Tips for making block ice to use in a cooler for food storage. It seems like such a simple thing to do, yet I've had so many disasters.

Tips for Making Block Ice

Okay, we all know the basics of how to make ice — put water in a container and stick it in the freezer.  But making block ice is a little different from making ice cubes and I’ve had some absolutely spectacular displays of things that can go wrong — so I thought I’d pass along what I’ve learned.

So why even make block ice?  If you use a cooler for food storage, block ice will last far longer than ice cubes.  And making your own has two advantages:  it costs less and you can make the size blocks that work best for you.  Sometimes, too, it can be hard to find block ice and so you have to make your own — that’s our problem.

Plan Ahead

Depending on how large a block you need, it will take a day or more for it to freeze solid from water.  So you can’t decide to make a block just a couple of hours before you’re leaving!

Sizing Up the Blocks

The first step in making your own block ice is to figure out what size block(s) will work best for you.  Then see if you can find a container that size . . . and if it will fit in your freezer.

After going out and buying a container that would totally fill my cooler, for example, I discovered that it wouldn’t fit in my freezer. Time to go back to the store.

I now have a slightly smaller container that fits in the freezer and I add some cube ice around the sides so that the bottom of the cooler is totally filled.  But I still have to do a lot of rearranging my freezer (read: cramming things into nooks and crannies) to make enough space for that bin.

Using Milk Jugs

Lots of people suggest using milk jugs (or other plastic bottles) to make block ice, and they can work well — but you need to know three things:

  1. The plastic will insulate the ice to a certain extent, so it will last even longer . . . but it won’t keep your food as cold as if it weren’t encased in plastic; and
  2. The sides of the bottles will bow out as the water freezes and expands, and you need to take this into consideration when figuring how many bottles you need.  With the bowing, you’ll have air gaps between the bottles.
  3. Just as with my large pan (see the story below), don’t fill the whole bottle with water and then let it freeze.  The expanding water will very possibly break the bottle.  Only fill it partway, let it freeze, then add more water, etc.

Freezing the Water

Well, my first mistake was filling my plastic bin with water in the kitchen sink, then trying to put it in the freezer.  It’s heavy, it sloshes, and it’s awkward.  With my first step, water sloshed down the front of my shirt.  The second step did in the front of my shorts.  Then, just as I was putting the bin in the freezer, the door starting closing on me; most of the remaining water went on the floor.

So I put the plastic bin on the shelf in the freezer and used a pitcher to fill it up . . . almost to the top of its 6″ height.

That was my second mistake.

I figured that as the water froze and expanded, it would all go upward.  I learned differently when I checked on it the next morning.

It seems that my plastic bin was no match for the force of the large block of ice . . . and cold water.  Apparently, long before it was all frozen, the expanding water and ice cracked the plastic.  And the water that wasn’t yet frozen gushed through those gaps . . . and formed a 1″ deep puddle of water on the bottom of the freezer . . . where I had other frozen food.  Of course, the water froze there, entombing numerous bags of frozen veggies and meat.  And the next morning found me having to defrost the freezer to get the resulting “ice sculpture” out and apart.  And then a trip to the store to get another bin.

Now I put the plastic bin in the freezer and add about 1/2″ of water at a time — wait about an hour for it to freeze, then add some more.  No more broken bins!

You may be able to avoid this problem by using a metal pan — but it can be hard to find a metal pan that’s as large as you’d like.

Making a Fast Block

If you need to make a block in a hurry, fill your container with ice cubes, then pour water over it — again, a little at a time.  But each layer will freeze in 30 minutes or less, and you’ll have a block in about 6 hours (or less, depending on how thick you want it).

I never thought that making ice could be so complicated . . .

More Info to Help You 

If you’re struggling to store food without refrigeration, please take a look at my eBook: Storing Food without Refrigeration. For just $10, you’ll learn how to keep meat, vegetables, fruit, milk, butter, cheese, eggs and more so that you can have great meals (as well as saving money on spoiled food and stuff that no one wants to eat). See what the book covers and buy now.

Storing Veggies without Refrigeration Quick ReferenceAlso, a while back, I made a cheat sheet for storing veggies without refrigeration — notes on how to store various things and how long they’ll last. It’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as storing food without refrigeration goes, but I’m happy to share it.

Want a copy of the Storing Veggies without Refrigeration Quick Reference Guide? I prettied up the one I made for myself and turned it into a FREE downloadable PDF. Click the button to get a copy:

Download Storing Veggies without Refrigeration Cheat Sheet

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30 Comments
  • Mick O'Gorman
    Posted at 17 September 2011 Reply

    I don’t have a comment but a question please. Before I get to it I’d like to say I’ve taken refuge in your website and in dreaming of my first water voyage, a trip down the ICW with two friends. We’re all studying up. Now, my question – whereas you’ve detailed making ice blocks, I have no idea what a cruiser would need an ice block for! Thank you for you patience –

    Mick

    • Mary @ Book Lose Weight Fast
      Posted at 21 August 2014 Reply

      At risk of sounding like a nerd, if you want to get the best out of your ice, you need to wrap your head around some physics principals. Remember the action of ice melting is what produces the ‘coldness’ – that is, when ice melts it uses energy, one of the most common forms of energy is ‘heat’ thus when ice melts it effectively ‘burns heat’ resulting in the atmosphere being cooled. Therefore ‘ice melting’ is not your enemy but rather your friend, the trick is harnessing that friendship for the benefit of what you are trying to achieve. Eg are you trying to chill those beers in a hurry or are you trying to cross the Simpson with meat for the BBQ on night 4. If you can comprehend this you’re on your way, if not read it again from the top slowly because it’s really important.

      So what does this mean? Well as Dave has correctly alluded to, we know the size of the ice affects how quickly it melts. That is small ice melts quickly & large ice takes longer to melt, this is due to the different ratio of surface area vs volume of the cube. I can go into more detail of how that works but I will leave it there for fear of sounding too nerdy. Hang in there it will start making sense soon. So put simply the volume (weight) of ice will determine the amount of cooling power available (The size of your fuel tank) and the size of the cube will determine the speed of release (how far down you push the accelerator). Just tell me which ice to use, I hear you ask? Well as stated earlier it depends what you are trying to do. Let run through 3 examples.

      Party Ice
      As the name suggests if you are having a party (say 1-8 hrs long) the small ice is the go. Due to its high surface are it will release its magic power relatively quickly, bringing your beer and wine down to ‘Ice Cold’ quickly. You will notice that a lot of party ice is actually a donut shape (eg it has a hole in the middle), this is not so that you can thread it on to a necklace on a hot day to keep you cool, but rather giving the ice even more surface area. The additional tip here is that water is a better conductor then air this means that if you have water in your drinks esky your drinks will cool even quicker and stay colder, so don’t drain the water out. Infarct if you want really want to cool drinks quickly (ie you forgot to put the drinks in and guests are already knocking on the door) try pouring some water in the esky to make sure the ice can cool the beer quickly, your ice won’t last as long (due to having to cool the water as well) but your drinks will be ready when the BBQ is, rather than when it is time for everyone to go home. You can always make an excuse to duck down the bottle’o and grab more ice… serving warm beer – now that is unforgivable! Another benefit of water in your party esky is that when you return wine or soft drink bottles to the esky they will slide down between the ice easily keeping them cold, rather than sitting on the surface getting warm.

      Block Ice
      Block ice is your long range ice – it has a lower surface area to volume ratio and thus will take longer to melt resulting in a slow and more economic release of its magic power. It will take longer to cool stuff down from room temperature and may not keep the environment at zero degrees (more likely around 2-4 deg, depending on the set up, which is fine for milk) but when looked after block ice will go the distance (note also Dave’s salt trick in tip 3 above). This long range is critical weather you are tackling The Old Tele Track or just base camping in the Flinders. It will get you through a number of days without visiting civilisation – and isn’t that what camping is all about?

      Crushed Ice
      At the other end of the scale to block ice, crunched ice is the supercharged gas guzzler of the ice world – It has lethal power but will be spent before you can say ‘who wants a cold beer?’ Scientists and instrument technicians used crushed pure water crushed ice solution to calibrate their instruments because it melt so quickly that when used correctly guarantees zero deg C temperature. Perfect to pour in your cocktail or the initial chilling of your esky, but it won’t even get your esky three suburbs before its magic has all been released.

      My top tips for making ice last
      I should start by acknowledging the top tips above which are all very good tips, especially keeping it in a cool shady place. Further to those tips I would add the following comments;

      1 Put the milk/juice bottle/butter back in the esky as soon as possible. Pour you drink or prepare your breaky and put it away, this is because while it is out, it is warming up (especially during lunch on a hot day in Marree) when you put it back it will melt ice until to get rid of the warmth it has taken on. The longer it is out – the more ice you will waste (unless you’re camping in the snow… in which case, why are you reading this?).

      2 Freeze as much as possible before leaving home. This includes juice, meat and pre-prepared meals. This adds fuel to your long range tank. Often once you get into the outback you can buy frozen meat when you stock up. Take advantage of this wherever possible.

      3 As Ricky discussed – if you have 2 eskys or are traveling with a friend, dedicate one as an everyday esky and one as a long term esky. You would be amazed how long meat will stay frozen if you pack an esky full and don’t open it.

      4 Let leftover cool down before putting them in the esky for tomorrow’s lunch.

      5 Raw mince does not keep long once thawed out. We find that precooking our mince before leaving home and freezing it makes it last much longer. Just make sure you heat it up properly before consuming.

      6 keep your chocolate in a sealed air tight container. This will stop it droning and keep you in the Ms’ good books (this goes for vegetables too).

      Remember when you move up to a camp fridge / freezer or if you are already running one, all of the tips in this blog will help you save amp/hrs on your battery as well, meaning that your battery’s will last longer saving weight on carrying additional power cells. So get into some good cold storage habits and get out there and enjoy Australia.
      ENJOY 🙂

      • kaye
        Posted at 04 September 2015 Reply

        When we go camping for the week. I precook meals & freeze them. I also keep the meats frozen too for the grill. I stack in order that I plan to use. So I just have to grab off the top & shut quickly.

  • Carolyn Shearlock
    Posted at 18 September 2011 Reply

    Hi Mick!

    Enjoy your trip down the ICW — it’s a lot of fun, with great places to explore and lots of wildlife along the way.

    If you don’t have refrigeration, but are using an ice box or a cooler for your food storage, block ice will last a LOT longer than ice cubes (ice cubes will get things really cold, really fast — such as drink cans — but they also melt really fast). Lots of people who just take their boats out for a weekend don’t have refrigeration, but just pack up a big cooler at home . . . with a block of ice under the food bins.

    Thanks for reading!

    Carolyn

  • jpatti
    Posted at 27 September 2011 Reply

    When we moved to our current house, we had a small chest freezer, but no fridge and got by via using empty 2-liters soda bottles filled with water which we froze and stuck in a cooler.

    Now, we have a large and too-deep deep freeze – I can’t reach the bottom. So we put water-filled 2-liters lying down across the bottom and covered with plywood. This makes everything easier to reach. When we lost electric for a week after a storm, the food all stayed frozen (except the stuff in the baskets).

    Also, those 2-liters are water storage in case the electricity were off longer, as we have a well and need electric to pump water.

    We keep a few above the plywood to use in coolers. I get milk delivered by a milkman and he grabs a couple to stick in the coolers instead of charging me for freezer packs.

    We also use them camping a lot. We pack frozen food in coolers with them, and intend to eat that food first. By the time we are eating the meals planned with non-refrigerated foods, they have thawed and provide potable water for the later part of the trip.

    The only downside is they are round instead of square. I prefer everything I store to be square. The Pepsi company needs to get into square bottles! 😉

    • Chris
      Posted at 10 July 2014 Reply

      Jpatti. You sound take a look into some of the large juice containers. They’re often squared off. You can also freeze the juice and use it as your ice block. As it melts pour into a cup and add your favorite rum. Lol

  • Jamie
    Posted at 29 May 2012 Reply

    Hi, Carolyn! One thing Brock & I have also used for block ice with great success has been Ziploc baggies. They come in all different sizes (quart to gallon, all have worked), hold water well and can be placed amongst the food & drink in varying configurations. Plus, we don’t have to store a large plastic container of any size onboard. If one tears eventually, well, you’re only out a Ziploc bag and some water.

  • Chris
    Posted at 18 September 2012 Reply

    I like to take a case of bottled water and stash them away throughout the freezer. They are perfect for the cooler and when they melt..mmmm fresh water!

    • kaye
      Posted at 04 September 2015 Reply

      I do that with the kids lunches when they are going to be out for the day. Then their water is cold to drink too.

  • Dan Thomas on Facebook
    Posted at 12 January 2013 Reply

    Use milk jugs, fill 3/4 full let freez solid. Freeze with caps off. If it’s just day or week end trip. Fill the empty space in jugs with cold tap water. This gives you cold for cooler and cold drinking water. If for a longer stay, after the jugs have frozen solid add some more water to the jug and let this freeze solid too. Then just cap it, and place sealed jug in cooler. Keeps stuff cold the water is contained and still useable. For small coolers we use the quart Gatorade bottles the same away as mentioned above. These can be used in bigger coolers too, But they melt quicker. The quart bottles or 1/2 gallon milk jugs can be placed around food packages to keep cold evenly.

  • Carleen Southard
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    This article was timed perfectly! I just spilled a Rubbermaid container all over the garage floor while trying to poor water in to it while it was in the freezer. We have 6 days until we are leaving so based on your article I will feed a few inches of water at a time in to the tub to keep it from expanding and cracking the container. Based on past experiences I made room and put the empty container in the freezer but I wasn’t able to reach the tub with the water so I had to pull out the container and I spilled it all over the garage floor. Thanks so much for your timely tips:)

  • Alan
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    Large metal pans used in chafing dishes are available at stores that sell catering/restaurant supplies, including Sam’s. The only problem would be that they are not airtight and the water would have to be frozen before sailing. It’s easy to get the ice out of them if needed.

  • JB
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    A quick experiment for those with a freezer to try and answer. As I have a boat and not a yacht, I can’t. I was emphatically told by a surveyor a long time ago that yachts have ice makers, boats do not…

    Since saltwater freezes at a lower temperature (-5°f if memory serves), wouldn’t it make sense to use saltwater in gallon jugs to compensate for any insulating of the plastic? Assuming, of course, that you can find a freezer that gets that cold.

  • Frances Liz Fernandez
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    I prefer smaller block containers. I fill these to different heights so I can wedge the custom blocks as needed in the cooler especi’ally for extended trips. In the past I tried gallon jugs and 2 liter soda ‘bottles but then can’t fit enough food in the cooler! Lots of smaller blocks seems to work for me

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

      That’s a good idea, depending on how you arrange your cooler and food. I put the ice on the bottom, then have metal racks and bins that the food goes in to keep it out of the melt water.

  • Colin Mombourquette
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Thank you for another great article Carolyn; you had me smiling and laughing, not at you but at myself for having many of the same experiences with making block ice.

  • Louis Maconi
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Though I’ve not tried it, I understand that a mixture 6:1 of water to saw dust or other wood pulp will make blocks of ice that last an order of magnitude longer than just plain water. This is called Pykrete
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pykrete). I bet this would be really good for a long trip. The downside, I imagine, is the cleanup when it finally does melt. I suppose a little fore-thought into containing the mess would be in order.

  • Frances Liz Fernandez
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    I know its a luxury but I’ve also use two coolers. One for drinks which gets opened more often and one for just food. I transfer the ice blocks as needed.

  • Shari
    Posted at 08 July 2014 Reply

    I mostly use 32 oz yogurt containers. They will deform some, but if I crack one, I’m going to eat more yogurt soon. I don’t really have room to do big blocks but anything bigger than cubes makes a difference. You can leave the container on (and have water to drink eventually) or pop the giant cubes out.

  • Elizabeth Aristeguieta
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    Great article Carolyn!

  • Debbie
    Posted at 14 May 2015 Reply

    The liners inside of boxes of wine are my go-to choice for blocked ice! After you enjoy the wine, rinse out the liner. It will take some time under the faucet because the opening is small. But once you fill the bladder with water, freeze it laying flat in the freezer. You can then line your cooler with it. Your food will always stay dry. And if you need fresh drinking water, its available! Good luck!
    ~Debbie from CT

  • Michael
    Posted at 09 November 2015 Reply

    It doesn’t appear that any one else has mentioned it. The circle dimple on the side of a milk jug is there to allow for expansion when the milk gets frozen so the jug doesn’t burst.

  • beatriceflores81
    Posted at 14 July 2016 Reply

    Glad to see! very nice and helpful blog.

  • Diana K Weigel
    Posted at 14 September 2016 Reply

    Just in time. Our at least 20 year old Adler Barbour just gave up the ghost. Not a bad run but expensive to replace in the short time we have left in the sailing season here in New England. Guess I’m making ice blocks.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 14 September 2016 Reply

      Oh, sorry to hear that!

    • Diana K Weigel
      Posted at 15 September 2016 Reply

      The Boat Galley it did have a really long run! Can’t repair it since it’s an old freon system. I’ve heard the newer ones are more energy efficient. If they last as long it’ll be a good investment. I don’t know of any home refrigerators that last as long!

  • David Lake
    Posted at 15 September 2016 Reply

    foolproof recipe for ice,……………water,……..cold,……mix all ingedients and wait……………………….ha ha ha ha

  • Dominick
    Posted at 05 October 2016 Reply

    I just had to laugh at the last line of the article. I just thought “block ice” what a good idea, I don’t need to read the article (I’m 68 and never read a book till I was 50, got that reading thing, hard time is school). SO GLAD I read the article cause I’d of done exactly what you did. Really like your site, just stumbled upon it tonight while researching for a long camping trip in spring.

  • Gene Turner
    Posted at 11 July 2017 Reply

    Balloons filled and frozen make great
    Ice although round and smaller. Flexible
    No broken bins and fit into freezer as well as ice chest

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