If your idea of “iced coffee” is “letting my hot coffee get cold” then, honey, we need to talk—you deserve better.
It can seem like a huge production to make the stuff fresh for yourself at home, but once you are an ice master—and it’s easier than it sounds—you will not only be maximizing your chill, but you will also suddenly have a delicious tool kit that will float you through the hot months on a wave of taste bud bliss.
There are myriad ways to make iced coffee, but if you want to do anything well, you’ve got to pare down your options and really focus: Hone your skills at one or two techniques rather than dabbling with a dozen different brewers. I recommend learning two main preparation styles: Iced Pour-Over and Cold Brew. Think of them as the poached egg and the scrambled egg of iced coffee. Iced pour-over tends to be lighter, more delicate, more nuanced, and take more attention in the preparation. Cold Brew is great for making ahead, and is good either straight-up or jazzed-up.
Whether you’re looking to hone your cool caffeine skills or simply take your morning chug to the next level, here are a few things to do before you brew.
Know how much time ya got. If you’re in a rush, iced pour-over is 100 percent the way to go to get you out the door: It takes roughly three to four minutes to make this type of iced coffee, since you’re basically brewing a hot concentrate that drips directly onto ice. (The ice does double duty, diluting the concentrate to perfection, while simultaneously cooling it down.) Cold brew, on the other hand, can be portioned out into grab-and-go doses once it’s finished, but takes about 12–24 hours prep time.
Remember that ice is an ingredient. In fact, it’s one of the only ingredients. And if you’re an absolute purist (and/or a stickler for hard-and-fast definitions), it’s one of only two ingredients in iced coffee—that is, coffee and water. The solid-state H2O that goes into your brew can actually have a make-or-break effect on your finished drink, though. So definitely use good, drinkable water and ice cube trays that are clean and don’t smell. Also, be sure you have a fresh freezer. If you’ve got last month’s lentil soup in there, your iced coffee will taste like last month’s lentil soup.
Don’t fear getting fancy. Speaking of ice again, who says it has to be just water? Feel free to add a little pizazz to your iced coffee by making special iced cubes: Mix some simple syrup in with the water, or vanilla syrup; try putting a few fresh herbs in there (mint is actually really lovely with certain delicate iced coffees); freeze sweetened condensed milk or chocolate milk for a sweet treat. Live large.
Do some simple math (and I mean simple). Look, I get it. Every iced coffee recipe in the whole world seems really complicated and mathy. Really good coffee actually is kind of complicated and mathy, but honestly, you can pair it down pretty easily once you learn the basics. For iced pour-over, take the amount of iced coffee you’d like to have at the end—say you want to brew 20 ounces, to share with a friend—and split it into 2/3 (the amount of hot water you’ll brew with) and 1/3 (the amount of ice). Cold brew’s math is way simpler, because there are only the two ingredients. (No pesky ice!) Either way, don’t get bogged down in the arithmetic. Just brew it.
Now top that. Once you’ve got your ice coffee brewed up, you don’t have to stop there: Did you know that “iced coffee” in Australia always has ice cream in it? Now that’s living like you mean it. Take your cue from Down Under and toss a mini scoop in there. Or add some fresh whipped cream to that thing, because this is supposed to be the best. The best of your life.
Or shake that. Not into whipped cream? (What’s wrong with you?) We’re still aiming for greatness here, and greatness can be achieved in many ways. Pour your iced coffee of choice into a cocktail shaker, glop a nice little taste of sweetened condensed milk, coconut milk, or light cream, fill with ice, and shake the dickens out of it. Instant treat achievement unlocked.
Or mix that. You can also use iced coffee to inform and infuse a whole host of Best Drinks of Your Life: Make a twist on a half-and-half by combining the perfect pour-over iced coffee with some lightly-sweetened fresh lemonade. (Start with a lightly roasted, floral-tasting coffee, and trust me, it’s heavenly.) Or use cold brew concentrate in place of some of the bitters in your favorite cocktail: A little upper/downer Manhattan, perhaps?
But definitely don’t sweat it. No matter how you decide to do the brew, remember that iced coffee is supposed to be chill in more ways than one. Relax, enjoy it, and stay caffeinated, my friend.
The Perfect (Clear) Ice Cubes
Before you dive into the method, make sure you’ve got your ice on ice. I love a totally pristine, clear cube in mine, because it’s something so simple to elevate the glass. Every coffee should feel like a special occasion, you know what I mean? Get the recipe.
Japanese-Style (Pour-Over) Iced Coffee
Iced pour-over is great for straight-up sipping—it allows more delicate flavors to come through in the coffee—and is a quick way to make iced coffee in a flash. You can even use the principles of the manual-brewing technique to make autodripped iced coffee. Do a little simple math to calculate the ice-to-water ratio, put the ice in the brewing carafe, and away we go. Get the recipe.
The Best Cold Brew
Have the time to spare? Like iced coffee that’s a bit more versatile? Cold brew might be the way to go. The stronger, chocolatey flavor of this iced-coffee style stands up to add-ons, mix-ins, and other fun variations better than iced pour-over does, generally. Get our Easy Cold-Brewed Coffee recipe.
Vanilla Ice Cubes
No matter how you’re making it, you still need ice. Why not let the cubes do the heavy lifting on the flavor? Just a tiny kiss of vanilla can transform your iced coffee into a little moment of heaven. Get the recipe.
Perfect Simple Syrups
Syrups are another really wonderful way to make every iced coffee the Best Iced Coffee of Your Life. Make your own to control the sweetness, and the strength of flavor. Get the recipes.
Just about everyone raises an eyebrow at first when they hear “iced coffee lemonade,” but when you think about it, why is iced coffee any weirder than iced tea? This combination—sometimes called a “Laura Palmer” as a nod to both Arnold Palmer (for whom the famous iced tea/lemonade combo is named) and Twin Peaks, this drink has been popping up on summer menus at the best cafés in the world. Get the recipe.
Cold-Brew Bourbon Cocktail
You can have breakfast for dinner, so why not coffee cocktails, too? Cold brew is a great stand-in for bitters in some classic cocktails, and blends really nicely with the warm oaky and vanilla tones in bourbon, scotch, and whiskey. Get the recipe.
— Head photo: How Sweet It Is.