The Best Ice Cube Tray
The best everyday ice cube tray for most people is OXO’s Good Grips No Spill Ice Cube Tray. At $10 a tray, it’s certainly not the cheapest option out there, but seven hours of research and testing has proven that it’s the smartest pick for those making ice cubes for everyday home use. While our tests showed that the material at the heart of it all—the ice itself—is pretty much the same no matter which mold you use, it’s the experience of using the tray that makes it more satisfying than others.
We’ve removed our previous recommendation for the Tovolo King Ice Cube Tray. While it has received all kinds of editorial support, customer raves, and bartender accolades, the silicone does retain a freezer burn taste that some people (including a few Sweethome folks) can taste. In short, we constructed an experiment freezing distilled and tap water in a months-old Tovolo tray against a standard plastic one, smelling and tasting the melted water from the cubes after a week and a half. Even after two vinegar-water soaks (per Tovolo’s instructions), melted ice from the silicone trays left us with the same gaggy freezer-burn taste. We debated internally, but ultimately decided that the freezer burn taste issue is a persistent dealbreaker. Those of you who insisted the ice tastes bad, you were right. (For more, see Why we’re no longer recommending Tovolo.
Table of Contents
Who’s this for?
Almost everyone has at least one ice cube tray hanging out in their freezer. Maybe it came with the fridge, or the last tenant left it behind. Regardless of how it got there, if you have an ice cube tray already, you probably don’t need to invest in any new ones unless they are frustrating you for one reason or another.
In our testing, we found there aren’t meaningful differences in how well a standard ice cube will cool down your drink, or how quickly it will melt, as long as you’re starting with the same mass of ice. If you’re especially unhappy with your current ice cube tray, or somehow don’t have any, this pick is for you. It’s an especially great choice if your freezer has gotten particularly full lately and need to squeeze ice cube trays in at an angle.
How we picked and tested
There are countless styles of ice cube trays out there, making water into every size and shape of ice imaginable. We decided to narrow our focus to non-silicone trays in traditional ice cube shapes. Why not silicone? After long-term testing with our previous pick, the Tovolo King Cube tray, we found that after a few months, silicone starts to retain freezer burn smells and impart that flavor into the ice. Since the smell problem appears to be related to the material, we decided not to include silicone trays this time around. (For the full story, read Why we’re no longer recommending the Tovolo.)
During our research, we found that almost every ice cube tray makes 12, 14, or 16 cubes; the trays with more cubes tend to take up a slightly longer footprint in the freezer than those with fewer cubes. Despite these differences in size and quantity, all of the trays make ice cubes that are about 20 grams each.
We set a price cap of $10 per tray. Anything more than that seemed too expensive for such a simple tool.
Lids can be great for keeping smells out, but some designs worked better than others. All prevented spilling when being moved from the sink to the freezer. However, one poorly designed lid turned the freezing water into a giant hunk of ice. The best lid not only stops spills, but also allows the tray to be stored at an angle and keeps smells out of the ice. When stacked, a tray with a good lid also keeps the tops of the ice clean, no matter what you stack on top of it.
From cube to cube, the differences in cooling power and meltwater rise was negligible, though the one with extra-large cubes, the 25mL Mumi&Bubi, had the least drop in temperature.
Our results ultimately proved that the shape of the ice at this size doesn’t make a substantial difference. Among the six trays, we recorded average decreases in temperature ranging from 41.11% to 45.65%, and ice mass loss of between 91.57% and 94.87%, after 17 minutes, across three tests. Those differences are too small to declare one shape as better than any other among these models.
Yes, we eliminated silicone trays for smell retention, but we actually found that the OXO tray’s silicone lid does a good job of keeping odors out. It touches only one side of the ice cube and helps prevent odors from permeating the ice by sealing off the freezing water. Many reviewers on Amazon praise the lid’s ability to keep ice free of freezer smells. In fact, of the 217 customer reviews on the site—averaging out to 4.6 stars, with only 22 reviews less than 4 stars—there’s only one that mentions odor issues.
The flexible lid is superior to the plastic lid because, as you can see in this video, the surface tension of the water against the lid creates a surprisingly stable, airtight seal. After you fill the mold, you simply press the floppy lid down, which forces any excess liquid into a pour-off channel running around the perimeter. Once the lid is in place, you can transport the tray to your freezer and even stuff it on the shelf at an angle if needed. We got up to a full 90 degrees safely, although the seal broke when we tried to freeze the tray upside down.
The other thing we love about this tray is the shape of the cubes. Rather than a rectangular or trapezoidal prism, the underside is a half-moon, allowing for the easiest removal of individual cubes. (The runner-up Good Grips Ice Cube Tray also features this rounded shape.) Once you’ve twisted the tray back and forth to loosen the ice, you can simply push down on either end of a cube, which raises the other end like a seesaw. Of course you can turn the whole tray over and bang out all of them at once, if you prefer. Other trays require using fingernails to lift out individual cubes, or holding back a barrage of ice to get just a piece.
In our tests, our pick averaged a cooling rate of 44.91 percent, compared with the most effective ice, from the Fox Run tray, at 45.65 percent. Over our 17 minute tests, we saw the mass of the ice decrease by an average of 94.83 percent, which was toward the high end, but is still comparable to the lowest rate of 91.57 percent. These are really small differences that most people would never notice when it comes to the actual taste of their beverage.
We’re not the only ones who love this ice cube tray. In May 2013, Cook’s Illustrated published its take on innovative ice cube trays (subscription required). Although it only tested three models, OXO’s came out as the winner, earning the highly recommended status. The authors found the shape of the molds to be beneficial as well, saying, “The ice cubes released effortlessly from its rounded indentations.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Good Grips No Spill Ice Cube Tray does have a pretty large footprint; while it’s the same length as a standard Rubbermaid tray, it’s about ¾ of an inch wider, and yet it makes fewer cubes. Also, if you don’t properly pour out the extra water from the perimeter runoff moat, you might make a mess in your freezer if placing the tray in at an angle. We also had some concern about runoff channels between the cubes, which means water can’t flow from one indent to the next.
It also has a lid, perfect for stacking. Made of plastic, this lid slides on top of the tray, snapping into place once it’s centered. The lid’s wavelike edge allows you to turn over the tray to remove as few or as many cubes as you’d like at a time. We prefer the benefits of the silicone lid on our main pick—particularly the airtight seal that allows the tray to be positioned at angles and keeps out smells—but still find this one to be better than no lid at all.
Over at Gizmodo, Sam Biddle named this one the best ice cube tray of all time. “I liked the OXO because it was clever without feeling clever—an ice cube tray should just give you some damn ice when you want it, not feel like a gadget,” Biddle told us via email. “I didn’t like the trays that tried too hard.”
For more ice cubes
At $25, Mumi&Bubi’s Solids Starter Kit is more than twice as expensive as our top pick, but it comes with two trays that make 21 extra-large cubes each. The BPA-free, dishwasher-safe plastic trays are square rather than rectangular, measuring just shy of 9 inches long and wide and standing 1½ inches tall with the included lid in place. Each indentation holds about 25mL of water, rather than the 20mL-capacity of the others we tested.
While they leave the least amount of meltwater to your drink, in our tests they also didn’t cool the drink quite as quickly as the smaller 20mL cubes, though the difference was pretty small. The shape of the cubes is very similar to that of OXO’s, with a half-moon design that makes removal of a single cube easy: push on the end and and grab the other as the ice pops up. It’s just as simple to knock out the entire tray into a bucket when you’re having a party.
The covers protect the ice from freezer burn and also allow you to stack anything on top of the trays. They also help prevent any spillage; even if the water sloshes around when you’re moving from the sink to the freezer, none of it will end up on the ground. The trays can’t be stored at angles like our top pick, though.
Because of the high price and large footprint, the Solid Starter Kit doesn’t quite compete as the “best” option, but it’s a smart choice for those who want to make a lot of ice at once. We’re actually a little surprised Mumi&Bubi doesn’t market the tray as an option for plain ol’ ice cubes, although based on the 4.4 star rating on Amazon, plenty of people love it for its intended purpose.
Editor’s note: Why we’re no longer recommending the Tovolo
We loved the Tovolo King Ice Cube Tray overall. Bartending pros like Chad Solomon of Milk & Honey and Jim Meehan of PDT, Cook’s Illlustrated, and many others recommended them to us. The cubes are huge at 100 grams, and because of their reduced surface area, they melt slowly and dilute delicious libations less quickly. We proved this theory by having Matthew Nix, who has a PhD in biochemistry, and a cocktail writer, Kevin Liu, plot the dilution ratio of water and whiskey over time for cubes of various sizes. Large cubes cooled the slowest but diluted the least—so important for carefully crafted booze. (There’s a lengthy appendix section on the previous guide that discusses the science of ice melting and chilling cocktails that doesn’t directly apply to this guide, but you may want to check it out.)
At first, we loved this tray. Some of our staff found the large cubes difficult to release from the tray, but others had no problem.
But then two big problems unique to the Tovolo came up from readers. Google “Silicone ice cube tray” and you’ll find manysimilarcomplaints. Tovolo confirmed to us that they were aware of these problems.
The first problem was that the cubes left an off-putting, lacy white residue on the inside of the ice cube trays. Readers wondered what it was and whether it was safe. As Sweethome and Serious Eats contributor Kevin Liu explained, “Since the cubes in the Tovolo are larger, the water freezes more slowly and also circulates more within each cube before it freezes. This action deposits the minerals on the outside of each cube; with smaller cubes, the minerals get trapped inside the ice cube.”
Tovolo has tested the residue left in trays and found that they were elements from the water used to make ice. The residue is more prevalent the harder your water is; still, there’s nothing harmful about it.
We had a pretty rigorous debate about this issue among ourselves. Some Sweethome editors insisted that the freezer burn flavor of ice made in the Tovolo tray was a dealbreaker, while other Sweethome editors couldn’t taste anything off. Accusations about stinky freezers and dull palates flew.
Both the residue and the flavor problems may stem from the nature of silicone. While its flexibility lends itself well to releasing large-form cubes that might otherwise crack more brittle plastic, the material may also have a tendency to hold on to both the hard-water deposits and smells. Tovolo representative Kerry Niesen told us, “Silicone is a rubber material and at low temperatures can absorb odors from the freezer and refrigerator.”
Tovolo told us these problems could be fixed. “The best solution is to clean your Tovolo ice trays in a dilute solution of vinegar and water about once per month,” says Niesen, recommending a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water. “Sometimes it is necessary to soak the trays in the solution for up to an hour.”
She also recommended storing the trays outside the freezer when not in use. “Once the cubes are frozen, decant them into an airtight container so they stay fresh in the freezer,” she said.
But would this really solve both issues? We decided to conduct an experiment. We had an 8-month-old Tovolo tray that had been sitting in a mostly empty freezer and exhibited both the residue and stink issues. We cleaned the silicone tray in vinegar-water, as directed by Tovolo. After an hour in the bath, the trays still smelled of freezer burn, though the scent wasn’t as assertive as it had been before. We washed a plastic Rubbermaid tray in plain soap and water. Then we filled one side of each tray with distilled water and the other side with filtered Los Angeles tap water, which tends to be quite hard. We froze the trays for 1½ weeks, melted equal amounts of each of the four ice samples, and examined the meltwater for residue and taste. This experiment was repeated once for confirmation.
As expected, the distilled water left no residue from either the plastic or the silicone tray. The cubes started far more clear than the the filtered water cubes and melted clear.
With filtered water, Kevin’s theory proved true: the smaller cubes from both the plastic tray and large Tovolo cube contained equal amounts of mineral residue once melted. The silicone tray didn’t display the lacy white residue it had prior to the vinegar cleanse; the deposits likely build up over time and use. We suspect that all filtered water ice always has that residue, regardless of the ice cube tray; it’s just that the sticky silicone trays hold onto the residue that would otherwise be trapped in the ice.
The list of caveats for using the silicone tray was getting too long to be practical—release cubes from tray as soon as they’re frozen, store ice in a covered container, store the tray outside the freezer when not in use, ignore the harmless white residue, clean regularly with vinegar-water (and still deal with the taste of freezer burn).
Because of the unfortunate taste issue, we can no longer recommend the Tovolo, or any silicone ice cube tray for that matter. We still think large cubes are great for cooling cocktails with less dilution, but we haven’t found a viable large cube alternative that isn’t silicone yet.
In TheBar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, Portland-based Jeffrey Morgenthaler suggests, “Pick up a multi-compartment plastic storage box at a hardware store, the lidded type most often used for holding nails and screws. Simply discard the lid, fill with distilled water, and freeze. The model I have at home has 1¾-inch-cubed compartments. You can store your big, beautiful cubes in a lidded plastic container in the freezer; just reach in and grab to order. (If you’re making ice to use in a commercial setting, however, you should stick to food-grade materials.)” However, we can’t recommend this method as storage containers aren’t regulated for food contact by the FDA and could contain contaminants from recycled plastics, plasticizers such as BPA and phthalates, dyes, and other chemicals you probably don’t want in your cocktail.
In addition to the two OXO models, we called in four other trays for testing. Some were plain old plastic trays, and others had innovative tricks, but none was strong enough to earn the title. Only Fox Run’s No Spill Ice Cube Tray showed any real issues when it came to the cubes themselves.
Joseph Joseph’s QuickSnap Ice Cube Tray ($8) offers a unique way to remove the cubes. Each of the twelve divisions has a silicone switch mechanism embedded in it. Water freezes into it, and then when it comes time to remove a cube, you move the rubber back and forth to loosen it. Most of the time, this causes the cube to pop right up at you. Cool idea, but it didn’t always work.
Both Sterilite’s Stacking Ice Cube Tray ($5) and Rubbermaid’s Easy Release Ice Cube Tray ($5) are pretty much quintessential ice cube trays. Coming in white plastic, each holds 16 cubes, and comes without a lid. They stack just fine and make perfectly acceptable ice. There’s nothing special about them though, and for the same money, we’d definitely take Good Grips Ice Cube Tray with its odor-fighting lid. You might find these bundled in multi-packs for a low price though, so they’re not a bad idea if you need a lot of ice at once.
We wanted to like the $8 No Spill Ice Cube Tray from Fox Run, but it turned out to be more problematic than expected. The 14-cube tray is the last of the models we tested to come with a lid. You’re supposed to snap the lid into place onto the empty tray, and then open up a cover in the center that reveals a 1½-inch hole underneath. Pour your water in through the hole to fill the tray; the lid is supposed prevent any water from spilling out. The problem is the design doesn’t prevent overfilling, and when you put too much water in, you end up with solid chunks of ice rather than individual cubes. As Cook’s Illustrated put its, “When the tray is overfilled, a solid sheet of ice atop the ice cubes made them hard to pry out, and after a few rounds of making ice, the lid stiffened and felt brittle.” Gizmodo’s Biddle echoes, “The Fox Run suffered the worst from overfill, leaving you with one enormous, malformed tectonic plate of ice, rather than neat cubes.”
Even when the tray was filled to a lower level, it was problematic. Almost every cube cracked when we removed them, leaving shards of ice behind.
Onyx’s Stainless Steel Ice Cube Tray looks cool, but its $29 price tag kept it out of the running.
The same goes for Lekue’s $33 Ice Box, which at least has the benefit of coming with a storage container.
The Container Store’s Covered Ice Cube Tray makes 21 cubes, but because it is made of rigid plastic and has a middle row, it’s hard to remove individual cubes; it’s more of an all-or-nothing kind of deal.
Wrapping it up
When it comes time to buy a nice ice cube tray, we recommend you go with OXO’s Good Grips No Spill Ice Cube Tray. It combines the easiest to remove cubes with a great lid, resulting in a prime ice cube experience. But if you have a tray you’re happy with, don’t worry about upgrading. There’s no magic here, just smart design.
Originally published: September 19, 2014