Canning Season is Almost Here – Stay Safe Out There

packed in jars

Raw packed pickles

We just planted our tomatoes, eggplants and tomatillos this weekend. In a couple of more weeks we’ll be planting peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, beans and corn. In just a few months we’ll be busy harvesting and preserving our bounty through drying, freezing and canning.

Preserving has been gaining in popularity and I see some really great recipes out there on the interwebs. I also see some dangerous ones that kind of scare me. I’ve seen so many bad ones, in fact,  that I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to judge canned goods at events anymore unless the recipe and canning process is included with the sample. You can’t simply shoot from the hip and make up recipes that “sound about right” and expect for them to store at room temperature for extended lengths of time.  There’s a science behind canning to ensure safety that I can’t stress enough. So I figured that with canning season fast approaching we should discuss some guidelines to canning to help everyone stay safe.

The Rules

1. Just because it’s on the internet does not automatically make it a safe recipe. 

Be critical of every recipe you see on the internet.  Check to make sure it has enough acid and is processed long enough if it’s not pressure canned and uses low acid ingredients (especially if it is raw packed). If it’s high acid make sure it is water bath canned long enough. The USDA has safe canning guidelines through their National Center for Home Food Preservation site that you can cross reference from. Also avoid recipes that have dairy, eggs, and pureed low acid food (such as lemon curd, pumpkin butter and pureed bananas) and don’t also say that it is to only be kept in the refrigerator for a limited amount of time (usually for a month) or to freeze the finished product.

2. Books are *usually* a safe bet. 

I only say “usually” because I’ve seen some questionable and downright dangerous recipes even in published books. Check the book to make sure it says the recipes have been tested for safety. The most reliably safe books (though I can’t testify to the flavor of all the recipes in these books) are:

cans

These are refrigerator-style pickles that have a finite shelf life.

3.  If you find a safe recipe do not alter it, but if you do, know the guidelines. 

Even adding a bit more onion to a recipe can alter the pH enough to make it unsafe. For water bath canned products you want the pH to be 4.6 or lower. However, unless you have a super deluxe Vitamix blender, chances are just blending and using a litmus strip isn’t going to give you an accurate reading of the acidity. The safest way to test is to send it to a food lab, but that can get expensive so just stick with a tested recipe. Always follow the basic safe guidelines if you do change the recipe. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t alter it. The canning recipes I have on this blog always follow the safe guidelines and I almost always increase the acid when I don’t need to just to be on the safe side. I will not post low-acid recipes that require pressure canning. And recipes that don’t follow the safe guidelines, like our oven-baked heirloom tomato sauce, will always be for eating immediately of freezing (which is why we don’t include canning instructions with it).

4. Not all fruit is created equal. 

While many fruits are high acid and relatively easy to can, some are either borderline or low acid and must have acid added. Figs, bananas, white peaches, Asian pears, watermelon, mangoes and tomatoes all fall into this category of not acidic enough to can on their own without added acid. Be sure to follow the USDA guidelines if canning these items. I have posted tomato canning guidelines that are based on USDA guidelines and the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

 5. If it’s a low acid food and you don’t add acid don’t even think of water bath canning it (same goes for recipes with meat in them even if you do add acid).

I’m serious here. Botulism will fucking kill you. Adding loads of salt or sugar won’t save you here.

6. If a recipe says to pack pint jars don’t pack quart jars and increase the time to what you think it should be. 

Sometimes you’ll come across recipes that only give you the processing time for a specific jar size. Don’t pack into larger jars because you don’t know what the processing time is for them to be safe. Tomato paste is a good example of this. Due to it’s consistency it’s best to only can it in 8 oz jars. And never can using jars larger than a quart unless the recipe calls for them (tomato juice can be canned in 1.5L jars per the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving).

7. Don’t create shortcuts.

  • Cut fruits or vegetables into the indicated size as this ensures that the center reaches the correct temperature and acidity if using low acid foods.
  • Don’t “eyeball” the amounts of your ingredients – think of this as a science experiment rather than an art project.
  • Start your processing time after the water has come back up to boiling if using a water bath canner or after you reach pressure when pressure canning.
  • Pack hot food into hot jars that were slowly brought up to temperature, not cold jars (the sudden heat from the food will stress the glass causing breakage).
  • Don’t reuse lids (Tattler lids are the exception). You can reuse rings though.
  • Follow head space rules for a recipe – don’t over or under fill jars.
  • Always make sure there is at least 1″ of water covering the jars when in the canner.
  • Do not skip the water bath for acidic foods. The water bath heats up the food in the jar to kill microorganisms. The heated food increases in volume (why you need to follow rules for head space) pushing out air. The water covering the jars doesn’t allow air to reenter the jars. The air also is heated making it expand and escape the jar. Less oxygen means less oxidation and less spoilage (except for anaerobic microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum, many other microorganisms require oxygen). You’re much more likely to get mold if you don’t properly do a water bath. Mold changes the pH of the product making an acidic food more basic which opens it up to C. botulinum, which causes botulism.
  • Remove air bubbles after packing hot jars. Sometimes the food can contain enough air in it to alter the head space. Plus extra air means extra oxygen and more chances for spoilage.
  • Always wipe the rim with a clean cloth before putting the lid on. This will help ensure a good seal while also removing a vehicle for contamination to get inside the jar.

8. Take the rings off your jars after they seal. 

The rings are really just designed to keep the lid on while canning and should be removed after they seal. This will help reduce corrosion and rust on your jars but more importantly removing the rings help you avoid a false seal. A failed seal would indicate spoilage but if the ring keeps the lid down you wouldn’t necessarily know the food has spoiled – smell, taste and looks can be deceiving for some types of spoilage. However, you can put the rings back on once you break the seal to avoid creating a mess.

9. Remember to adjust for altitude. 

Find out your altitude and then adjust your canning time. Please note that the time difference may vary depending on the product you’re canning.

10. Use the right equipment. 

Steam canners and oven canning are not recommended and cannot remove the risk of all types of spoilage. A stock pot that is deep enough for your jars plus 1″ of cover is fine for water bath canning. Make sure to use a rack on the bottom of your pot though. The rack helps keep water moving all the way around the jar and helps prevent the jars from breaking. Use a pressure canner, not a pressure cooker, when canning low acid foods and meat. Pressure cookers don’t have as reliable gauges if they have one at all. Also make sure that your pressure canner is in good condition. Old or poorly taken care of pressure cookers are dangerous and can explode. Your county extension can test your pressure canner for you or direct you to somewhere that can.

Canning isn’t something that should intimidate you by any means, you just have to follow some rules to make sure your finished product is safe. Properly canned foods are delicious and most times are much healthier than what you can purchase at the store. So get out there and start canning!

Homemade Deodorant that Works

Commercial deodorants, along with shampoos, conditioners and body soaps have all sorts of toxic chemicals in them. Want to freak yourself out? Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database to see exactly what those ingredients can do to you. Thanks to the database I have decided to age gracefully and no longer dye my hair or use “age-defying” treatments for my skin. I’ve switched from using commercial shampoo to using either a homemade shampoo bar or baking soda and apple cider vinegar (depending on my mood for the day). Same goes for body soap – we now use only homemade soap. I no longer wash my face with soap then slather it with some toxin-containing lotion. Instead I now use coconut oil. I slather it on heavily than wipe it off with a cloth which removes dirt, excess oil, even makeup. It leaves my skin feeling supple and smooth and it’s never dried out. Amazingly it’s also never oily either. Goodbye T-zone. And let me tell you, my skin has NEVER looked this good. Gone are the fine lines and most important of all, the mid-life acne is gone. Completely. I don’t even get hormonal acne anymore. It’s a thing of beauty (pun intended).

The deodorant switch was our latest experiment. Tom was skeptical about it and rightly so. Tom is a man’s man and is the muscle around here. He’s big, he’s strong, and he works hard and gets (really) sweaty, which can often times lead to the unpleasant odor of man-sweat. So I had a challenge ahead of me. I found some recipes online but none seemed that appealing. I wanted something easy to make from ingredients that we almost always have on hand, or at least could easily keep on hand and were readily available at local stores. So here is what I finally came up with:

  • 2 oz Coconut Oil
  • 1/2 oz beeswax
  • 1/4 C baking soda
  • 1/4 C cornstarch (non-GMO of course)
  • 20 drops Tea Tree Essential Oil
  • 20 drops any other essential oil for scent (optional)

Melt the coconut oil and beeswax together in a sauce pan on low heat. Once melted take off of heat and mix in remaining ingredients. Pour into cleaned out deodorant containers. This is enough to fill 2 medium sized deodorant containers.

So how does it work? I’ll get to that in a minute but first I want to explain why I chose the ingredients that I did.

The coconut oil is very moisturizing, it’s lightweight and goes on really smoothly. The problem though is that it melts at a low temperature so on a warm day you might end up with a puddle of oil rather than a solid deodorant. That’s where the beeswax comes in. Just a small amount is all you need to harden it up. Too much beeswax though and you end up with a gummy product that doesn’t go on smooth.

The baking soda helps eliminate odors and the cornstarch absorbs excess moisture. Tea tree oil is antibacterial so it helps eliminate the bacteria that cause bad B.O. and then the additional essential oil is optional if you don’t care for the smell of the tea tree oil (I personally don’t like it).

After several months of using this deodorant I have to say I am surprisingly thrilled about it. Tom really likes it too. Neither of us suffer from any type of B.O. which is actually more than I can say about every other commercial deodorant that I’ve ever tried. After several hours they just lose their effectiveness but this homemade stuff lasts all day with no problem. It goes on smooth and a little goes a long way. In addition, for us ladies, it doesn’t making your armpits sting or itch after shaving.

10 Repurposed (Free or Cheap) Things You Should Have

I was puttering around in the yard when I realized that we sure have a lot of random crap around our yard. I guess you can’t call it crap because it’s all really, really useful stuff. None of these items’ primary use is for gardening or livestock keeping but here we are using them all the time. So here’s my list of items that you should keep around if you are an avid gardener or own livestock.

5 Gallon Buckets

I honestly don’t know how I ever got through life without 5 gallon buckets. The food grade ones are awesome for storing food of course, though you need to take care to keep rodents out, but even the non-food grade ones are indispensable. I use them to mix potting soil, tools, irrigation supplies and pipe, and garden supplies. I also use them for harvesting larger amounts that my basket can’t handle (like the 70lbs of apricots we harvested this past weekend) and for collecting weeds in when I’m weeding. You can upend a bucket over a tender plant overnight if you’re suspecting a frost (just remember to remove it in the morning). We also cut them down, hook up a float and use them as automatic waterers (a very wise goat breeder told me that goats prefer to drink out of white buckets). You can even use them to make self watering planters!

Burlap Bags

These are the big bags that they ship coffee beans in. You can ask your local coffee roaster if they have any they can give you or sometimes the dump has pallets of them. We use them as weedblock (doesn’t work very well for bindweed or Bermuda grass though) and in our mushroom garden to keep logs moist. For events we use them as rustic table cloths but when we’re home they are useful for anything we need fabric for outside use. With the animals it works well for insulation on cold nights and for calming animals in distress when we have to isolate them. We also use it to help keep the chickens from sleeping in their nest boxes at night (in picture). By nailing one edge above the nest boxes and attaching a heavy bar to the opposite edge we can roll it up in the morning and bring it back down in the evening when everyone is done laying. Helps keep the boxes nice and clean because the girls can’t sleep in the boxes. Additionally you can use them as temporary planters by setting them upright filled with soil. The jury is still out though on whether they are good for potatoes.

Electrical Conduit

This is probably one of the most useful items we have around here. Tom works for an electrical wholesaler and so any bent pieces they receive he squirrels away until he has enough to bring home. We use it for making trellises for climbing veggies. When making trellises  you lash together two pipes (pound them into the ground some) on each end of the bed and then stabilize them with a pipe running through the crook made by the ends. Lash it all together and it should be pretty stable. Then we use line to run back and forth or up and down depending on what we’re planting. Beans and other twining veggies get a vertical trellis while grasping vines like peas, cukes and squash, get a horizontal trellis. Polyester line works well but we like to use the lines off of hay bales because they are stronger and last longer. Electrical conduit also works well for fence posts. When it involves keeping chickens out they are too thin for the chickens to jump up onto. We use it as the “rails” in our feed mangers for the goats and we even used it for building the chicken run. It is strong enough to support the wire that covers the run and was easily attached to the posts with pipe straps.

Stucco Wire

Similar to chicken wire, stucco wire is cheaper and stronger (after all, it has to hold the weight of stucco to a buildings). We primarily use it for temporary fencing and of course for poultry housing. It’s also good to wrap around newly planted plants to keep critters from digging them up. We use it in planters to keep the squirrels out and then we also tie scare tape to it to keep the birds away from by blueberries. It’s useful to use to for impromptu compost bins by wiring it into a circle because it allows for lots of airflow. It’s also a cheaper alternative to hardware cloth under raised beds to keep gophers out and also as cages under new trees and shrubs that you may plant to also keep gophers away.

Concrete Reinforcement Fabric

By far the BEST tomato cages available are the ones you make at home from a wire mesh meant for pouring concrete slabs. The spacing between the wire is perfect for reaching your hand through to pick even the biggest tomato but it’s also strong enough not to collapse under even the largest plant. We also use this mesh for tomatillos and you can make nice arbors with them. We’ve had ours for well over 5 years with no issues. At the end of the season you can open them back up and lay them flat or stack them in an out of the way place, which is what we do. There’s also an option to cut them into four pieces of equal size and then wire them into square cages which can lay flat for storage.

It also works well for potato towers because it’s strong enough to hold hay, soil and lots of potatoes!

Concrete Pavers or Bricks

We put in a patio in our backyard and ended up with a whole bunch of leftover pavers. People are always trying to offload extra brick and pavers on Craigslist and Freecycle so they are fairly easy to obtain. They can be used as small stepping stones through the garden if you don’t want to put down a path and just want something temporary. We also use them whenever we need a hard, level surface such as under water buckets. They are great for keeping wood and metal off of the ground as well. While galvanized metal is rust resistant it isn’t rust proof so we like to keep our metal pails on the pavers to reduce their contact with moisture from the soil. I also find them helpful protect our irrigation system, particularly where the risers come out of the ground. We stack them around the risers so that we don’t trip on them (makes them more visible) and also to keep us from damaging the rises with tools or wheelbarrows.

XL Wire Dog Grate

If you have livestock this is a must-have item. We have two of them plus a wire pen and all of them are in constant use around here. For rabbits they work well as temporary pens when you’re cleaning out hutches or just want to give them some time in the grass to play. We use the pen most often for this because it’s large enough to let them romp around. If you have chickens (same for turkeys and ducks) they are great for brooding chicks in. Unlike plastic dog crates, the wire ones have a removable bottom tray so you can get those chicks on the dirt as soon as possible. Plus this eliminates a slick footing which can cause splay leg in your chicks. They are also great for isolating a hen if she’s injured or broody, without separating her from her flock which is much less stressful. For goats it’s perfect for keeping the kids off of mom at night if you’re milking her in the morning. They sleep comfortably while still in full view of mom. I also use the crate for transporting the goats to the vet or breeder. It’s large enough for two dwarf goats to move around plus water and food.

Concrete Christy Boxes

These are the those boxes you see set flush in the sidewalk that have a concrete cover over them that usually says something like “Electrical” or “Water Meter.” They come in all different sizes from several feet long to 9″ rounds. The larger ones are the most useful for us as they make great deep raised beds in small spaces. The bonus is that they are concrete so they don’t disintegrate over time. They are also small enough to move around.

Old Recycle Bins

Remember back in the day when the recycle bins were just a small crate that you carried out to the curb? When we moved into our house we found over half a dozen of these boxes in our backyard. They’ve turned out to be extremely useful to us. We use the majority of them as storage bins for garden and irrigation supplies. We use them when weeding large areas because they are great for storing a lot of weeds between dumping. Flip them over and use them as a garden seat. We keep them out in the goat yard to either sit on or let the kids play on or in. I can also foresee making nest boxes out of them in the chicken house. Because they already have drainage holes in the bottom they can work as movable planters. Drill large holes in the sides, fill up with coffee grounds and grow oyster mushrooms in them as well. The uses are endless with these.

Pallets

The ubiquitous pallet can be had for free from many places. Tom’s work can’t get rid of them fast enough and has stacks of them in their yard waiting to find a new home. Pallets have been getting a lot of attention lately for their usefulness in the garden. From making vertical garden walls to temporary beds for lettuces they have a multitude of uses. We use them for a lot of things here. We built Turkey Town almost entirely out of pallets and burlap. We store our hay on them and we made a hive stand with one. We used them to make our potato bins, which we’re hoping increased yield this year. The uses of pallets are only limited to your imagination.

Catching some Levain (aka Sourdough Starter)

San Francisco is famous for their sourdough bread which runs wild around there. Fortunately we can all catch our own wild sourdough starter, which is also called levain. Levain is the French term for sourdough starter and has been used for centuries to make bread. Bread made with Levain may even be healthier for you than breads made with commercial yeast. Sourdough actually has a lower glycemic index than regular bread. The levain also breaks down phytic acid in grains. Phytic acid blocks the absorption of minerals and vitamins. Levain also shows promise for people that are intolerant of gluten because it helps degrade and deactivate the proteins that adversely affect people.

Nowadays you can purchase commercial sourdough starter, but what fun is that? Plus you can’t boast that you actually caught the wild levain that made your bread. The bonus is that it’s super easy to do and doesn’t take much, but you don’t have to tell others that. Go ahead and let them think it took you days of complicated procedures to obtain.

So are you ready to get blown away? To catch a levain all you need is some flour and an equal amount of water in a wide mouth container or bowl. Yep, that’s pretty much all you need. And all you do is mix the flour and water together and set it outside for a couple of days. Bring it in, keep it in a relatively warm spot and once it starts to form bubbles on the surface you can go ahead and store it in the fridge. The only thing you do need to do is occasionally feed it equal parts of flour and water once a day. It should have a slightly sour smell to it, which is a good thing. You can keep your levain going for as long as you’re willing to take care of it, or if something goes wrong like it gets moldy.

So how do you use your levain? I like to make a nice no-knead artisan bread with it. The following recipe makes two loaves or one really big one if you’re up for it. However, for a larger loaf the baking times will be longer.

In a large bowl mix together 3 cups warm water (about 110 deg F), 1-1/2 Tbs kosher salt and 1/2 cup of your levain. Add 7-1/2 cups flour and mix. It should be a wet dough, but not sloppy. When you measure the flour you want it to be level cups, which you can get by using the flat back edge of a knife to scrape excess flour off evenly.

Cover and allow this to sit for at least two hours in a warm, dark spot. This dough will not rise like breads made with commercial yeast so don’t worry too much. After two hours you can put it in the fridge to store or make a loaf right away. The dough, because it’s wet, is much easier to handle when it’s cold though, so I usually put it in the fridge for about 2 hours before I plan to bake it.

When I’m ready I pull out half of the dough and while working quickly I shape it into a ball by pulling the top down over the sides stretching it. I then place this ball in a bowl that is lined with a heavily floured non-terry cloth towel. Sprinkle a bit of flour on top and then cover with the edges of the towel. Allow it to rest and do a bit more rising for an hour.

40 minutes into the rise place a dutch oven (cast iron of course works the best, but you can use any type as long as it has a lid) in your oven and preheat to 450 deg F. The purpose of the dutch oven is to steam the bread for the first part of the baking. This helps develop a moist crumb while allowing for that real crunchy crust. Of course the heavier the lid the more steaming action you’re going to get, which will further help develop larger holes in the crumb.

When you’re ready to bake pull out the dutch oven and remove the lid. Pick up the towel and bread and quickly (and this can take some practice) and gently roll the dough out of the towel into the hot dutch oven. Quickly put the lid on and put it back in the oven.

Bake with the lid on for 30 minutes then remove the lid and bake for an additional 30 minutes or until the crust is completely browned. Don’t overcook though as the bottom can and will burn if left too long.

Remove the bread from the dutch oven  and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool until you can handle it and then serve. You have now mastered the no-knead artisan bread.

A note about ovens and not getting the perfect loaf. Every time I did this recipe it came out well, but not as good as I knew it could be. I always thought I was doing something wrong. When we got our Wedgewood I quickly realized that not all ovens are created equal. Our previous, cheapo oven just couldn’t do the job and it had made me feel inadequate. So if you have a hard time making that perfect loaf of bread it may not be your fault at all, but rather the oven that you are using.

 

Let’s Talk Security

The Old Gate

Security. It’s something I never really bring up but I think it’s important that I discuss it. This time I’m not talking about food security, biosecurity or keeping your hens safe from raccoons. Rather I want to discuss keeping an unwanted two legged animal off your property.

Over the past year it’s definitely been a concern and lately that concern has become even stronger with some events that have occurred in our neighborhood as well as some outside of our neighborhood. It’s caused us to push back some of our projects to take on new ones.

We first started thinking about security when we had to stop giving tours. We started making changes in how we presented our public persona including being very vigilant about never sharing any details about where we live.

Our next door neighbors recently sold their house. While the banks are trying to pull their heads out of their asses the house has been sitting vacant waiting for escrow to close. We have been very vigilant but we can only do so much. In the weeks it’s been empty we’ve had squatters move in (fortunately our old neighbor showed up the day they moved in and kicked them out), people sleeping in the backyard, people kicking in doors and trying to break in anyway they can. Most recently we caught our neighbor from down the street robbing the place. The cops got involved and stolen items were returned, but it left us feeling rather unsettled. We know who this neighbor is and they are nothing but bad news.

On top of that, when we went to go talk to our neighbors across the street about the happenings next door to us they said they had recently seen some man come out of our backyard. We figured it was our milk delivery guy but she said he wasn’t carrying anything so we can’t really be sure.

At the same time all this was going on we learned of some urban farmers in Portland that were having a go with animal activists stealing their animals. One urban farmer had 23 animals stolen from him. One of the rabbits had just kindled and the thief left 9 newborn kits to die. The rabbits were dropped off with a rabbit rescue where they were later found by the owner. Granted this happened in Portland, Oregon, but the animal rights activists here are crazy enough to pull the same stunts. Hell, they’ve already tried to sabotage Kitty’s homestead once already (one of the reasons we stopped giving tours).

With all of happening at the same time we’ve decided that it’s time to increase our own security here. While the alarm system covers our house and tower and the dogs are great guard dogs, we want to ensure that no one can actually access the backyard without our (or our dogs’) permission. Our animals not only depend on us for food, water, shelter and love, but they also need us to make sure they are secure. Part of that security includes keeping unwanted people out of our yard.

The New Gate Installed

The first order of business was our side gate. It kept the dogs from getting out but that’s about all it did. It was flimsy and we had just put it up in a matter of hours when we first moved in because we didn’t have a gate. This time we hired our neighbor who is a retired contractor to build us the Fort Knox of gates. None of this wussy fence panel crap we were using. We went with full on 2×6 and 2×8 pressure treated wood with 2×8 framing. Using a metal strut we tied it to a house stud. No one is kicking it in. You’ll also notice that there is no handle or latch on the outside. It also automatically closes so we can’t leave it open on accident.

Next we’ll be looking at replacing old fences and possibly adding  hotwire if anything to just keep Squeek in and the raccoons out.

Making Do With What You Have

Two weeks ago our oven died. The pilot light wouldn’t stay lit and neither would the actual oven if you turned the gas on.

I rejoiced. I hated that oven. It was some cheap, never-heard-of brand that came with the house. I had been looking for an excuse to replace it.

Of course we weren’t prepared for it to die and we’ve been insanely busy lately so going stove shopping wasn’t on the top of our priority list. Not to mention that it’s been hotter than Hades lately, so we normally don’t bake anything this time of year anyways. Plus the stove top was still working.

But sometimes you forget that you don’t have an oven and as you (or in this case, Jeanette) are putting together an amazing dish you realize just before you put the pot into the oven that it doesn’t work.

So the only option you have is to use the gas-grill-turned-charcoal-barbecue. But we didn’t have any briquettes or charcoal. We did have plenty of wood though, so a wood burning oven made from an old barbecue was the only option. Believe it or not, it worked splendidly, except for the permanent color change of the bright red dutch oven to a darker maroon color – which I think I like even better.

Tom has always wanted a Wedgewood stove. Now was our chance to get one because we now had a reason to get one. Except our kitchen is tiny and our current stove is wedged into a space that’s only 30″ wide between a counter and a floor to ceiling cabinet. That didn’t seem to stop us from bringing home a beautiful Wedgewood we found on Craigslist that was 40″ wide. So the cabinet has to find a new place. We’re just not sure where though.

Monday’s Guests – D-I-Y vs B-U-Y Dishwashing Detergent

This week’s post comes from Erica at Northwest Edible. I’m super excited that she agreed to do a guest post for us as I love all of her posts. She discusses the tough stuff about urban homesteading.

We were unloading the dishwasher yesterday and Homebrew Husband pulled a sparkling wine glass out of the top rack. Forgive me that ad-copy imagery, it irritates me even to write it, but there it is: the night before we had enjoyed wine with friends, and my man willingly unloads the dishwasher.

Nick held the glass up to the light, looked for a moment, and said “The professionals just do a better job with this one.”
Several months ago, we’d made our own dishwashing detergent. It was a combination of baking soda, borax and oxygen cleaner. It worked…sort of. Things got cleanish but a film formed on everything. Once clear glassware was turning grey. Plates had a sort of mottled, streaked look. Our flatware was starting to look like something recovered from a sunken ship.

After a few months (we tried, we really did) we gave up and went back to Cascade. The results were, I’m not kidding, transformative. Before two loads had been run, the glasses were clear, the plates uniformly colored, the knives and forks shiny.

Generally speaking our D-I-Y efforts beat out the B-U-Y equivalent. Our homemade meals and convenience and snack foods are tastier and fresher and healthier. Nick’s beer has basically ruined me to commercial beer (even good craft microbrews) forever. From almond oil moisturizer and vinegar hair rinse to all-purpose surface cleaner and beeswax leather polish, our other homemade cleansers and personal care concoctions have all served us well.

It is certainly cheaper to go homemade, and I’m sure there are a plethora of environmental advantages too, but until we find a better formula, our dishwashing detergent will remain a B-U-Y item.

But our experiment wasn’t a total failure. When DIYing it, we developed a storage system that resulted in much less waste than our old “dump some out” method of filling up the dishwasher’s soap cup. We mixed and stored our DIY dishwashing detergent in a tall plastic tub, and allocated the 1/8th cup measure from our measuring cup set (no one really uses the 1/8th cup anyway) as our detergent scoop.

Even though we are back to the commercial detergent, we kept the plastic tub and measuring cup system, and as a consequence use far less dishwashing detergent than we did before out DIY attempt. We fill the measuring cup a bit shy of full, so we’re using probably 1.5 tablespoons of detergent per load. Our dishwasher’s soap cup holds 1/4 cup, or 4 tablespoons, so this is a substantial savings over the “fill ‘er up and slosh a bit over the sides too” method we had previously employed.

If there is a lesson here, it is to never make perfect the enemy of better. Perfect would be an environmentally neutral homemade detergent. Better is using 60% less of the commercial detergent than we previously did.

There is always something more virtuous, more eco-chic or more happy-hippy to strive towards. Sometimes you aren’t going to hit the bullseye, but just nudging a little closer – by buying less often, or wasting a bit less, or being more thoughtful in your consumption – is a step in the right direction.

Thursday in the City- Turn Branches into Furniture

DIY coffee table at How’s House



I love the idea of going out into the woods and gathering branches to make something.  When I lived in a wooded area, we would collect vines and make wreaths.  It was so fun.  We also made forts from larger branches. (I was much much younger then)  Now I live in the city, luckily near the beach, and collect drift wood.   But I still think back to how fun it was to have that direct connection to nature and my environment, to be able to use it sufficiently and bring it into my home to enjoy.   Below are some great articles and instructions to make your own furniture from fallen branches and twigs.  It would be a great activity during this wonderful fall weather!




Wild and Woody at Mother Earth News


Willow Twig Furniture at Instructables


Fallen Branches by Brent Comber


How to Make Twig Furniture at Mademan


Plant Display Stand Instructions at Esprit Cabane


Twig Baskets at Suite101



Flickr of Inspiration- Halloween Party

halloween party!

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ghost meringues

Flickr of Inspiration- Homemade Candy Corn

Homemade Candy Corn