Straight to the Point
“At the end of the day it’s all about the ice in the cocktail,” says Josué Castillo, beverage director for Boston, MA’s Pazza on Porter and Next Door. Indeed, there might be no greater pleasure than seeing a boozy drink, like an Old Fashioned, being poured over a special type of ice like a big sphere. The showmanship of the ice ball, it’s rock-hard chill, the way it rolls around in the glass as you sip… it's a beautiful thing. Or, as Sire Negri, bar coordinator at Havana Beach Bar and Grill, notes: in “spirit-heavy drinks,” a single, big ice sphere offers a “better presentation and drink experience.”
Key to that experience is the sphere’s slow rate of melt. “Standard ice cubes start to melt right away. The cocktail might be not that great because by the time it gets to the table, it’s watered down,” Castillo says. “I like sphere ice because it doesn’t dilute as fast as other types of ice.” This is especially true of clear sphere ice, which contains none of the fast-melting air pockets of cloudy ice. But the impressive globes that mixologists hand-carve at the best craft cocktail bars are not exactly practical in the home bar. At home, you want a sphere that you can simply pull from your freezer, courtesy of an ice mold that’s done the job for you.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Whether it be silicone trays, plastic-base models, pull-apart balls, or something more elaborate, the varying technologies of sphere ice molds are all imperfect, and human error is a likely accomplice to the shoddy tech. There is simply no guarantee that any spherical ice mold will yield you a perfectly round, seamless, dentless, dimple-less orb of ice. Luckily, many of the drinks you’ll be pouring over your sphere will be dark in color and will mask some of its imperfections.
Though no ice mold is perfect, we tested eight popular sphere ice molds to find the ones that freeze mot effectively, form an aesthetically pleasing sphere, don’t retain off flavors, and are easiest to use. Our research revealed that one mold we tested was far better than all others for the appearance and even for the flavor of the ice.
The Winner, at a Glance
The Best Sphere Ice Mold: TINANA Crystal Clear Ice Ball Maker
An insulated box with thick silicone sphere molds, this product uses a method called directional freezing to yield crystal-clear balls, which are buried so deep within the mold and so untouched by air bubbles, that they avoid freezer smells that might mar their flavor.
- Filling Test: We filled the molds per the manufacturer instructions, evaluating how easy they were to fill and assemble, and noting the clarity and accuracy of the instructions. We then transferred the molds to the freezer, noting if the molds leaked and how much freezer space each took up.
- Ice Test: We froze the molds, then unmolded the ice. We observed ease of extraction and hardness, shape, and cosmetic uniformity of the ice.
- Drink Test: We placed an ice sphere from each model into a rocks glass and poured an Old Fashioned over it, observing and sipping to test fit, looks, chill, and taste.
- Dilution Test: We left the ice in the Old Fashioned for 10 minutes, then observed the rate of melting and the sphere’s appearance. We also tasted each cocktail to analyze dilution.
- Storage and Off-Taste Test: We made new ice in each model and left the molds in the freezer for one week. We unmolded the ice, and placed each sphere into an Old Fashioned, sampling it to test for any off flavors and aromas.
- Cleanup Tests: We washed the spheres by hand twice, evaluating how easy they were to clean.
What We Learned
Trial and Error, Rather than Manufacturer Instructions, Were Key to Success
How do you properly fill a sphere ice mold? If you think you’d find the answer in the manufacturer instructions, guess again. We found these were unreliable. Success, while varied, came best through multiple instances of trial and error.
We tried four types of sphere molds. First, there were the round silicone molds in two parts that got pushed together to form a sphere that you fill with water through a small hole at the top. The instructions for these molds tell you to fill them 80 or 90%. But, given that their holes are quite small and the molds aren’t see-through, hitting those percentages was anyone’s guess. And incompletely filling them lead to incomplete ice spheres. We found it was best to just fill them all the way to the top.
Second, there were plastic-and-silicone molds, with a standing base and a cap that gets pressed into the base. Instructions varied for these. The Tovolo instructed to fill to the fill line and then press the cap on. But that also resulted in an incomplete sphere. Again, experience taught us that it was best to fill the base all the way to the top and then push the cap on. That gave us the best spheres.
The third type of mold was a silicone or plastic tray that made multiple spheres. The specific fill instructions worked well enough for each of these, but the ice removal instructions did not. As with the other types of molds, we were instructed to twist the molds in all directions to force the spheres out. But the halves of the molds stuck together, and the spheres clung to the bottoms. The mini-sphere trays even came with conflicting instructions. The booklet said twist. The box instructed to push. We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but no amount of pushing worked—easily or otherwise—on a rigid plastic form, anyway. Instead, we found running warm water over the mold or just letting it sit until the mold and sphere warmed up just enough that we could ease the ice out worked best.
Finally, there was the TINANA insulated box mold. We could not, no matter how hard we tried, find the fill line the instructions insisted was there. So, we just winged it and filled the box to the top. An even bigger issue was the instructions for removal. They simply said to pull up on the handles on both sides. But this unit’s thick silicone parts fit so snuggly in the plastic container that these instructions proved futile. We finally figured out a hack for removal that involved all four limbs and a lot of leverage. It was awkward, but it worked.
The lesson here is: read the instructions, but prepare to deviate from them. Make these molds your own. Experiment for the best results in filling and removal.
Silicone vs. Plastic Sphere Ice Molds
Pliable silicone and rigid plastic are the two standard materials for freezer-bound sphere ice molds. But these materials vary in performance depending on the form of the mold. The worst-performing molds we tested were tray molds made of soft silicone material. These floppy items leaked water at the seams between their top and bottom halves, and they had to be delicately placed in the freezer. If anything was placed on top of them, they would cave in, leaking water out of the top of the mold. Leakage within the freezer led to ice slicks and messiness. The thin silicone also tended to pick up freezer smells easily.
Rigid plastic trays, on the other hand, have multiple advantages. Once you fill them and squeeze them together, they’re more secure than the soft trays. So there isn’t as much of a possibility that they will leak in the freezer. They're also stackable; you can place something on top of them, and they won’t cave in. They might not be as easy to twist in order to remove the frozen spheres, but twisting didn’t really help the spheres dislodge in the soft trays, either, so that’s immaterial. Finally, we found that they were more impervious to freezer smells.
Single sphere molds, on the other hand, do better when they’re made completely out of silicone rather than both silicone and plastic. The biggest reason for this is that these molds tend to get jostled in the freezer, even falling out of our full freezer onto the floor at points. When that happens, the rigid plastic parts of the mold tend to chip and break, which makes standing them up in your freezer or trying to stack them difficult. Overall, the Zoku and Tovolo models just don’t hold up over time and after usage. If you left them long enough, the silicone-and-plastic molds also tended to yield spheres that weren’t so much round as bulbous and oblong.
The round molds made entirely out of heavy silicone—in our tests, the Glacio Round Ice Cube Mold and the Chillz Extreme Ice Ball Mold, which are essentially identical—are fun to use and look like big rubber balls. You can fit a bunch in the freezer, and they’ll be durable. We’ve already addressed the problems with removing the spheres from them, and they tend to yield spheres with dimples where the holes are on the top of the mold and an extra ring of ice where the seam is. But, as we said previously, those imperfections can be masked in a darker drink. They will, however, pick up freezer smells.
As for clean up, every one of them was just fine hand-washed and in the washing machine. However, when it comes to the TINANA mold (which uses both silicone and rigid plastic to great effect) you’re best served removing the plastic box from the Styrofoam insulation before you throw it in the dishwasher, and even if you hand wash it, as that Styrofoam will degrade over time.
When It Came to Size, About 2.5 Inches in Diameter Was Best
The Old Fashioned is the ultimate rocks glass drink. In fact, a synonym for the rocks glass is the Old Fashioned glass. A wide, squat receptacle, this glass looks best with one big sphere rolling around in it. The spheres with the best dimensions were 2.5 inches across. At this size, the sphere nearly filled the glass, clanking attractively against its sides as we sipped, and keeping our cocktail frosty and potent. We liked the way the sphere rose up out of the drink like an iceberg, melting more slowly than square ice cubes would have. The bigger spheres held up after 10 minutes in a drink, especially if they came from the base-and-cap molds, which had the advantage of not creating a seam through the middle of the ice sphere, a weak spot in the results from the round molds, where the sphere tended to melt more quickly.
We tested three molds with smaller-sized spheres. The TINANA spheres measure out to be 2.36 inches; this was not enough of a difference to matter, so they’re effectively as good (and, in so many ways, better) than other spheres of a full 2.5 inches. The spheres for the Houdini Large Sphere Ice Tray Mold were only 1.75 inches in diameter, which proved awkward in a rocks glass. One sphere was not enough to keep the drink cold or to look attractive in the glass. When we added a second sphere, it sat uneasily on top of the first, almost completely above the surface of the drink, and it hit us in the face when we sipped.
One mold made 33 marble-like spheres of 1-inch in diameter each. They’re effectively mega-pebble ice, and they are not appropriate to a rocks glass unless you use about 10 of them at once. These spheres are much better suited to a highball glass, where they look delightfully like giant boba (the tapioca balls in bubble tea), and they melt less quickly than crushed ice does.
Clear Ice Was the Clear Choice
No sphere ice came out pristine. There were dimples and dents, cracks and seams. Some were more oblong or bulbous than spherical. And cloudy spheres emerged from every mold, with the exception of one: the TINANA. The clear spheres that the TINANA mold made were superior in many ways. In the glass, they looked fantastic, light bouncing off them reflectively, the drink showing clear through to the other side. The mold insulates so well that freezer smells didn’t affect the ice, and clear ice tends to taste better anyway because it's free of the air bubbles and pockets that help give cloudy ice freezer flavors.
Plus, when you’re making cocktails for friends, why not wow them with the great party trick of clear ice? Many craft cocktail bars make clear ice by freezing water in a cooler that's filled to the top. The ice freezes from the top downward. Due to the insulation of the cooler, the bottom portion of the ice block freezes last, and the air bubbles get pushed downward into that portion. So only the bottom portion ends up cloudy. That’s if you freeze the entirety until rock solid. If you don’t freeze it all the way, then the bottom portion will remain unfrozen, and you can just turn the cooler over and pour that portion of water off. You’re left with a solid, clear block of ice. That’s called directional freezing.
The TINANA works exactly this way, except it inserts spherical molds into the top part of the “cooler,” so that the clear ice freezes in sphere form. The cloudy ice is left in a solid block at the bottom of the insulated box. You must either melt that with hot water, or leave it to melt on its own at room temperature. If you time it correctly, that portion will still be watery when you pull the mold out of the freezer, and you can easily pour it off. But it would take much practice to get the timing just right to achieve that result.
The Criteria: What to Look for in a Sphere Ice Mold
“Always clear!” is Negri’s ice sphere mantra. So when it comes to ice molds, he says, “any one that uses directional freezing method would be good.” Our tests found that he’s right. The directional freezing method of the TINANA renders big, crystal-clear orbs of ice with superior looks and flavor.
The Best Sphere Ice Mold: TINANA Crystal Clear Ice Ball Maker
What we liked: The clever, insulation-meets-ice mold technology of the TINANA uses directional freezing to achieve four spheres that are so clear, you can see your cocktail straight through each of them. Since clear ice is devoid of the air bubbles of cloudy ice, it captures less of the freezer smells that might be lingering, and it tastes better. Plus, it looks great. It also melts uniformly, keeping its shape and clarity as it wanes. It’s a cut above any other ice we achieved in the other molds. As per the manufacturer instructions, it takes a full 24 hours to make ice with this mold, but the wait is worth it.
What we didn’t like: At nearly 24 square inches, this mold hogs freezer space. It’s also cumbersome to remove the frozen spheres, and we couldn't do it per the instructions. Instead, we had to wedge it between our knees upside down and yank on both side of the silicone molds until it slid out. If the plastic box slid out of the Styrofoam insulation along with the molds, we had to wedge the cold plastic box between our knees and yank on the molds some more before they dislodged. However you are able to remove the ice, make sure to do it over something that can take spills, in case the bottom half isn’t fully frozen yet. We also recommend letting this mold rest for a bit at room temperature or running it under warm water, which will make ice removal easier.
Price at time of publish: $60.
- Materials: Silicone, plastic, styrofoam
- Size: 8.46 x 7.48 x 7.3 inches
- Number of molds: 4
- Capacity: 2.36 inch diameter spheres
- Cleanup: Dishwasher-safe (not the styrofoam insulation, though)
- Zoku Set of 2 Silicone Sphere Ice Molds, Stackable: The term “stackable” here is stretch. In truth, they didn't stack easily, and we had trouble making full, round spheres with this mold, though the spheres did release more easily from it.
- Houdini Large Sphere Ice Tray Mold: This was the worst of all the molds. Its flimsy silicone material made it too floppy to handle, and it leaked all over the place. The spheres, if they come out well, which wasn't a guarantee, were an awkward 1.75 inches in diameter—too small to use just one in a rocks glass, too large to use two.
- Glacio Large Ice Sphere Mold Tray: This mold tends to leak at the seams, and the seal between halves is just not tight enough, so you get spheres that look like Saturn. It also tends to pick up freezer odors.
- Tovolo Sphere Ice Molds: This is another one that sits in the freezer awkwardly and that has rigid plastic parts that can break. Also, the manufacturer will lead you astray with instructions that result in half a sphere. It tends to yield lumpy spheres.
- Glacio Round Ice Cube Molds: If you don’t follow the instructions and fill it up to the top, you can get a relatively nice sphere that will probably still be dimpled and seamed. It’s durable and fun to work with, even though prying it open and prying out the sphere is a chore. You need to give the mold time to warm up and relax, or you must run it under warm water. It does tend to pick up freezer smells over time.
- Round Ice Cube Tray with Lid, with Container Mini Circle Ice: This is a fun little kit with two trays making 66 ice marbles (we wouldn’t call them spheres, even though they’re round) that you can drop into the plastic box and scoop out with the plastic scoop that comes with the trays. However, this is not a mold for making spheres for Old Fashioneds or anything you’d put in a rocks glass. Use it for highballs.
- Chillz Extreme Ice Ball Molds 2 Ball Capacity: See our comments for the Glacio Round Ice Cube Molds because this is exactly the same product, just branded differently.
Do you use ice spheres in the same way you would use cubes?
Ice cubes are the all-purpose workhorses of the bar. You use them in shakers and mixing glasses, and you can use them in any size or shape of glass. But the standard ice cube is nowhere as marvelous as an ice sphere. A sphere is a specialize kind of ice. It’s a presentation ice, not a working ice. You drop it into a rocks glass and pour a shaken or stirred drink over top it. It melts more slowly than ice cubes do, and it looks fantastic and sounds fantastic in the glass. Extra-large, clear cubes can be fun, especially if you have an ice press that you can use to brand them. But they don’t roll around in the glass like a sphere does.
Do ice balls freeze in the same way/same amount of time as cubes?
Freezing time all depends on the size of the ice and the amount of insulation in the mold. If you’re working with a standard ice tray for cubes, you’ll get a faster freeze that any spherical mold because the cube tray is open at the top and made out of metal or thin plastic. Spherical molds are closed, so there’s more insulating material all around the ice, and thus the ice freezes more slowly. However, if you’re freezing tiny spheres and huge cubes, the tiny spheres might freeze faster simply because they’re so small.
What’s the key to clear ice?
The key to clear ice is insulation on all sides of the mold—except one. This leads to a type of freezing called directional freezing. The parts of the ice that are most insulated freeze last, and the last part to freeze is the part that ends up with the cloudy air bubbles in it. The rest of the ice will be crystal clear. That’s the idea behind the TINANA. The extra insulation on the sides and bottom allow for directional freezing. The sphere molds sit at the top of the box, where they freeze first and, thus, clearly. The water at the bottom of the box catches all the air bubbles, and it freezes into a cloudy block.