There's more to an ice cube tray than frozen water.
Ice cube trays may seem antiquated now that ice makers not only time the frozen water production, they can even sense your use and automatically adjust. So if you have a stash of ice cube trays collecting dust in your cabinets, it’s time to bring them out and put them to use by creating a collection of frozen liquids and sauces you can use in a variety of dishes and drinks.
We’re not talking about freezing soup, a tablespoon or two at a time. This is high-power ingredients that can be deployed in stews, pan sauces, or cocktails for maximum impact. And many of these ideas happen to be a great way to cut down on food waste and use up ingredients before they turn unnatural colors.
1. Pasta water
When you cook pasta, the dried-flour strands release rich starches. They turn your pot of boiling water into a pot of liquid gold (no rainbow necessary). Pasta water can be used to thicken up pan sauces or even stretch sauces if you are a little short on that Alfredo for tonight’s dinner. Instead of dumping pasta water down your drain (don’t you dare!), put a bowl under the colander and capture it. Salting your pasta water will add a bit more to the flavor initially, but it isn’t necessary. Salinity can die out in the freezer anyway.
2. Tomato paste
Did you open a can of tomato paste for just one tablespoon in the red beans and rice? Don’t let the rest dry out on the top shelf of your fridge. Instead, scoop the leftover paste into tablespoon-sized ice cube trays. (You can use a little cooking spray to help it slip out of the mold when it’s frozen.) Then you have a go-to collection of tomato paste nuggets for future recipes, and there’s no need to buy a new can or let another newly-opened one spoil before you use it up.
From time to time, you may be confronted with just a bit of wine at the bottom of a bottle or two after dinner. Instead of downing it (we’d approve) or tossing it (we wouldn’t approve), pour the vino into ice cube trays and freeze. Then you can stash those cubes in reusable freezer-safe zip-top bags until you need them for pan sauces, soups, stews, or chilis. This Beef Stew V, for example, calls for just one cup of red wine. If you don’t want to open a whole bottle or accidentally left the store without one, you can use the leftover frozen wine you have in your fridge to finish out the recipe.
4. Herbs in oil
You can freeze pesto if you make a big batch and don’t plan to use it all up right away, but if you just have a collection of fresh herbs and no desire to make any type of sauce, you can still give those fresh greens a second life by washing, chopping into small (one-inch or smaller) pieces, and freezing in oil in ice cube tray wells. This is an excellent option if you have a prolific windowsill garden or backyard herb plot that produces more than you can mix into sauces or salads. Keep these blocks of frozen herbs handy for an herb dressing, pan sauce, and soup.
Like pasta water, stock can help stretch a soup, season a stew, or add body to a limp pasta sauce. But once you open a carton of stock (or crack open a new jar of the homemade kind), the clock starts ticking. If you won’t use all of that stock in the next two weeks, go ahead and pour it into an ice cube tray and freeze. It will last months longer and will be ready whenever you need a little burst of flavor. You can also drop an ice cube of frozen stock into the pan while you’re reheating leftover rice or pasta dishes to help reinvigorate them with moisture and liven up the flavors that turn dull during storage.
Iced coffee is an invigorating drink in the hot summer or a treat in the winter, but ice cubes can water down that cuppa quickly once they begin to melt. Instead, use the last half cup of coffee in your pot to make frozen coffee cubes for future iced coffee drinks. As the cubes melt, they release strong coffee, which keeps your drink going just a bit longer.
7. Fruit juice
Just as you use frozen coffee to keep your iced coffee strong, you can use frozen fruit juices to keep cocktails flavorful and robust, not watery and weak. If you have a party coming up or like to make a cocktail when you get home, go ahead and freeze a tablespoon or two of the juice you need for your drink. (You can even pick up fun options like these pineapple-shaped ice cube trays for extra flair.) Then, when you’re mixing everything up, plop in that juicy cube, and let it slowly melt and infuse your drink with more flavor.
8. Pureed fruit/banana
You can pop a brown batch of bananas right in to your freezer and use them for future smoothies and banana bread, but you could save yourself a bit of time waiting for them to thaw so you can remove the peel by going ahead and blending those bananas in a food processor, then spooning them into a larger ice cube tray. The result? Creamy, cool banana cubes that are perfect for nice cream, smoothies, or any other whipped treat you want to whir together with frozen fruit. (Açai bowl, anyone?)
Buttermilk is a boon to baked goods, adding tang, life, and a bit of buttery flavor, but most recipes don’t call for a lot. So, unless you’re making cornbread every week, you may not go through a quart before it’s curdled to concrete. As your buttermilk approaches its best by date, go ahead and pour it (after shaking vigorously) into ice cube trays, and freeze until solid. Then when you need a few tablespoons or half a cup for your pancakes or quick bread, you have a few cubes you can pop into a bowl and let melt. The thawed milk will separate a bit, but no worries. Just give it a quick whisk or shake, and just like the buttermilk in a cardboard carton, it’ll all come right back together.
10. Flowers in sparkling wine
If you’re a regular entertainer, you can get ahead with your darling details by freezing organic, edible flowers in sparkling wine or mineral water for a beautiful ice cube for cocktails or the punch. Here again, unique shapes in ice cube trays ($10, amazon.com) are a sweet touch.
11. Cookie dough
Did you make a batch of cookie dough but don’t want to bake the entire three dozen for fear you’ll eat every last one while sitting in front of the TV? We’ve been there. Once you’ve got the dough made up, go ahead and put the remaining bits into a rounded ice cube tray ($13, amazon.com). Then, when a craving strikes, pop a frozen dough cube or two onto your cookie tray, and bake until warm and gooey.
A smoothie is an incredibly easy and fast breakfast for busy mornings, but what’s even easier? Making that smoothie ahead of time, freezing it into cubes, and then popping them into an insulated cup as you head out the door. By the time you get to work, the smoothie will be defrosted but still plenty cold, refreshing, and icy.