Aug 12, 2023

Pellet Ice Is the Good Ice

By Helen Rosner

I knew that I loved the good ice before I knew what the good ice was called. There was the cherry limeade I ordered, mid-road-trip, at a Sonic Drive-In in central Florida, which was gloriously sweet and tart but also somehow sparkled. There was the iced latte I drank at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, on a jet-lagged morning in Los Angeles, which somehow felt more right than any of its counterparts at trendier cafes nearby. There was the whisky-rocks at a New Orleans bar (crowded, dimly lit, awfully late at night, I have no idea where it was), which was more of a whiskey-gravel, a not-quite slush that was cold and peculiarly soft. The good ice makes average drinks great, and great drinks godly. The good ice is pellet ice, and to know it is to need it.

Outside of frigid climes, ice is always a miracle, even if the ingenious invention of vapor-compression refrigeration has made the miracle commonplace. Still, the ice most people make at home—tap water sloshed into plastic trays and left to rest on a freezer shelf, or thick half-moons disgorged by a built-in ice maker—has little to recommend it beyond its temperature. It is a blunt instrument of coldness. All ice is frozen water, but not all ice is created equal. Ice is texture: the dense blue hunks carved off of Swiss glaciers and hauled across Europe in the eighteen-hundreds were heavier and harder than the glassy cubes pried out of wintry New England ponds, packed in insulating nests of hay, and sent across America by train in the early nineteen-hundreds; neither was exactly the same as the cloudy ice made in ancient Persia, by engineers who directed water into underground channels where it froze, layer upon layer, until it was thick enough to be broken up and transported to massive, pyramidal, semi-subterranean desert icehouses called yakhchals.

Pellet ice is cylindrical, with smooth sides and rough ends, as if each piece had been snapped off of a long dowel of ice. Unlike most ice, which is either carved from a larger block or frozen in a mold, it is made from paper-thin flakes of ice that are pressed into a solid mass—a method familiar to anyone who’s packed soft fresh snow into a dense, compact snowball—and then pushed through round holes punched in a metal sheet, creating a fragile cylinder that breaks off into pieces. Here’s where pellet ice differs from crushed ice, with which it is often erroneously conflated: the compression of the nuggets creates flaky layers, which, as in a well-laminated pastry, render the ice pellets lightweight and airy, with crevices and tiny caves into which your drink can penetrate, and a yielding texture perfect for chewing. The ice is small, each piece only about a centimetre long and narrower in diameter, so it fills a glass more efficiently than lumbering cubes or half-moons, and somehow, in a quirk of thermodynamics, it allegedly melts more slowly. Unlike standard ice, it doesn’t clink; instead, it makes a soothing, gently percussive shuffling sound, like someone shaking an afuche-cabasa in the apartment next door.

One of the downsides of being obsessed with pellet ice is that I’ve had to rely on other people to make it for me: industrial pellet ice machines are the size of dishwashers, and (like most heavy-duty restaurant appliances) can cost thousands of dollars. Pellet ice is popular at hospitals (the soft chewability makes it a useful shape for patients who need to limit their water intake), but you can’t really walk into a medical ward with a plastic bag and politely request that someone fill it up. Fortunately, the Internet has allowed pellet-ice fans to find one another in online forums and comment sections, joined in pursuit of the good ice; aficionados keep track of which bars and restaurants have the goods. Sonic Drive-In is a reliable source, but the outpost nearest my house is more than an hour away, in Bayonne, New Jersey. A few years ago, a lovely restaurant called Hunky Dory opened only a few blocks from me. On my first visit, I ordered an iced coffee, and when it arrived I felt a surge of joy. Pellet ice! Heaps of it. Plus, the restaurant had the marvellous good sense to serve it in the third-best cup that pellet ice can be served in: a heavy glass tumbler with an extra-wide mouth. (The second-best vessel is a styrofoam to-go cup—increasingly rare, for good reason—and the very best is the translucent pebbled plastic tumbler used by every hometown pizzeria in America, preferably in red but any color will do.)

It wasn’t enough. During the past year, one of my pandemic coping mechanisms has been to almost fetishistically recreate certain experiences from the restaurants I no longer go to: a little dish of mints by the door, a particular scented candle in the bathroom, condiments stored in picnic-style squeeze bottles for the perfect thin squiggles of mayonnaise or okonomiyaki sauce. The experience of pellet ice has been harder to replicate: I found an online tutorial that suggested freezing water inside plastic straws, (specifically McDonald’s straws, which are wider than most), but you’d need to freeze fifty of them to get enough ice to fill a twelve-ounce cup. A series of TikTok videos inspired me to buy silicone ice molds in a twenty-by-twenty grid of tiny rectangles, but they were laughably useless.

I developed a habit of doing a Google search, every so often, for other ways to make the good ice at home, which meant that I was followed around the Web by advertisements for the G.E. Opal, a hulking countertop appliance that makes a pound of pellet ice per hour and, relative to its commercial counterparts, costs a mere four hundred and ninety-nine dollars (or six hundred dollars if you get the 2.0 model, which for some reason is Wi-Fi enabled). Late last summer, longing for the days of sipping bar-gun soda through a straw and picking at a plate of French fries, I broke down and bought one. It lives in the narrow strip of counter between the refrigerator and the sink, a stainless steel monolith with a plastic ice bin set in the center, observing my goings-on with the placid blankness of a helmeted spacewalker. Every few days, I pour some water into the reservoir, and the machine blinks and growls and hums until the ice thunks down into the bin like a hailstorm. The G.E. Opal was an absurd purchase, unnecessary and indefensible. But it brings me the good ice, which brings me an absurd amount of delight.