To quote the inimitable opening line of the 1999 Santana (featuring Rob Thomas) chart-topper, “Smooth”: Man, it’s a hot one. By “it,” I am of course referring to the Texas summer. And even though we are far from the height of summer and it’s not technically even that hot yet—it takes at least a few weeks straight of triple-digit temperatures for a Texas summer to really stand out—we are facing a potentially brutal few months.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has already asked us to conserve electricity to stave off the threat of blackouts. At the same time, we’re experiencing a chlorine shortage and a scarcity of lifeguards that make it harder for pools to stay open. Even if this summer’s temperatures are no hotter than last summer’s, with barely functioning AC and not enough places to swim, we will be sweating without relief.
All this is to say that we’re going to need a lot of ice. We’re going to need to put it into our drinks and our coolers. We’re going to need to chew it, savoring the hints of cherry-limeade flavor that the little frozen pebbles absorbed before we drank it all so fast. Sometimes we’ll have to rub it over our foreheads and our necks. The short bursts of cold will be but a temporary distraction from the humidity that makes us feel like we’re being strangled by a water ghost, but we’ll need all the distraction we can get.
We won’t want to be wasteful. There are a seemingly infinite number of ice shapes and consistencies, and they all have their ideal uses. Sonic’s pebble ice should not go in a cooler; a mixologist’s giant ball of craft ice has no place in any kind of fountain soda, whether it’s contained in styrofoam or a textured, red-plastic diner cup. If you’re using an actual glass, you’ll want ice that’s dense and clear; it will clink, and the sound of a cold beverage can itself provide a Pavlovian reprieve from the oppressive heat. If you know in advance that you’ll be nursing your bevy, for the love of God choose something that won’t melt quickly.
To better understand ice science, I consulted Scott McAlister, the president of Coastal Ice & Water, a company that boasts to be “the largest commercial wholesaler of Hydration in The Greater Houston Area.” Scott McAlister knows ice, and now that I’ve spoken with him for thirty entire minutes, I’ve decided that I do too. Thus, I give you this well-researched and incredibly scientific list of common ice shapes, and how best to employ them.
It is a truth universally known that Sonic ice is the best and most refreshing of drinking ices. Small, porous, and crunchy, it is perfect for sweet and flavorful beverages, the cherry limeade being its ideal pairing. The non-branded name for this particular ice shape is “pebble ice,” and Scott McAlister knows it is the cream of the crop. “My wife kills me because we don’t have that machine,” he told me. He went on to explain the mechanism that provides the ice’s superior texture. “Pebble ice is made from an ice-flaking machine,” he said. “There is a long tube, like a copper line, that water flows through. One side is the flow side and the other side is the outlet. As water flows through the coil, it freezes, and when it comes out the other side it’s just frozen enough.” As it exits the tube it breaks off into little, softly frozen pebbles. Because there is a lot of air in the ice, it melts quickly, so it’s not a very good ice if your concern is only to cool the liquid in the cup. Pebble ice is not a supporting character in your beverage; it is the star. It is meant to be chewed, and the pebble ice at the bottom of a cherry limeade or Dr Pepper is the beverage equivalent of the soggy-but-still-delicious end of an ice cream cone.
There’s no exact definition for “craft ice,” but you know it when you see it, and you usually see it in cocktails. It can come in a variety of shapes—such as a big ol’ ball—and it is popular with high-end restaurants and fancy bars. A common shape is what McAlister calls a “whiskey cube,” a big ol’ block that’s about an inch all the way around. “There’s two ways they do it: they actually freeze them in cubes [or some other shape] or they freeze the water in a larger, solid block of ice that they use saws to cut.” Either way, what you have is a “very, very see-through, pure piece of ice.” It looks nice, and it’s dense, with no air bubbles, which means it melts very slowly. It’s the sort of ice meant to clink against the sides of a rocks glass. And if you need to rub ice on your forehead or neck, this would look much more elegant than just smushing a handful of pebble ice on yourself.
McAlister seemed to be most into something called “tube ice,” which is probably because his company sells and delivers it to thousands of businesses in the Houston area. You probably know it. It’s the kind of ice you can buy in bags, and it’s shaped like Combos crackers without the pepperoni-pizza or cheddar-cheese filling. It is often sold by major ice manufacturers, and it’s made in industrial ice plants. “It’s made in long, slender tubes, and at the end of the harvesting process, it’s cut into one-inch pieces.” It’s commonly used by restaurants in water glasses, says McAlister. “The tube effect actually allows more ice to fit better inside a glass.” The cylindrical shape also makes it a good choice for getting drinks cold quickly at parties and stocking coolers. “Because of the size, it actually wraps around the cans or bottles as it condenses in the ice chest.” You can find tube ice at some convenience stores, if they outsource to a wholesaler like McAlister’s company.
“Home ice” is the phrase McAlister used to describe the opaque, elongated crescent shape that tends to come out of regular in-home freezers. He didn’t have much good to say about it, and added that the shape is just the result of some long-ago ice-maker engineering. “Someone designed that in a moon shape because when it freezes, it’s just an easy form for it to be moved out by the mechanical arm that pushes it out of the mechanism and into the container that holds it.” Much easier than if it were a straight-up cube. This is the ice I have in my refrigerator, but honestly I kind of hate it. It’s hard to chew and it melts pretty fast, so there’s a lot of condensation. If you don’t immediately put your glass on a coaster, you’re cruisin’ for a water stain.
Half-moon ice is the sort of ice you would buy from a supermarket or convenience store if that store has an ice machine in-house. “If it’s made in a store like H-E-B, it’s like a half-moon-looking thing,” said McAlister, describing the shape that is a square on its flat side but rounded on the bottom (not to be confused with home ice). “That’s made by a machine that actually makes it by plate, meaning the water runs over a plate that forms it into the size and shape or whatever you want that ice to look like. It’s a fair type of ice for general practices like throwing in an ice chest or something like that.” In my (newly expert) opinion, it’s the second-best ice for crunching. I think it works well at the bottom of a not-too-sweet tea. It won’t have absorbed the flavor of the beverage it sits in, but it’s thin enough not to screw up your teeth.
Our ice expert didn’t have much input on shaved ice, except to say that it’s literally made by shaving a giant block of ice. It can come in different consistencies, based on the type of shaver. I felt the need to include it here because the moment in which I experienced the greatest and most pure refreshment was when I took my first bite of a Tigers Blood (watermelon, strawberry, and coconut) shaved ice that I purchased on the banks of the Comal River after having allowed myself to get dangerously close to dehydration one August afternoon. It was ecstasy and I drool at the memory of it. Shaved ice rules.