Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Salt soap fail

Every time I get confident with soapmaking I try something new and find that its not as easy as I thought.  I have pretty well perfected my basic soap recipes:

Using salt in soap
I decided to try a couple of recipes that use salt - soap with pink salt as an exfoliant, and then soap with salt water in the lye to make a harder bar (its called soleseife in German).  Salt is supposed to produce a nice lather and a soft, soothing soap.  I sprinkled larger lumps of salt on top the exfoliant bar.  See below for the recipes adapted for tallow.


eight acres: problems with making soap with salt
It looked good in the moulds!

Everything went well until I came to cut the soap.  I left it in the mould for a couple of days, as I usually do.  When we tried to cut the soap it crumbled.  No mater what we tried, the cutter than came with the cutting frame, a pizza cutter, a large knife, a serrated knife, a piano wire, NOTHING would prevent the soap from crumbling.  I had this problem with both versions of the salt soap.  So I asked Google, and find multiple references on forums to salt soap being VERY difficult to cut. That's when I realised that the two recipes I had consulted used individual moulds, so there was no mention of the fact that the salt soap would be impossible to cut.  This was my fault for not researching more thoroughly before jumping in to try a new recipe.  

I found this site was a good reference for salt soap, with the following advice: 
If you pour salt soap into a loaf mold, you have to monitor it closely and cut it before it gets to hard. This can be 4 hours after you pour or 8. Sometimes it is hard to tell when they are ready to cut.
More on salt soap here and here.

eight acres: problems with making soap with salt
We could not cut the soap without crumbling because it was so hard

Rebatching the salt soap
Next time I make these recipes I will use individual moulds.  But in the meantime, what to do about two batches of salt soap fail?  I still really wanted to try the salt soap!  There was some useful advice on this soap forum about how to recover from salt soap fails.

I decided to use the same method I used last time I had a soap disaster (more soap rebatch info here), and remelt the soap and put it in individual moulds.  It crumbled easily, so I was able to put it all in a double boiler, but it was taking SO long to melt I took it out of the double boiler and stirred it over the element (with added water this time rather than a new batch of soap - I didn't want to dillute the salt).  Anyway, it was pretty messy and didn't pour nicely into individual moulds.  In another wave of genius I decided to pop the moulds in the woodstove oven overnight, thinking that the soup would melt and smooth over.

I was very surprised to find that the soap rose (better than any baking!) and burnt a little on top.  Its hollow on the inside, but if I pick off the burnt bits, and squish it together I get a semi-normal chuck of soap.  So I finally got to try my salt soap and it is REALLY nice.  It does have a soft lather and I think it was worth all the effort.  I haven't remelted the batch with the salt exfoliant, so that might be less messy now that I've had some practice.


eight acres: problems with making soap with salt
soap muffins - risen nicely but a little burnt!

What have I learnt?
  • Salt make soap VERY hard and it must be cut very soon after pouring or poured into individual moulds - no cutting required
  • Soap can be rebatched, it takes ages to melt and never pours as nicely as the original
  • Don't leave soap in the oven to melt!  
  • I like salt soap, so I'll try this recipe again.
I thought I was going to run out of tallow with all this soap I've been making, but a friend gave us about 20 kg of beef fat in exchange for some welding work.  It didn't come chopped up though, we had to do that, but its lovely white kidney fat, so should make some nice soap.  We put it in the freezer until I have time to render the beef fat.



more beef fat

Salt soap recipe
In order to compare, I made both recipes the same, the only difference was that the soleseife had the salt dissolved in hot water which was later used to make the lye.  I used a high coconut oil content as salt tends to reduce the lather.  I only had 6% superfat, which is lower than recommended, so you might want to reduce the lye to 151 g for 8% superfat (because coconut oil can be drying), however I haven't noticed any problems with my version below.

250 g tallow
250 g olive oil
500 g beef tallow
155 g caustic
330 mL water
100 g salt - either added at trace or dissolved in the water and allowed to cool
Larger grain salt as decoration
Essential oils can be added (I wanted to try it plain at first)


Have you tried making soap with salt?  Any soap fails to share?

Monday, June 20, 2016

My favourite house cow blogs

I don't know many people in real life who have house cows.  A few acquaintances, but no good friends with whom I can talk regularly about cows.  Like many of my interests, I turn to blogs to find like-minded people who are happy to talk non-stop about cows, manure, hay, minerals, pasture, milking schedule and bottle-feeding calves!  As well as enjoying the topic of conversation, I also learn so much from these blogs, even though they are in different locations.  It seems like you can always learn more about house cows (aka family cows, dairy cows or milk cows).  I want to share my favourite house cow blogs with you today and I hope you can tell me about other sources of house cow information.  Read the rest over at my house cow ebook blog.




eight acres: my favourite house cow blogs
Bella and Molly working on pulling that hay bale apart

Buy my ebook "Our Experience with House Cows" on EtsyLulu and Amazon, or email on eight.acres.liz at gmail.com to arrange delivery.  More information on my house cow ebook blog.





Reviews of "Our Experience with House Cows"





Gavin from Little Green Cheese (and The Greening of Gavin)


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How I use herbs - Lemongrass

Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus is a fragrant tropical grass.  It can be grown in the sub-tropics and has many uses in the garden, as well as the kitchen.  There are a few different species and I note that Australia has a native lemongrass.  I think I'm actually growing the related Cymbopogon flexousus, due to the red stems of my plant, they all have similar properties though.


eight acres: how I grow and use lemongrass
dried lemongrass

How to grow lemongrass
Lemongrass grows in clumps and is easily propagated by division.  I got my plant from my father-in-law who has some prolific specimens in his garden near Bundaberg.  I'm not sure why my plant doesn't do as well, maybe I'm not watering it enough, or just in a slightly cooler climate here.  It does die back in frost, but regrows in spring.  Its in a drier corner of the garden, so it does well to keep growing even when I don't give it as much attention as I should.  

When lemongrass grows in thick clumps it can be useful for stabilising erosion and for protecting other plants from pests or small grazing animals (such as rabbits).  More information about using lemongrass in a permaculture food forest here.  It would also be useful as a mulch plant if it was growing well.


eight acres: how I grow and use lemongrass
its really hard to photograph grass

How to use lemongrass



Do you grow and use lemongrass?  Any tips?


My other posts about herbs:

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs - Lucerne (afalfa)

How I use herbs - Lavender

How I use herbs - Rosemary and Thyme

How I use herbs - Oregano or Marjoram

How I use herbs - Sweet Violet

How I use herbs - Gotu Kola


Monday, June 13, 2016

Choosing a woodstove for our new house

As you know, we love our woodstove in winter!  We use it to heat the house and cook food as soon as the weather is cold enough.  We have tried the Nectre Baker's Oven in a previous house and currently have the Scandia Cuisine in our house at Eight Acres.  In our secondhand house we are going to need a woodstove.  The house came with a wood heater, but we gave that to our neighbour in exchange for electrical work because we couldn't get building approval with it in the house (and we really wanted a woodstove instead).

eight acres: how to choose a woodstove for heating and cooking
our Scandia Cuisine

We are having trouble making a decision and this time of year I always get a few questions about woodstoves, so I thought I should just step through our options and pros and cons with you here and maybe you can add your experience so we can finally come to a conclusion!

Previous experience
I wrote about our woodstove experience back here.  I do want to add a few points since I wrote that post.  I have since realised that the Scandia Cuisine is really oversized for our house.  You can't buy the Cuisine anymore, but the Heat and Cook is similar and rated for heating 200 m2.  Our house is only 84 m2!  We find that to get the oven hot enough to cook we often have a fire so hot that we have to open windows to cool the house.  This is not a problem with the woodstove itself, but just a warning that you need to consider the size of your house and the rating of the heater when choosing a model.  If you get a woodstove that is too big you will use more fuel to get the oven hot and may have to overheat your house to really make use of the oven.  The size of this woodstove does mean that we can keep it burning overnight or during the day while we are away and the house stays toasty warm.  We have also found that the size of the oven is perfect as you can fit larger roasting dishes and cook a whole meal in there.  And I love the ash pan for cleaning out the firebox, that is a really good feature for cleaning the firebox without getting ash everywhere.

The other aspect to consider is installation, as I wrote back here.  Woodstoves are heavy, so you need a plan for getting them into the house, and the smaller ones are definitely easier to maneuver.  You also need to have a suitable place to put the woodstove - the hearth requirements will be specified for the heater, and you need a long enough flue to get a good draft going (this works better if you can put it near the roof peak, we put the Cuisine at the low point of the roof, so we have a very long flue poking out and its difficult to access it for cleaning).

Woodstove options
We are planning on putting a woodstove in the lounge of our secondhand house.  We get winter overnight temperatures below freezing for 3-4 months of the year and we have a property with plenty of firewood as the previous owner was a fencer and left piles of felled trees from the 20 years that he owned the property and cut down trees for fence posts.  We need winter heating, and we have a sustainable source of fuel, so it makes sense to install a wood heater to keep us warm.  If we are going to burn wood for heating, we like to also use it for cooking, so another woodstove is our preference.


the wood heater than came with our secondhand house


It will probably in the corner rather than the middle of the wall as it was previously, we've already plugged the hole in the ceiling and replaced the roof, so it doesn't matter if we move it.  The main area (lounge and bedrooms) is 70 m2, and the entire house is 130 m2 (including the bathroom and side veranda).  We need to take into account the lack of insulation in the walls and the older wooden windows in some rooms, which are not as well sealed as new aluminium windows, so a slightly larger heater would be a good idea.  Our house at Eight Acres is relatively new (c. 1997) and has insulation in the walls and ceiling, as well as new windows (although I do notice draughts under the doors) and we really notice that it was easier to keep warm than our previous draughty Queenslander.  I expect that the secondhand house will need a bit of extra heating to make up for the lack of insulation and extra darughts, but we are trying to seal it as much as possible and have insulated the ceiling.

As I said, Scandia have stopped making the Cuisine.  We could try to take this woodstove with us and replace it with a wood heater, however after the ordeal of moving the 248 kg woodstove into the house, I would prefer to leave it behind!  And I think its going to be bigger than what we need anyway.  Scandia now make a similar model called Heat and Cook, which is available from Bunnings.  Jane from Our Aussie Off Grid Heaven has written about her Heat and Cook experience here.  It looks like a good woodstove and from what I've read (and discussed with Jane via email) they are happy with it so far.  If you have a large (or poorly insulated/draughty house) this would be a really good option.  If you are interested in this model I suggest you visit Jane's blog and ask her any specific questions.

Nectre still make their Baker's Oven, which I see now is rated to heat about 90 m2, so it probably would have been perfect to heat our current house!  Thermalux make a Gourmet cooker, which is rated for 80 m2.  I'm wondering now if these are both a little small for our secondhand house though, and I really would like a larger oven again.  If you have a small house, or just a few rooms to heat, theses two options would be ideal.

Another model is the Eureka Cooker, rated for heating 120 m2.  It only weighs 180 kg, so its relatively manageable and looks to have a decent size oven.  I have asked Eureka for more information about the oven size.  Pete is also concerned that its not fully cast iron.  Cast iron is heavier, but more durable and holds heat for longer.  Our old Scandia is cast iron and so is the Thermalux from the photos (although not the top of the Thermalux we think).

The other thing I haven't discussed is that these cookers are "an investment" at $2000-3000 each.  You can get small woodheaters for around $1000, so its more expensive to get the oven, but you then have more flexibility to use the heat for cooking and not use as much electricity or gas.  If you have to pay for firewood anyway, you are using it twice if you can also cook with it (however, if you are paying for firewood, there may be a more economical way to heat your house).  Some of the models can also be connected to preheat your hot water (not sure if the Eureka has this option, but looks like the others do), which can also be useful for off-grid houses.

If we choose a new woodstove, want to see it in person before we buy it.  The two previous woodstoves we ordered over the phone and didn't see them until they arrived at a transport depot for collection!  It would be nice to have a good look at it before we buy it this time, however it can be difficult to find them in stock in Queensland.


I haven't made a definite decision, but I'm closer than I was before I wrote this post!  Please share your woodstove experiences!  Are there other models available that I haven't mentioned?  Which ones have you tried and which ones do you recommend?


Some other woodstove links from around the web

Why you need a woodheater and why you may as well use a woodstove if you're going to get a woodheater anyway.  Woodheaters vs woodstove (in case you're not convinced yet!).

If you have a woodheater without an over, you can cook in the firebox.

How to clean your firebox while the fire is still burning, and other maintenance instructions.

Some basic information about using a woodstove for cooking.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Save the bees?

This might seem like a weird question, but are you sure we need to "save the bees"?

I keep seeing images like the one below and I feel that the message is a little simplistic and may be causing some confusion.

SavetheBees_graphic
image source: https://themuseinthemirror.com/2015/06/07/bee-kind-and-save-the-bees/

First let me say that I absolutely support the concept that we need to save our pollinators, of which honeybees are one species.  In Australia we have lots of native bees and wasps (and flies!) that also pollinate, and these insects should also be considered in this discussion.  We do not rely on introduced honeybees alone to pollinate crops and wild plants.

The quote from Albert Einstein seems to have been mis-attributed, which makes sense as I don't think bees were really an area of expertise (he was smart, but he didn't know everything!).  Whether there would be "no more plants" is also debatable.  Many plants are not pollinated by honeybees or any insects, in particular grains and grass (which feeds beef).  Our diets may be limited, but we would not starve completely.  

Ironically the photo shows honeybees flying over a field of canola - a GM monoculture that doesn't really feed us at all, and is likely sprayed with chemicals that will actually harm the bees.  The photo below shows signs next to (what I assume are) conventionally grown monoculture crops, again, these are likely doing more harm than good for bees and other pollinators.  Also tomatoes are self-pollinating...  


10398021_10152191201093202_7047314906365464279_n
image source:  https://themuseinthemirror.com/2015/06/07/bee-kind-and-save-the-bees/

I don't mean to be completely negative here, I just find these images, which are shared widely on social media, don't really tell the whole story.  Maybe they are more relevant in Europe where bees are native, but in Australia we need to consider our native pollinators too.  I do agree it would be awful if we had to resort to hand-pollinating our orchards, as has happened in parts of China due to intensive monoculture farming reducing native pollinator populations.  After seeing a massive improvement in the yield of pumpkins and capsicums in my garden since having a honeybee hive nearby, I see first-hand the advantage of healthy pollinators, they are certainly worth saving.  I think we need to be clear about what we are saving bees from....

Commercial beekeeping and industrial agriculture are inextricably linked.  Monoculture crops are pollinated by bees temporarily moved to the area by "migratory" bee keepers who are paid for pollination services.  The bees are fed antibiotics to help them survive on the limited diet available, while farmers continue to use pesticides and herbicides that affect the bees. Native pollinators cannot survive because there is nothing for them to eat, with weeds and wildflowers eliminated.  The only way we can save bees and other pollinators is to change the way we farm, not one beehive at a time.


image source: http://www.simpleorganiclife.org/


This what I think you need to know about pollinators in Australia:
  • We need to save all pollinators, including honeybees, because they are essential for the life cycle of many plants, including those that we eat.  We should do this for the good of the ecosystem in general and not just for our own self-interest (or for industrial agriculture/ commercial beekeepers to benefit).
  • Support organic small-scale agriculture - the two things that are affecting the survival of pollinators are chemical sprays and lack of habitat due to monoculture agriculture (everything flowers at once and then there is nothing to eat, pollinators need a variety of flowers including weeds to feed them throughout the year).  We need to support small farms that don't spray chemicals and that grow a variety of crops to provide lots of food for pollinators.
  • Plant flowers in your garden, particularly trees and shrubs which will provide a large number of flowers at once, and let your veges and weeds flower too, bees love thistles!
  • Create places for native bees and wasps to live - build a solitary bee/wasp hotel (I have started one, will post photos when I finish cutting all the bamboo).  you can encourage native pollinators without needing to keep a honeybee hive.
  • Think twice before you get a honeybee hive yourself if you're not going to have the time to really care for it, you will not be saving the bees if your hive is not healthy or doesn't have enough food for itself - as Rusty from Honeybee Suite says:
"I believe that if you truly want to save the bees, you can be more effective by tending the environment than by tending a hive. You can do both, of course, but you cannot ignore the real problem. Bees and flowers co-evolved and remain co-dependent. If we want to save the bees—any bees—we must first save the flowers."

eight acres: do we need to save the bees?


What do you think?  What are you doing to save the pollinators?  

Monday, June 6, 2016

Crochet socks

I finished my pair of crochet socks, using some lovely New Zealand wool.  I found that crocheting socks is easier than knitting socks.  I do really struggle to get knitting started on three needles and I didn't have to worry about dropping stitches.  Here's my knitted sock pattern in case you prefer knitting.  For the crochet socks I used this pattern, and I mostly followed the instructions.  I hate having to follow them and not really knowing what will happen.  Turning the heal was a wild ride on the first sock, I just had to trust the pattern and I had no idea what would happen!


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step


To make things a bit easier for myself next time I want to crochet some socks (and for anyone else who wants to follow that pattern), I made another sock with different coloured wool for each section so you can see how the pattern forms into socks.  It reminds me of an Ugly rugby jersey with all the different colours.  

Step 1: the ankle
This is crocheted as a rectangle that is later folded in half and sewn together to form the top of the sock.  Chain as many stitches as you need to get the length of the sock from your angle upwards.  Then crochet back and forwards until the rectangle wraps around your ankle.  The key is to keep your crochet neat and square.  My first attempt was not a rectangle, so I had to unravel and try again, otherwise it won't sew up neatly.  The pattern says to sew the seam together at the end, but I hate sewing things at the end, it seemed quicker and easier to just crochet it up when I was ready, I used single crochets to join the seam.  It does for a bulky seam, but these are bed socks, so it doesn't matter, then the seam is done and you can keep going without cutting the yarn or having to come back to it later.

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
Start with a chain as long as the sock ankle needs to be

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
try to form a neat rectangle

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
sew the ends together when it fits around your ankle

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
like this
Step 2: the heel flap
For this part you start working around the sock in each of the gaps left between stitches in the ankle.   I think this part is easier if you've already sewed up your seam.  When sewing around you are supposed to do a chain at the end of the row to step up to the next row, but I always forget where my rows are, its much easier to just keep going around and for a sock it does't really matter.  The pattern says to go around twice, I think I went around a few more times, the main thing is to remember what you did one the first sock if you want the second sock to look the same (mine are different!).

When you've gone around enough times you want to start crocheting a flap at the back of the sock.  Assuming you want that seam at the back, I just fold it in half with the seam at the back and judge where the flap needs to start, then instead of going around, you crochet back and forth for a while.  The pattern says 12 rows, but I always lose count, so best to try on the sock and make sure that the flap reaches the length of your heel.


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
starting the heel flap

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
the heel flap


Step 3: Turning the heel
This is when things get a bit wild, but stay with me, its not hard, its just weird and it works.  I should have taken more photos here.  Basically you just crochet across 15 stitches and then turn and crochet 6 stitches, so you send up in the middle of the heel flap with only a few stitches.  Now you are going to go back and forth over those middle stitches and at the end of each row you pick up (by crocheting together) a stitch from the first two rows of the turning part.  This means that you are creating a cup.  The first time you do this you might just have to follow the pattern exactly, but then you will see how it works and it won't seem so weird.  (Sorry I didn't take more photos for this step!)


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
turning the heel

eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step


Step 4: The gusset and foot
When you finish turning the heel you will have way too many stitches for the foot, so you have to gradually decrease the number of stitches.  First do a row right around the foot, where you will be picking up up all the stitches you left behind to do the heel.  Now you keep going round and decrease on both sides of the foot at the corner where the heel flap separated from the heel rounds (in this case where the blue wool forms a corner).  Keep going around and decreasing until you have only 58 stitches or the sock fits your foot.  Then you can stop decreasing and just keep crocheting around until the sock is long enough to start the toes (usually when it hits the base of my little toe).


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step


Step 5: Toe shaping
To shape the toe you need to decrease on both sides of the sock at top and bottom (4 decreases in each round) every second row.  I use old twisty tags as markers and decrease each side of the tags as I go around.  Keep trying on the sock so you know how long it needs to be.  I reckon you could even go two rows between decreases for a nicer shape.  At the end I just crochet the top, again its a bulky seam, but its quick and easy. 


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step


eight acres: crochet socks step-by-step
one completed ugly sock

What do you think?  Have you ever crocheted a sock?  Did you think it was easier than knitting?  Are you going to give it a try?

Previous posts about knitting and crochet:

Learning to knit and "mancrafts" 


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