Make Ahead

Your Ice Cube Tray is Good For a Lot More Than, Well, Ice Cubes

May 18, 2017

Coconut milk is my kitchen's biggest loiterer. Recipes will often call for just a portion of a can, which leaves me with a leftover volume that's too much to throw away yet not enough to fulfill its next destiny. So I'll unscrew another can, and the cycle will start all over again.

In her cookbook Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen, Ping Coombes has a simple solution: "If you have leftover coconut milk, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze, then you can add it to curries straight from frozen." Well, why didn't I think of that?

And it turns out that a handy ice cube tray is the ideal vessel for preserving a whole lot of other sauces, confits, and liquids (savory and sweet) in convenient, fast-to-thaw quantities that will defrost quickly in a sauté pan (and often times, straight in your soup pot, blender, or punch bowl).

Melting quickly. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Here's what you'll do:

  1. Buy two ice cube trays and designate one savory and one sweet. (You may need to surrender your existing trays, as you will no longer use them to freeze water for plain-Jane ice cubes due to lingering scents).
  2. When you have a leftover ingredient you'd like to save for later, spoon it into the tray. On a standard tray, each divot holds about 1 ounce (2 tablespoons).
  3. Once frozen, dislodge the frozen cubes (a silicone tray makes this task incredibly easy) and store them in a zip-top freezer bag.
  4. Defrost in the microwave (or in a small, dry bowl floating in a larger bowl filled with warm water) or, in some cases, use straight from the freezer.
  5. Give yourself a high-five (when no one else is looking, of course).

Now let's get to the cool cold stuff!


  1. Mashed roasted garlic. Defrost a cube in the microwave, then spread the paste across the bottom of a galette, dollop it onto focaccia dough, or roll into savory palmier—or simply spread it on a piece of toast, cover it with Gruyère, and bake until melty and delicious.
  2. Vegetable bouillon. Add a cube of the River Cottage's Vegetable Bouillon to your next soup—or to your next batch of grains or dried beans.
  3. Chipotles in adobo. Homogenize the peppers and their sauce in a food processor or blender before spooning into the ice cube trays. Then add the frozen blocks to chili or enchilada sauce or chilaquiles.
  4. Caramelized onions. Having caramelized onions at the ready will have you feeling like a kickass weeknight genius. Because you do know how long it takes to really caramelize onions, right?
  5. Tomato paste. You'll need two cubes for Victoria Granof's Pasta con Ceci.
  6. Fresh herbs in olive oil. Wash, dry, and pick your favorite herbs, then roughly chop any bulky leaves. Use for any sautéed vegetables or to begin a braise, soup, stir-fry...
  7. Grated ginger. For your fried rice, steamed fish, braised chicken, and soba salads. And if all else fails, pour boiling-hot water over a frozen cube, stir in honey, and soothe an achey throat.
  8. Pesto. Turn it into pasta sauce, salad dressing, panzanella; stir it into yogurt and use it to marinade chicken or fish; dollop over tomato soup.
  9. Chicken stock. Add a couple of cubes of chicken stock along with a glug or two of white or red wine when you deglaze a pan.
  10. Curry paste. Join these cubes with your frozen coconut milk and frozen ginger and you're moments away from a spicy, zingy curry made of all your vegetable odds-and-ends.
  11. Celery leaves in lemon juice. These will chill down your Bloody Mary without diluting it.
  12. Saffron soaked in hot water. For more aromatic, longer-lasting saffron, pour 1 cup of warm water over 1/2 teaspoon of the amber threads, then distribute into your ice cube tray. One ice cube will equal 1 pinch.


Photo by Bobbi Lin
  1. Date paste. Oh have we got ideas for you! You can also add a cube to your morning smoothie or your One-Ingredient Banana Ice Cream.
  2. Clarified or brown butter. Frying your French toast in clarified butter will give you a buttery flavor without the burnt bits. And adding brown butter to pasta, or blondies, or roast chicken, or granola will add an irresistible nuttiness thanks to the toasty milk solids.
  3. Buttermilk. For your biscuits, your pancakes, your fried chicken, your salad dressing.
  4. Berries in water. A bright addition to lemonade, iced tea, sangria, or a fruity cocktail.
  5. Coffee. For cold brew that gets stronger, rather than more watery, as it melts. (Or, defrost a cube and stir it into chocolate cake batter for an even more chocolatey dessert.)
  6. Coconut milk. Add a cube or two to a soup, stew, curry, or porridge for creamy, no-cream richness.
  7. Rosé. So that you can chill your rosé—or your rosé cocktail—without weakening it.
  8. Lime wedges. For punch, iced tea, lemonade, or just a glass of good old water. (You can also freeze full-sized lime wedges on their own, no water needed. Set lime wedges on a baking sheet with a few inches of room in between, freeze until solid, then transfer to a plastic bag to store in your freezer.)
  9. Lemon juice. Might you be so bold as to pour ice coffee over cubes of frozen lemon juice? (We'd recommend it!)
  10. Greek yogurt. Straight into your smoothie she goes! Greek yogurt cubes can also be used like coconut milk cubes, when you want to give a recipe a rich finish and/or mellow out its spiciness.
  11. Cookie dough. Square-shaped cookie dough blocks will, unfortunately, not result in square-shaped cookies.
  12. Green tea. For a colorful, tangy green tea, pour cooled, lightly-sweetened green tea over green tea, lemon juice, and berry-suspended ice cubes.

How are you using ice cube trays in brilliant ways? Tell us in the comments below.

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Neil January 29, 2018
I see that some people have a problem with residual smell on their ice cube trays. Try cleaning the trays with baking soda, it is a good odor neutralizer :)
Christina September 13, 2017
Hello, I froze some green curry paste in silicon ice cube trays. It works well but my ice cube tray now smell strongly of the curry paste. (My other tray smells of garlic after I froze gazpacho) If I now make ice or freeze fruit purée, are these now likely to take on the spice/garlic taste?? Please advise!!!
Thank you
Nancy September 13, 2017
I had similar problems with onion odor in some silicone tools.
Maybe keep one tray for sweet, one for savory.
Also see this entry for cleaning tips:
drora K. July 4, 2017
I freeze tomato paste leftover spread thin in a ziplock bag and just break a piece when needed. It goes right in the stew or whatever else I cook. No need to defrost.
Joe May 19, 2017
Instead of freezing grated ginger, I freeze the root whole. The frozen ginger root is very easy to gate on a microplane.
Carla F. May 18, 2017
Instead of using an ice cube tray for ginger, I've just been grating it directly into a freezer bag and freezing it flat. That way, if I want less than one ounce, I can just break off a small chunk. It melts faster than a cube would.
Nancy May 18, 2017
Nice presentation.
Lots of us are already doing this...remember 2014 thread on the hotline?
Sarah J. May 18, 2017
Yes!! You all are a constant source of inspiration—thank you!
Windischgirl May 18, 2017
Thanks for this link! I wondered if an egg white would fit into an ice cube section, so the hotline was helpful there--it will!
It's 93F in Philly today so time to pull out the ice cube trays anyway...