorporate your branding into the ice balls themselves. That will definitely leave a lasting impression on your customers.
Your Customers Will Love It
And while we’re talking about customers, it’s worth noting that they will enjoy the improved quality of their cocktails when you incorporate ice balls into the mix. Ice spheres make a better visual presentation, which improves the overall dining and drinking experience.
It Enhances Drink-Cooling
Here’s a fun factoid for you: Round ice chunks cool more efficiently because they melt more slowly than traditional ice cubes. This preserves the integrity of the beverage, minimizing the watered-down effects you get with regular cubes.
How to Use an Ice Ball Mold
There’s a little more to filling iceball molds than there is to filling conventional trays. Here are some tips to simplify the process.
- If you’re working with tray-style molds, separate the two parts and fill the bottom component to the rim top. Place the top piece over it and push it down. Water displaced from the bottom tray will fill the top part. If there’s any excess water, it will flow out of the air holes at the top.
- For a globe-style mold, fill the bottom half with water and secure the top. Then, you can finish filling it through the top hole. With a small funnel, it’s possible to fill an assembled mold, provided you use a thin, steady stream of water.
- Always make sure the mold is level when you put it in the freezer. If it’s on a tilted surface, it will leak and won’t yield the desired sphere shape.
- For especially clean, clear ice, use distilled or bottled water. Tap water has considerably more impurities, which will get in the way of your efforts to create crystal-clear ice.
- Allow the mold to freeze completely before you take it out or move it around in the freezer.
- If you have a press and plan to use it regularly, have plenty of larger ice chunks available to make iceballs on demand.
- If you’re hosting a big gathering, start storing and making iceballs several days ahead to make sure you have enough when the festive day arrives.
Test Out an Ice Ball Balloon
Want to see what iceballs are like without shelling out the money for a mold or press first? Use balloons to make ice spheres. Admittedly, balloons are more of a teardrop shape, but they’ll look a little more round if you don’t fill them up completely. Otherwise, you can make them any size you like. Once the balloons are full of water, you will need to hang them in the freezer by the top (where they are tied shut). Let the balloon-balls freeze overnight, then use them to keep a drink chilled.
Can You Carve Ice Balls Yourself by Hand?
Ice-carving is considered an art form in Japan. But it takes a lot of skill. In other words, “Don’t dry this at home.” If you’re a busy bartender, you probably won’t have the time to try to do this yourself anyway. Invest in some kind of ice ball maker.
Storing Food In Ice Cube Trays
These trays are so versatile. You can use them to store all kinds of food. Or, you can re-purpose them for all manner of DIY projects and crafts. Here are some ideas to help you get started. But really, the possibilities are probably almost limitless.
Preserving Leftover Ingredients
Sometimes, when you’re cooking, you have to buy ingredients in a larger quantity than the recipe calls for. Too often, these leftovers sit in the fridge until they become a science experiment. Trying to use them up before they expire can be a challenge. But you don’t have to throw them away.
Place them in an ice cube tray and freeze them instead. Make sure you measure out the quantities, too, so you know how much of an ingredient is in each tray compartment. This will be a huge help when measuring these ingredients for recipes later.
To free up ice trays after ingredients are frozen, transfer the cubes to a freezer-safe bag or sealed container and label it with the ingredient and how much is in each cube.
Making Ice Cream Floats
Next time you buy a gallon of ice cream, let it melt a bit. Scoop it into ice trays and freeze. These are great for making ice cream floats. And, if you have enough trays, you can make a lot at one time.
The following ingredients store well in the freezer.
Pesto is not something you want to have around after it has maxed out its shelf life. Placing leftover pesto in the wells of an ice tray allows you to save individual portions, and the stuff freezes well.
Buttermilk and Milk
How often do we buy a gallon or half-gallon of milk, only to have it expire before we’ve had a chance to use it all? To make it last longer, fill your ice cube trays with it and use as needed.
Garlic takes a while to roast, so why not get the most out of it by preserving what’s leftover? Freezing allows you to preserve it in small portions to easily flavor your meals.
Some herbs are harder to come by when they’re no longer in season. Keep your summer favorites on hand all year long by chopping or puréeing them and placing them in ice cube trays along with some olive oil or broth.
Sometimes when you buy a carton of chicken or beef broth, it’s difficult to use it all before it goes bad. To make it last longer, freeze it in cube form and use a few here and there for soups or sauces.
Coconut oil is incredibly versatile. You can use it for cooking or even making dog treats. Freezing it makes it easier to use when you only need a little at a time.
You should only freeze wine you’re not going to drink. Placing leftover red or white wine in ice cube trays allows you to keep it nearby when you need it for cooking or whipping up sangria.
When you’re in a hurry, taking the time to caramelize onions can be a hassle. Instead, make some ahead of time, and freeze tiny portions in the trays. This makes it easier to measure the quantities you need later.
Some recipes yield huge batches that are too much to eat at one time. Store leftover dough in ice cube trays and you can make a few cookies at a time for more manageable portion sizes.
Egg Whites and Yolks
When a recipe calls only for egg whites and egg yolks, whatever’s left may get thrown out if you can’t use it right away. Preserve unused eggs in an ice cube tray to use later.
Fruit Juice and Fruit
Fruit juice cubes are a great way to flavor water, and a fun way to get your kids to enjoy the juice. Storing berries and other fruits this way makes them easier to use later for drinks, recipes, or snacks.
Lemon or Lime Juice
It’s easy to end up with leftover lemon juice since recipes usually call for small amounts. When you need some for your next baking project, or just want to flavor your tea or water, you need to look no further than the freezer.
Citrus zest is great to have on hand, but making it can be a little tedious. Whenever you’re doing anything with citrus, zest it before tossing the peels. Even if you don’t need zest right away, you can freeze it for when you do.
If you don’t have time to make smoothies every day, make a larger batch ahead of time and freeze it. Then, just toss a handful of cubes in your favorite cup, let them defrost a bit, and enjoy.
Putting conventional ice cubes in your coffee can give it a watered-down taste. Instead, make coffee ice cubes to add to your cold, caffeinated brew.
When’s the last time you needed fresh ginger and had to drop everything for a special trip to the grocery store? Now you can save yourself some time and effort by peeling and grating all of it and then freezing whatever you don’t use in your recipe.
You can fit about 2 tablespoons of stock in each well of the tray. These small portions come in handy when you are making gravies and sauces or need to rejuvenate dried-out leftovers.
When we think of freezable ingredients, bacon drippings usually aren’t the first things that come to mind. But they’re great for adding some flavor to meats, veggies, and salad dressings.
Make your own frozen yogurt by turning it into bite-sized treats.
Other Creative (Non-Food) Uses for Ice Trays
Garbage Disposal Cleaner
Garbage disposal units are home to a small ecosystem of bacteria and other micro-organisms. For a more sanitary and better-smelling garbage disposer, use ice trays to make all-natural cleaning cubes.
Tired of buying dishwashing tabs? You can make your own, and ice tray compartments are just the right size for this DIY cleanser.
The store-bought variety of wax melts for candles tend to contain substances that emit toxins when burned. As an alternative, you can make your own non-toxic melts with coconut oil and beeswax, and scent them with your favorite essential oils.
Cube trays are great for storing small, loose items that can easily get misplaced or accidentally thrown away. Screws, pushpins, and jewelry are just a few things you can store in ice trays.
Homemade Beauty Products
Silicone molds that make cool ice cube shapes are also great for making certain types of homemade personal care products, like lotion bars and bath bombs.
How should I clean my ice cube trays?
According to Martha Stewart, there’s a process for this. The technique is especially helpful when your trays have picked up unpleasant freezer smells. Here’s what to do:
- If there’s any frozen residue, rinse trays under warm water to remove it.
- Combine half a cup of warm water and 2 teaspoons of baking soda. Moisten a cloth with the solution and rub down the entirety of the tray.
- Rinse thoroughly.
Baking soda is great because it gets rid of odors and is an all-natural, chemical-free cleaner. You should follow these steps once a month to clean the trays that you are using for traditional water cubes. For coffee cubes and other food items, wash after each use.
Can you put ice trays in the dishwasher?
That depends on the tray. When you purchase these ice storage containers, read the label to know how to maintain them. Some plastic ice trays should not be placed in dishwashers, as the heat will cause the plastic to melt or deteriorate. Silicone molds and trays can withstand higher levels of heat (usually up to 500°F). That means you can even place silicone trays in the oven for up to 60 minutes.
When should you use ice balls?
Ice balls are a good choice for beverages served on the rocks or for certain mixed drinks. Spherical ice allows you to fill glasses to their maximum capacity. A round iceball fits better in a glass than square ice cubes.
You can also put them in a pitcher to keep the liquid cold while not watering it down. Rounded ice works well with most wide-rimmed glasses. But since the balls are about 2″ wide, they may not fit properly into a glass with a rim that tapers inward at the top.
How long do ice balls last?
That depends on where they’re being used. If you have one in a glass on a hot, sun-drenched patio, it won’t last as long as it will in an air-conditioned room. At average room temperature, one iceball will probably hold out for two hours. And you can use it for 2-3 drinks.
Where can you buy ice trays?
Ice trays can be picked up at your local grocery store or another retailer that sells home and kitchen supplies. Specialty stores will probably have a wider selection of choices available, though. However, there are a plethora of options available online. You can find everything from conventional ice trays to unusual varieties with one-of-a-kind designs, like Lego blocks and polar bears.
How long does it take ice cubes to freeze?
To some extent, that depends on how cold the freezer is and how much liquid you are freezing. Cubes in conventional trays typically take 3-4 hours to solidify all the way through. Larger ice cubes will take longer to freeze than smaller ones. Additionally, even if your freezer is set at the optimal temperature of 0°F, if you put warm food in there, it will prolong the time it takes for the water in your trays to convert completely to ice.
Why don’t ice cubes always come out completely clear?
Sometimes when you make ice, you’ll notice that the cubes aren’t completely clear but instead have some “white stuff” in them. While it may look a little like snow, it’s actually caused by tiny air bubbles. Virtually all water has some oxygen in it. Gases like oxygen, along with other impurities, are pushed to the center of ice cubes as they freeze. The centers are the last parts of the cube to completely solidify.
Want to remove the white stuff? The higher the temperature, the less ability oxygen has to dissolve in water. If you boil the water before freezing it, you’ll take the oxygen out of it. Once it’s cool, you can pour it into the trays, and it should be much clearer than if you use regular water without heating it.