Lemonade ceases to exist without it. Coolers across America would turn up empty. A snow cone without it is simply, well, a cone. As we enter the dog days of summer it’s time to turn our attention to the unsung hero of summer, a friend often relegated to the background of our culinary attention but with a rich history all its own.
Like electricity, ice is one of those things you just don’t really think about until it’s not there. But go without it and you’ll suddenly be screaming, complaining, crying, kvetching and ready to drown yourself with a lawn sprinkler, one drop at a time.
Without diving too deep back into elementary school science, ice can refer to any of the 14 known solid phases of water. Sure, it’s simply frozen water, but the process of freezing water is affected by a number of factors and can appear in many forms. The type of ice most commonly found on our planet is known as Ice Ih, a hexagonal crystal form. Head up to the heavens or change the pressure and the structure of ice changes, but hey, I’m not a science guy nor do I own a powerful microscope, so back to the food.
Our relationship with ice goes way beyond the first refrigerator. As far back as 400 BC, Persians built naturally cooled refrigerators called yakhchal which stored large chunks of ice that were harvested from the mountains in winter. The ice was used year round for cooling food and drink enjoyed by royalty during the warmest months in Iran. Adding ice to drinks became popular along the Mediterranean and in France during the 1600s (although I do believe David can tell you that sometimes the French have their own ideas for proper ice usage.) And supplying ice became a big trade for parts of the United States, where large chunks of ice were sent to the South and to the Caribbean. Ice houses and ice wagons appeared all over, harvesting ice from frozen lakes and supplying it to those with ice boxes at home. The natural ice trade was a booming business at the turn of the century, with over 2,000 commercial ice plants in 1909 that produced over 14 million tons of ice. Imagine the size of that snow cone.
The invention of the household refrigerator changed they way people did business and changed the ice industry. It took some time to catch on, but by the 1950s more than 80 percent of American farms and 90 perfect of homes had a fridge. No longer did you need that ice box in the kitchen windowsill or the regular ice delivery. Regular ice was at your fingertips.
Ok, so, frozen water is frozen water, right? Think again. Good ice is made with good water, pure and simple. None of this matters if you’re not actually consuming the ice (think ice cream maker or a cooler full of beer), but in recipes where ice is to be included it pays to be a stickler.
Ice for culinary purposes comes in a few forms. There’s block ice, mainly produced for industrial purposes but from which I derive some horrific pleasure when I’m handed an ice pick. There’s cubed ice, the type that comes from a water tray placed the freezer, and then flake ice which is used in commercial institutions and grocery stores. Cubed ice is what we’re most familiar with at home, whether we make it manually or use our automatic ice makers. It’s also the ice we crush for cocktails, but more on that in just a bit.
Ice is only frozen water, nothing more and nothing less, so it pays to create ice from good water. Depending on where you live, tap water from your faucet can be full of impurities, resulting in cloudy ice cubes. For a clear cube, distilled water works best, and if you’re especially neurotic (please stop looking at me) you can boil your water for a few minutes to remove air; it’s this air that gets trapped in ice, creating bubbles. But the clearest of ice is created in layers, just like an icicle. Ok, I’m not that neurotic.
Now back to the most important use of ice I can think of: cocktails. In this case it’s not only the quality of ice that matters but also the shape. Just like the right stemware, the right ice can make or break your drink. If you’re crushing your ice with ingredients in a blender for a mai tai or piña colada, the original size of your ice is unimportant. You want a fully blended and incorporated cocktail. However, for drinks served on the rocks like scotch and whiskey, you’ll want to use a square ice cube at least 2 inches in diameter. This size melts slowly, resulting in a cooled down drink that doesn’t dilute so quickly. And then there’s the shaker, which should always use cracked ice, a form of ice that is composed of several small bits. The extra surface area of cracked ice will cool a shaken drink fast, but beware–they also melt very quickly. Of course this isn’t so bad in a mojito or mint julep, drinks that rely on a bit of water to balance out their acidity or strength.
You’ve spent some serious cash on your spirits, so it only stands to reason that your ice should matter as much as your drink. I raise my cocktail – made with ice from distilled water, boiled twice thankyouverymuch – to you, and remember, please drink responsibly. Life is too short for the cheap stuff.