How Do Nugget Ice Makers Work

Nugget ice, also known as pellet or Sonic ice, has become wildly popular recently. This chewable, soft ice is perfect for cooling drinks without diluting them. The unique texture and small size allow flavors to be trapped in the ice, creating an amazing drinking experience. But how exactly are these cylindrical, chewable ice pieces made?

Nugget ice makers rely on an ingenious freezing and compacting process quite different from typical ice cube machines. Instead of trays, nugget ice is made by shaving ice flakes off a chilled cylinder. The flakes are then squeezed under pressure to form small, dense nuggets.

It’s a complex process allowing these machines to produce the light, chewable ice cubes enthusiasts rave about. Look closely under the hood to understand how nugget ice makers create this uniquely textured ice.

Water Freezes on a Chilled Cylinder

The first step in making nugget ice is freezing water along the sides of an icy cold cylinder. This large metal cylinder is surrounded by refrigerant-filled tubing. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the metal cylinder, causing the exterior to reach freezing temperatures.

Once the cylinder is chilled, water is injected inside. The freezing cylinder walls cause the water to crystallize and form a thin layer of ice. This differs from typical ice machines, which freeze water in molds from the top down. The layer of ice grows thicker as water continues entering the cylinder.

An Auger Scrapes Off Ice Flakes

The next vital component is the auger inside the cylinder. The auger is a large helical screw that spins as ice forms. This scraping motion shaves off thin flakes of ice from the cylinder walls.

The auger also pushes ice upward as it rotates. So ice crystals are scraped off and transported up the cylinder simultaneously. The result is a slushy mixture of ice flakes and liquid water being propelled upward.

This step is key to creating nugget ice’s signature soft, chewable texture. The small ice flakes incorporate air pockets and moisture, giving it a softer consistency than solid cube ice.

Ice is Compressed and Pushed Through Holes

At the top of the cylinder, the ice flakes are put under immense pressure. The ice mixture is squeezed through small holes, compressing the ice into a solid nugget shape.

The restricted holes shape the ice flakes into uniform cylinders like playdough being pushed through a pasta maker. This compression stage is critical for forming the distinctive pellet shape.

The high pressure ensures the ice sets into a solid nugget rather than remaining a loose collection of flakes. The ice emerges in long threads, ready to be broken into bite-size pieces.

A Cone Breaks Ice Nuggets Apart

If the ice weren’t broken down further, you’d be left with long ice spirals. To create small, chewable nuggets, an additional step is needed.

A metal cone fitting forces the ice to fracture right where the ice extrudes. As new ice is pushed up from below, it squeezes existing ice outward against the cone. This pressure causes the ice spirals to snap apart into smaller cylinders.

The cone essentially crunches the ice threads into nugget-sized pieces. The cone’s unique shape and positioning are engineered to break ice optimally. The result is bite-sized nuggets falling into the collection bin below.

Sensors Monitor Ice Levels

Commercial nugget ice machines produce ice continually. The ice must be stored in a bin, and sensors track when the bin is full.

Once the collection bin is filled, sensors will trigger the ice maker to shut off. This ensures newly made ice isn’t overflowing once there’s no more storage space.

In countertop nugget ice makers, infrared sensors typically monitor ice levels. In larger machines, the ice mass can trigger high-temperature sensors placed at a certain fill height.

Either way, these sensors allow efficient, automated ice production. The machine restarts ice production once you begin using ice again, and sensors detect more capacity.

Key Differences From Cube Ice Machines

Traditional ice cube machines work quite differently than nugget ice makers. The main differences include:

  • Cube ice freezes in molds from the top down rather than shaving ice flakes.
  • Water is collected in a tray first, then frozen. Nugget ice freezes water continually.
  • The mold determines the ice shape, not compressing and extruding ice.
  • Cube ice is solid and hard, while nugget ice has a chewable compressed flake structure.

These contrasting freezer methods result in an entirely different ice type. The complex nugget ice process creates uniquely chewable, small ice pieces that can’t be achieved with normal ice cube trays.

Nugget Ice Melts Faster But Cools Drinks Quickly

An interesting trait of nugget ice is that it melts faster than regular cubed ice. The small pieces and compressed flake structure mean greater surface area exposure. More surface area speeds up melting as heat quickly penetrates the ice.

However, the high surface area also makes nugget ice excellent at cooling drinks rapidly. Liquids can interact with more ice surfaces, so heat transfer is very efficient. This quality is partly why nugget ice is perfect for fountain drinks at fast food chains.

So while nugget ice melts faster, it excels at cooling power. The rapid cooling and slow dilution make nugget ice ideal for beverages.

Yes, Sonic Uses Nugget Ice Machines

Part of the recent surge in nugget ice’s popularity is thanks to the fast food chain Sonic. Their iconic fountain drinks are all served with crunchy, chewable nugget ice.

Sonic stores use specialty commercial nugget ice machines to produce their signature “Sonic ice.” These ice makers churn out the small, cylinder-shaped ice pieces that customers love.

Sonic’s Ice is so adored that people buy bags to take home and crunch on. The Sonic name has become synonymous with this type of chewable soft ice.

Countertop Nugget Ice Makers for Home Use

Commercial machines allow businesses like Sonic to generate mounds of nugget ice. But there are also smaller countertop nugget makers perfect for home kitchens.

The same cylindrical freezing process is used. But countertop models produce enough ice for household use rather than mass restaurant service. The ice is dispensed from a drawer or bin for convenient access.

Smaller output capacity also means more affordable models for homeowners. Of course, commercial-grade makers are also available for purchase if you want serious ice production.

When choosing a countertop nugget ice machine, look for the following:

  • Stainless steel housing for durability and easy cleaning.
  • Quiet operation so it can run without noise disruption.
  • Self-contained ice storage, so you don’t have to handle ice trays.
  • Front-venting so the unit can fit flush against walls.
  • Fast ice production for a steady nugget supply.

Nugget Ice Popularity Continues Rising

Nugget Ice’s unique texture and taste sensation has sparked a growing fanbase. There’s even an almost cult-like obsession for people who love chewing this soft, crunchy ice.

Consumer exposure and demand keep increasing as more businesses serve drinks with nugget ice. This has fueled incredible innovation from commercial and consumer ice-maker companies.

There’s never been more advanced nugget ice technology available. Everything from soft drink fountains to countertop machines can now produce this special ice.

Understanding how nugget ice makers work sheds light on why the ice is unique. The multi-step freezing and compacting process creates an ice type you can’t replicate using normal ice trays or molds.

It requires specialized equipment and engineering. But the result is a chewable, flake-structured ice nugget that can’t be achieved any other way.


What temperature does the cylinder need to reach?

To freeze water along the walls, the metal cylinder must reach freezing temperature, around 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Powerful refrigeration keeps the cylinder ice cold for continual ice production.

How fast does nugget ice melt compared to cubes?

Due to greater surface area exposure, nugget ice melts 20-30% faster than equivalently sized cubed ice. The small pieces and flake structure make for quicker melting.

Why is nugget ice good for blending drinks?

The soft, chewable texture of nugget ice is easy on blender blades. The ice incorporates air pockets, creating less friction and wear than hard, dense ice. So nugget ice allows smoother blending.

Can you buy a nugget ice maker attachment for your home refrigerator?

Some refrigerator models offer nugget ice maker attachments, but they are limited. Standalone countertop units provide more power and faster production for serious nugget ice-making.

Does nugget ice absorb less liquid than solid ice cubes?

Surprisingly, nugget ice absorbs just as much or slightly more liquid due to greater surface area. The compacted flake structure provides tons of surface for liquid contact and absorption.


Nugget ice makers utilize an ingenious freezing process to create unique, chewable ice cubes. These machines generate small, dense ice nuggets by shaving ice flakes off a chilled cylinder and compacting them under pressure. The ice forms very differently than traditional cube ice, allowing an airy, crunchy texture and rapid cooling.

With nugget ice gaining popularity at restaurants and homes, advancements continue for commercial and countertop models. Understanding the complex ice formation steps highlights why proper equipment is critical for making these distinctive soft ice pieces. The engineering inside nugget machines allows ice innovation that standard trays can’t duplicate.

Sophie Delatorre
Sophie Delatorre

I'm Sophie Delatorre, an experienced and trusted product review expert known for my in-depth and unbiased analyses. With over 10 years under my belt reviewing all types of consumer products, from tech gadgets to home appliances, I provide comprehensive feedback to help consumers make informed purchase decisions.

My specialty is putting products through rigorous real-world testing to evaluate quality, durability, ease of use, and overall value. I credit my background in consumer science and engineering for my meticulous eye for detail and technical know-how when breaking down a product's specs and performance.

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When I'm not busy buying and reviewing the latest products, I stay on top of consumer trends and innovations. My passion lies in helping everyday shoppers cut through marketing claims to find the best value products that will save time, money, and hassle.