Back in the 1800’s, the word “restaurant” evolved from the French word for “restore,” giving a proper name to businesses that refreshed weary visitors with wonderful food and beverages. Nowadays, people go to restaurants for sustenance, but also to enjoy different dining experiences from what they can make themselves at home. Starting today, 9to5Toys’ new column Kitchen Tech is here to help you bring restaurant-quality dining into your own kitchen. I’m excited to help you learn what’s cool in the ever-evolving world of eating and drinking gadgetry. My first topic is something nearly as simple as water itself: ice.

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It’s easy to ignore ice when you’re drinking. You don’t order the ice – you order a drink – and unless you’re guzzling water or Sprite, the color of your beverage will likely be far more interesting than whatever’s floating in it. Even if your ice is made with stale-tasting water, you might not notice it if the sugar or alcohol level is strong enough.

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Ice became important to me four years ago. The first time I saw a perfect sphere of glimmering ice floating in a glass, I suddenly wanted to understand why I’d never seen anything like it before. Once I learned why ice spheres were uncommon (they’re hard to make!), I tried to figure out why some restaurants and bars were going through the trouble to make the ice perfectly clear and round. In today’s Kitchen Tech, I’m going to share the answers with you, and show you how to make perfect ice at home.

According to legend, the ice ball originally debuted in Japanese craft cocktail bars, where a handful of particularly talented bartenders demonstrated their ice-carving prowess by manually chipping blocks of perfectly clear ice into spheres that could cool down pricey glasses of whiskey. Seeing a bartender pull this off with little more than an ice pick and a towel is actually pretty impressive. Even if it’s roughly the same size, the resulting ice ball has less surface area than an ice cube, melting slower and therefore reducing dilution of the drink.

But a Japanese company called Taisin decided to mechanize that process, releasing what’s now called the Taisin Ice Mold. Taisin created a golden aluminum cylinder with a plastic top handle and a plastic base.

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You separate the Ice Mold into two halves, insert an oversized ice slug into the center, then drop the top piece on top of it. Gravity and heat automatically transform the slug into a glimmering ball of ice, typically in less than one minute. Once you’ve seen the Ice Mold work in front of your eyes, you’ll want one. I splurged and bought one, which looks just like this, and it works beautifully.

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The problem: Taisin sells the regular-sized (55mm/2.2″) Ice Mold for around $700 – a lot cheaper than importing a Japanese bartender – but all of its products are marked up a lot for resale in the United States. It also makes a tiny version called the Ice Mold Mini for around $122 – available here for $240 – but the ice balls it makes are 30mm, tiny 1.2″ spheres that won’t be any more useful than the ice cubes that your freezer produces for free. You really need at least a 2″ diameter ice ball to chill a drink and make the right visual impact, while balls larger than 2.75″ might not fit in some whiskey glasses. Metal Japanese ice ball makers this big are prohibitively expensive. So clones have popped up to offer nearly identical functionality at lower prices.

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The Whiskey Ice Co. sells a $400 version that makes 2.6″ ice balls, right-sized for whiskey glasses.

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Respected cocktail specialists Cocktail Kingdom sell a $170 version that makes 2.2″ ice balls just like the Taisin. I’ve tested this one, and the results are excellent for the price; I’d recommend it to anyone.

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And Cirrus, which was the first to clone Taisin’s design, sells a $700 version that makes 2″ ice balls.

7 There are many inexpensive alternatives that promise to do the same thing, but fall short in actual results. SiliPro sells a mold that makes four 1.77″ ice balls for less than $30. III Lab offers Ice Ball Makers that create two 2.5″ spheres for under $25. Basically every option like this will turn out imperfect, egg-shaped and obviously seamed pieces of ice. As they say, you get what you pay for, but if you’re satisfied with “good enough,” these aren’t a bad way to start.

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The other challenge is getting the ice to be perfectly clear. Typical freezers chill water so quickly that air bubbles in the center can’t escape, and fresh-from-tap water may be discolored or laden with particles, depending on your local water source and pipes. Hard-core ice makers go through a several step process, using either purified or boiled water, gently vibrating the water in slug molds to release air bubbles before freezing, and then using a slow freezer — say, an ice-packed Igloo cooler – so that the freezing process is slower and cleaner.

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The single most important step is slowing down freezing by using a cooler. Get that part right and then start playing with boiling, vibration, and different types of water at your leisure. You can then start making ice balls with herbs or fruit embedded inside, just to name a couple of interesting applications of the basic technique.

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Ice balls aren’t the only way to make a drink better, but they’re one of the coolest magic tricks to instantly transform a pretty good drink into something memorable. We’ll look at more cutting-edge techniques in future Kitchen Tech columns, coming soon to 9to5Toys!

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