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Actually using an icebox?

I'm fascinated by the idea of actually using an icebox as it would have been at the turn of the 20th century. Does anyone know the specifics of the blocks of ice people used to buy? The bigger question is, can you even purchase them anymore?

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  1. I think if you had the space in your kitchen or adjacent area, an icebox would be a great addition for *visual* interest. But, I can't imagine actually using it. Who's going to deliver the blocks of ice? Who's going to monitor the drip pan?

    Maybe getting a block of ice during the holidays or when you're entertaining would be fun, which would handle the overflow of your existing refrigerator. A great conversation piece to be sure, but not practical throughout the year...

    1. The modern equivalent is the cooler that you can buy from any sports store, and the blocks of ice you can buy from the grocery or gas station (many places sell block as well as the smaller cubes). The blocks are not as big as the ones you see in photos of home delivery from a century ago, but a couple would be a functional substitute.

      The wiki article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_box gives an overview. Seems most of the ice that was delivered was cut from frozen lakes in the winter. The larger the block, the longer it would keep in storage, and in the home ice box.

      I suspect that the modern chest type coolers are more efficient than those upright wooden cabinets, just as chest type freezers are more efficient at holding the cold air than uprights. But access to contents isn't as convenient.

      1. Many cities still have ice factories -- there main biz nowadays is supplying retailers with bags of ice. The cakes and cubes are cut from a much larger block. For exampe, Lang Ice in Chicago starts with a 400-pound block. (They sell these large blocks for ice sculptures.)

        Using an ice box for everyday refrigeration requires a huge paradigm shift. It means shopping every day for fresh foods, having dairy delivered daily, and a big emphasis on canning, salting, smoking and other room temperature food techniques.

        This also means an adjustment in palate. Some of the changes would be slight, since smoked, salted and canned foods are still part of our diet, they would just play a lot bigger role. The flavor of meats and cheese would be a stretch since we have become accustomed to these items being continuously chilled. The notion of serving unrefrigerated chicken and beef is almost beyond a matter of taste in the US -- it is enough to have the health department shut you down. Delicacies, perhaps, in other countries, but not here. Meat would become hard to do every day -- expect a return to traditional cuisine where meat is a main dish on Sundays and holidays.

        And of course, anything frozen becomes a luxury -- ice boxes are unable to keep things frozen. They cool by melting the ice, which occurs at 32F, so best case scenario in an ice box is that parts towards the bottom might get as low as mid-30's, with the remainder a lot warmer. (OK, there are exceptions: frozen CO2 ("dry" ice) and frozen salt water.)

        1 Reply
        1. re: MikeB3542

          Mike, I really like how you brought up the idea of shifting one's thinking. I've been reading a lot about the way the kitchen used to work, including preservation techniques. There is something really wonderful about buying that special piece of meat from the butcher for Sunday lunch, and really savoring it, thereby taking away that everyday need for some kind of filler meat in every meal.

        2. Ice factories and delivery of blocks of about one meter long with the cross section of about a shoe box is still common all over Asia. The ice is insulated using rice husks. Ice is mostly broken up and used to chill down canned and bottled drinks.

          1. I'm curious why you want to use an icebox. It's a cooler, with a big block of ice you could probably replicate refrigerator temperatures for a day or two, but unless you have a thermometer you really wouldn't know for sure if your food is safe.

            I think in the old days the ice that you could buy were (big) blocks cut from natural ice in cold temperatures, insulated so it would stay frozen. Ice from a commercial freezer (that you'd buy) is "hard" ice, at -25C while ice from an ice machine is "soft" ice at close to 0C but it wouldn't take long for hard ice to become soft, so unless you don't have a freezer yourself, your best bet is to freeze water in a pan in your freezer and use the block in your icebox.

            1. For whatever it is worth, our old camper had an icebox instead of a fridge, and we lived in that thing for weeks at a time a couple of times a year. We were in Florida during the summer, and really did have to replenish almost every day.

              That having been said, it was kind of neat having to actually plan your meals according to what would spoil first, and it was kind of fun! I hope that you give it a shot- wish I was brave enough; we went without a microwave for five years but broke down the other day. Oh well, I like microwave popcorn!

              5 Replies
              1. re: Clarkafella

                There are coolers on the market that keep things cool for 3-5 days on a fill of ice, depending, of course, on the proportion of ice to food, outside temperatures, and use pattern.

                Rectangular half gallon juice bottles make good ice bottles. They are reasonable space efficient, and don't drip as the ice melts. On longer camping trips thawed bottles can be reused as water bottles, or tossed.

                On camping trips I keep things like mayo, cheese, eggs, and deli meats in the cooler for days. But I try to use fresh meat within a day or two. I am also paranoid about raw meat juices dripping on other things in the cooler. I also try not to have left overs, since the cooler isn't as effective at cooling food as a fridge.

                Regarding buying meat each day from the butcher, watch the Ethiopia episode of Bizzar Foods. A culture where you can't keep meat cold at home is also one where the butch has to sell out each day as well - and toss any leftovers to the hyenas!

                1. re: paulj

                  Hanging and smoking meat above the cooking fire from the stove is common in Ethiopia. I'm not sure if there are hyenas - I've never seen any there.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    The hyenas bit was a local tradition in Harar. Someone had developed a skill in safely feeding the animals at close range, and passed it on.
                    The Harar wiki article gives this bbc reference:

                2. re: Clarkafella

                  From the Food Timeline site, here's a 1861 recipe for Toad in the Hole. The meat buying guidelines are relevant to this thread:
                  ]"No. 59. Toad in the Hole.
                  To make this cheap dinner, you should buy 6d. Or 1s. Worth of bits or pieces of any kind of meat, whicih are to be had cheapest at night when the day's sale is over. The pieces of meat should be first carefully overlooked, to acertain if there be any necessity to pare away some tainted part, or perhaps a fly-blow, as this, if left on any one piece of beat, would tend to impart a bad taste to the whole, and spoil the dish. You then rub a little flour, pepper, and salt all over the meat, and fry it brown with a little butter or fat in the frying pan, and when done, put it with the fat it has been fried in into a baking-dish containing some Yorkshire or suet pudding batter, amde as directed at Nos. 57 and 58, and bake the toad-in-the-hole for about an hour and a half, or else send it to the bakers."
                  ---A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, Charles Elme Francatelli, facsimile 1861 edition [Prior Publications:Kent] 1993 (p. 36)

                3. an interesting local history of ice harvesting in vermont around the turn of the century (with good bits about precautions taken to keep horses from falling through the ice, and if they fell through, to keep them from dying): www.fairbanksmuseum.org/uploads/12131...

                  1. When I buy a few day's supply of stone crab, grouper, pompano, or tuna here in Florida, I keep it in an ice chest in my kitchen because it keeps it colder than in the refrigerator. My fish monger usually gives my a big bag of ice that lasts a couple days. My old cooler had a drain for the melt; my current one doesn't , which is a bit of a nuisance.

                    1. We have a wonderful, antique icebox that we use as a liquor (and other beverage) cabinet. It's oak and huge - probably 5'+ tall and 4' wide - and takes about 4 very strong people to move it. We bought it about 20 years ago deeply discounted which we figure was because nobody could move it :) It holds every liquor, soft drinks, pitchers, etc. And guests always think it's so cool :)