If your idea of “iced coffee” is “letting my hot coffee get cold” then, honey, we need to talk—you deserve better. Making iced coffee or cold brew is not hard—you just have to follow a few simple rules.
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:
1. 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.) This method 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 Japanese Style Iced Coffee recipe.
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. The stronger, chocolatey flavor of this iced-coffee style generally stands up to add-ons, mix-ins, and other fun variations better than iced pour-over does. Get our Easy Cold-Brewed Coffee recipe.
2. 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.
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 Perfect Ice recipe.
3. 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 ice 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.
A couple more ideas: this Vanilla Ice Cube recipe combines almond milk, sugar, and vanilla bean seeds; our Frozen Spiked Coffee Shot recipe (shown above) could also work as a meta ice cube, as long you’re not sipping your drink on a workday morning (then again, the proportion of Kahlua isn’t that high).
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4. 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.
Related Reading: How to Create a Coffee Station at Home to Make Your Mornings Better
5. 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 hop on the trend train and make fluffy dalgona coffee.
6. Or Shake It
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.
Boozy alternative: Make this Porter Cold Brew Coffee recipe (which should not actually be shaken).
7. Or Really Mix It Up
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. 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? And this combination is 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.
Related Reading: 5 Uncommon Coffee Drinks You Need to Try
Or use cold brew concentrate in place of some of the bitters in your favorite cocktail: A little upper/downer Manhattan, perhaps? Cold brew blends really nicely with the warm oaky and vanilla tones in bourbon, scotch, and whiskey. Try this Cold Brew Bourbon Cocktail recipe.
8. 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.
Related Video: What Is the Difference Between French Press and AeroPress?
Header image by Chowhound.