How to make clear ice cubes

Sometimes, i shoot drinks and cocktails. And when i do, i always wish i had clear ice cubes. The regular cloudy cubes from the ice trays simply don’t look very good. If you’ve been in this situation, you might be aware of acrylic ice cubes. The good ones are gorgeous. And expensive. A single acrylic ice cube will cost you about $50. Then if you need to shoot a long drink, you’ll need enough of them to fill up the glass from the bottom to the surface. This is because acrylic ice cubes sink, which real ice does not. A single cube sunken on the bottom of your glass will look weird.

Also, if you’re shooting a series of drinks, it will look weird with that same acrylic ice cube in all of them. I bet they’re great. They never melt and shift around and dilute your drink, no matter how long you’re working on the image. In my opinion, however, the perfectly clear acrylic cubes can look a little too good to be true. I wanted to figure out a way to make good-looking real ice cubes.

The bad advice you will get about making clear ice

So maybe you start asking around about clear ice in your photography groups on Facebook or some other forum. The advice you will often get is “just boil the water”. When you discover that boiled water still gives you cloudy ice, someone will say “you need to double boil it” or “use distilled water”. Unfortunately, none of these tricks will give you perfectly clear ice.

Why does the ice turn out cloudy?

The reason the ice turns cloudy is that it freezes from all directions and tiny air bubbles get trapped inside the ice. Air is indeed the problem, not impurities as some people suggest. At least not with the swedish tap water i am using, because Sweden happens to be where i live. Also, there’s some stretching in the ice as it freezes, which makes the cloudiness even worse.

I went out and did some research. The bar business has figured this out. It’s just a matter of down-scaling their solution to something that works with your freezer. Let me tell you how to do it. It’s simple.

The right way to make clear ice cubes

What you need to accomplish in order to get clear ice, is top-down freezing of the water, from one direction. This way, the air is pushed down in your freezing container and you will interrupt the freezing process before it’s completed, so that the air will never get trapped in the ice. For this, you need an insulated container that fits in your freezer. A cooler box will be good, but they’re typically too large to fit in a freezer. I didn’t even try to find one. I figured out how to make my own at a very low cost.

Inside the insulated box, you will put a box that will hold water. I used this food-grade plastic box. Its volume is 3 liters and it fits perfectly in one of the shelves of my freezer.

Plastic container for making clear ice for photography

For insulation, i went out and bought a sheet of styrofoam, 20 mm thick. I figured out the measurements for a box that would fit my plastic box. I cut out its four sides and bottom and glued them together.

Insulated styrofoam container for making clear ice for photography

One important caution – make sure you use glue that does not melt the styrofoam. Also, no matter how good the glue, you will need to reinforce your box. I used duct tape first to fix the sides to the bottom and finished it with a piece of tape that went all around the box and secured the other pieces. You better do this, or your insulation box will fall apart.

The first batch of clear ice cubes

After i finished the insulation box, i put it in the freezer. I filled the plastic box with water and put it inside the insulation box. This, by the way, was when i learned that i needed to reinforce the styrofoam box. It cracked open where i had glued the sides together.

OK, now, how long to wait? I remembered hearing the number 20 hours somewhere. I checked after 14 hours and the ice on top was surprisingly thin. Efter 20 hours, however, it was perfect. I took it out and put it upside down in the kitchen sink. A little tap on the box and the ice dislodged and the remaining unfrozen water poured out. What was left was a layer of about 6-7 centimeters of ice, a bit thinner in the middle and thicker around the sides. It was pretty easy to shape it into an even slab of ice by hacking on with the backside of a knife. Don’t use your good chef’s knife for this, or you might end up damaging its edge or cutting yourself.

Cutting your clear ice into cubes

Now i put the slab of ice on a cutting board and started making ice cubes. It took a few attempts to figure out the technique. Using a serrated knife, you saw where you want the ice to crack. Once you’ve made it a few millimeters into the ice, Give the knife a little whack and the ice will crack right there. Please be careful and watch your fingers!

Of course, you’re not limited to cubes. Make ice sticks for the long drinks or irregular chards. If you heat a metal object like a spoon, you can use it to shape your ice into whatever shape you want. Keep a saucepan of hot water nearby, so you can re-heat the spoon over and over.

Storing your clear ice cubes

Now store your ice cubes in the freezer until you need them. They will stay clear, but when you bring them out, they will have a matte surface. Just cuddle them in your hands for a few seconds and they will be clear and look great in you photos. Good luck and feel free to tag me in any of your photos where you use ice made like this.

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