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The Crucial Issue of Surface-Area-to-Volume Ratio of Ice Cubes (AUDIO)

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Aug 12, 2013
The Crucial Issue of Surface-Area-to-Volume Ratio of Ice Cubes (AUDIO)

Far too often, ice is the forgotten component of summer drinks. In truth, it should be constructed and deployed with the same consideration you'd give to any other beverage ingredient.

Ideally, ice will melt slowly enough to chill a beverage without watering it down. That means you need ice with a low surface-area-to-volume ratio. I explained why when I was on Weekend Edition Sunday with host Rachel Martin the other day.

Listen to the segment above or read the transcript below:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is August. Chances are where you are it's hot. So, maybe you want a drink to cool off. Will it be fruity or fizzy, maybe boozy? Whatever it is, Dan Pashman, host of the Sporkful podcast, thinks you may be overlooking one key ingredient: the ice. He joins us now from our New York studios. Hey Dan.


MARTIN: So, ice. This seems like a fairly forgettable part of a beverage experience. You say, no. Why?

PASHMAN: Well, ice is an ingredient. It's an ingredient in your drink, and as you drink the drink, the ice melts and changes the ratios in your drink and that needs to be considered. Now, ideally, you want ice that will melt slowly, because what you really want ice to do, you want it to chill your drink without watering the beverage down.

MARTIN: Makes sense.

PASHMAN: So, the way you do that, to get to that, is you need ice with a very low surface-area-to-volume-ratio.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

PASHMAN: That's a fancy way of saying you want a big ice cubes with as little of the ice surface as possible touching whatever is around it. 'Cause when the ice gets exposed to air or liquid, that makes the ice melt.

MARTIN: OK. So, I'm thinking of a scenario where you have a lot of little cubes or ice shards, like a Frappuccino or something like that. That would be a bad idea because there would be so much possibility for melty dilution.

PASHMAN: That's correct.

MARTIN: OK. So, what is the best scenario?

PASHMAN: Well, the best scenario - if you want the absolutely scientific platonic ideal - it would be a sphere, one giant ice sphere the size roughly of a baseball in your cocktail glass. That has the lowest surface area to volume ratio. Now, I don't actually favor the sphere because they're pretty complicated to make, and also I just found, like, if you take a sip of the glass and the ice slides toward the rim, the sphere is just not really anthropomorphic. It doesn't fit into your facial region comfortably. So, I recommend one large cube. And there are devices out there you can get out there, you can get them online, to make - they're basically like ice cube trays but they just make four giant cubes instead of a dozen small ones.

MARTIN: How large are we talking about here?

PASHMAN: I've seen easily two to three inches on each face.

MARTIN: Are you saying bars do this? I mean, is this more than just a little, you know, idea that's batting around your head? Is this a real trend you're seeing?


MARTIN: Not that there's anything wrong with those little ideas batting around in your head.

PASHMAN: Yes. No. Many of them end up being trends, I should say. But, no, this is catching on, Rachel. A lot of higher-end bars that put a lot of thought into their mixology are serving these kinds of large ice cubes. Some people even just get granite cubes that you keep in the freezer - and they don't melt at all. They only chill your beverage. I feel like that takes a little bit of romanticism of the melting out of the thing. But, you know, those are catching on, too. But most restaurants and bars are not doing it, and it's mainly because they're more concerned with ice that can be made quickly by a big machine. And ice with a lot of surface area, you know, it doesn't just melt fast, it also freezes fast. And that's what they're looking for. You know, another issue at a lot of places, they prefer smaller ice cubes in general because those pack more tightly in the glass and that leaves less room for the actual beverage that you're paying for.

MARTIN: There is nothing worse than getting a soda and it's jam-packed with the little ice.

PASHMAN: That's right. I spoke to a guy at one ice machine company who says that's why soda sales at fast food joints generate, and I quote, "a crap-ton of money." I think that's industry parlance.


MARTIN: We started this conversation talking about how ice and melting ice changes the composition of a drink. Is that always a negative?

PASHMAN: I do think though that there can be an upside to quick melting, is essentially what you're asking, because I think that sometimes it's really nice to have a drink on an especially hot day and get a few initial sips to have a real strong flavor, whether that's a strong alcoholic kick, or it could just be a strong, sweet, tart lemonade flavor. And you get hit right at the top with that strong flavor and then, over time, the flavor mellows. And you kind of coast your way to the end of the beverage, and that's a pleasurable sensation. And also the added benefit on a hot day of hydrating you. And so I think really, you know, to every beverage there is an ice cube. Just understand the principles at work and make an informed decision.

MARTIN: Dan Pashman, from Sporkful.com. Thanks so much, Dan.

PASHMAN: Thanks, Rachel.

Photo: Flickr CC / stevendepolo

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