When shaking or stirring a cocktail, you can use any ice cubes you like, as long as they’re made from good-tasting water. But when it comes to serving that cocktail—or a favorite spirit or nonalcoholic beverage, for that matter—you might want to consider using ice that’s a little more special. Sure, your drink will still taste great even if you use ice from your freezer’s ice tray. But a perfectly shaped ice cube or sphere can elevate your drink and give it an especially elegant and polished look. We wanted to know which ice molds and trays produced ice that was worthy of our most carefully crafted cocktails, so we bought eight models, priced from about $7 to about $40, and used them to make ice. While these ice molds and trays come in many different shapes and sizes, we focused on those that produce cubes and spheres about 2 inches in diameter (the most commonly available size). Four models made cubes, four models made spheres, and one model in each category claimed to make “clear” ice—ice that is drained of the impurities that cause normal ice to appear somewhat cloudy.
Not surprisingly, every mold was capable of making ice. But due to differences in construction, certain models were easier to use—and produced nicer-looking ice—than others.
First, we tried filling the ice molds. All we had to do with the ice cube trays was add water to each of the large square compartments, but the sphere molds were generally a touch trickier or messier to fill. All the sphere molds are divided into two halves: a bottom hemisphere and a top hemisphere, often surrounded by other material. Two models require you to put the two halves together and then carefully fill the whole mold through either a tube or a small hole in the top—a fussy process. The other two sphere molds require you to add water to the bottom half of the mold and then push the top half into place, displacing some of the water and forcing it up into the top hemisphere. One of these molds has a fill line that tells you just how much water to put in. The other doesn’t, and we repeatedly found ourselves pouring in too much water. When we pressed down the top half of the mold, that excess water ran out through escape holes and spilled all over the floor.
Additional problems arose when we tried to transport the filled molds to the freezer. With all but one model, the portions of the mold that come into contact with the water are made of flexible silicone or rubber—bendable materials that make it relatively easy to pop out the ice once it’s frozen. Molds made solely of that flexible silicone or rubber were a little too floppy on their own, making them harder to keep horizontal as we walked to the freezer. Because of this, water often sloshed overboard. By contrast, models that surrounded the silicone or rubber with hard shells made from rigid plastic or foam were easy to hold steady and transport without spilling. (Lids also helped limit spillage.)
Those shells weren’t just practical, either—they also ensured better-looking ice. The frames reinforced the sides and bottoms of the silicone trays and molds, keeping the flexible silicone and rubber compartments more rigid and preventing the water from pushing them outward as it froze and expanded. The result: geometrical, straight-edged ice cubes and properly rounded ice spheres. Models without hard frames tended to swell and warp as the water froze and pushed on the soft silicone or rubber in different directions, so the ice that came out of them wasn’t perfectly square; rather, it was often distorted or even lumpy.
Although the ice spheres generally emerged from their molds nicely shaped, they had a few slight cosmetic problems. No molds produced completely smooth, flawless orbs. Water almost always collected and froze in the seam between the hemispheres, no matter how tightly we pushed the halves together. As a result, a ring of ice usually encircled the spheres’ middles, making them look less like perfect spheres and more like tiny Saturns or Jupiters. All the molds have small holes in their hemispheres that act as escape valves for excess water; in the freezer, water sometimes expanded out through these holes and froze, forming bumps.
The three conventional sphere molds also produced ice spheres with prominent fissures inside, making them vulnerable to cracking when placed in liquid. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to prevent this from happening: Just let the mold sit out for a few minutes before attempting to remove the ice. This rest “tempers” the ice, letting it acclimate to the higher room temperature, so the spheres are less likely to split when unmolded or added to a drink.
Initially, we were skeptical about whether anybody truly needed clear ice—we’d never found anything wrong with the conventional ice we’d used before. After making just one batch of clear cubes and spheres, though, we saw why they had fans. The clear ice was beautiful: sparkly and completely transparent. By comparison, conventional ice cubes and spheres did look cloudy and less pretty. Still, clear ice comes at a price. Not only are clear ice molds more expensive, but because they require so much insulation (see “What Is Clear Ice and How Can I Make It at Home?”), they take up a lot more real estate in the freezer. The clear ice cube maker we tested, for example, is only slightly smaller than a gallon of milk, whereas the conventional molds are far more compact—the size of a thick paperback novel. That insulation also means that these molds take longer to freeze water—16 to 18 hours compared with 6 to 11 hours for the regular models—so you’ll have to plan ahead a bit more to make ice. It can be a little harder to remove ice from the clear ice molds as well. First, you have to pry the silicone trays or molds out of their tight-fitting insulation. Then, you have to separate the molds from the reservoirs that hold the “impure” water; sometimes the impure water freezes, too, and must be chipped off before you can get out the clear ice. By contrast, most of the conventional models require no extra steps; you just push the ice up from the bottom of the tray or mold.
Finally, a word about odors. Silicone is relatively permeable to gases, so silicone ice molds are notorious for absorbing freezer odors and transferring them to the ice they make. The models in our testing were no exception. To see how readily all the products picked up odors, we distributed dishes filled with nearly a pound’s worth of grated onions in the freezer and left them with the filled molds overnight—not something you’d ever do at home, but a test we thought would be revealing. Since liquids such as coffee and wine are often frozen into cubes and used in iced coffee and spritzers, we also filled the molds with coffee and froze them. To our surprise, none of the molds picked up the onion smell. But any mold that had even the smallest amount of silicone retained coffee odors, requiring a few washes to completely eradicate them; models that were made from rubber or hard plastic smelled fresh again after just a single wash. More problematically, models made with silicone developed a freezer burn smell—stale, sweet, and musty—after just a week of use. The more silicone a mold contained, the more that silicone was exposed to the air of the freezer and the more the ice picked up off-odors from the silicone. Here again, a hard plastic or foam frame was helpful, protecting the silicone against some odors; lids also helped limit exposure. Because the rubber and hard plastic models had other, more significant problems—the rubber models were annoying to fill and transport, and the plastic models were a little harder to remove ice from—we decided that we were willing to put up with this odor accumulation in our winners, both of which are made with silicone. By regularly using our trick for getting rid of those odors, you’ll still be able to keep your ice tasting fresh and clean.
If you want an ice cube mold and the appearance of the ice is your only concern, you might want to consider True Cubes, priced around $40: It made four gorgeous, crystal-clear ice cubes every time. But because you’ll have to devote a large portion of your freezer to housing this model, and ice is a little hard to remove from it, we think the best option for most people is the OXO Good Grips Covered Silicone Ice Cube Tray—Large Cubes, for about $10. While this model doesn’t make clear ice, its more compact hard plastic frame made it easy to transport and store and produced ice cubes that were otherwise large, good-looking, and perfectly straight-edged. Like True Cubes, its interior tray is made from silicone, so it is prone to absorbing odors, though its hard plastic frame and lid offer some protection against this problem. For spheres, we recommend Zoku Ice Ball Molds. While it produces ice with a few cosmetic flaws, we prefer it for its superior ease of use. This set of two molds is a breeze to transport, and the molds can be stacked or stashed separately wherever there’s room in your freezer; a silicone interior makes it especially easy to pop out the ice once it’s frozen.