Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts on soap making



When writing the soap making section of Homegrown and Handmade, I decided to look at some articles and do some online searches and see what others have written about making soap. To be completely honest, I was a little nervous about writing on the subject because lye can be pretty dangerous stuff. On the other hand, I didn't want to scare people so badly that they would be too worried to even attempt making soap. I wondered how I could reach a happy medium -- stay safe, but don't be paralyzed by fear!

There is really only one word to describe how I felt about some of the articles -- horrified! You see, I haven't looked for soap making information in at least six or seven years. I've simply been making soap. I went to a couple of conferences five and six years ago, and I learned a lot from those experiences. Although soap making has been gaining in popularity, it never occurred to me that novices might be writing and videotaping all sorts of things and publishing them online for everyone to see and read. Some of these articles and videos are good, but some are really scary. I wonder if some of these people have actually ever made soap, or if they're just copying info they read somewhere, because some of the recipes I found would create a very poor quality soap.

When you are just learning something and reading about it online, it is hard to know what is accurate and what is not. So, here are a few tips on making soap, in case you want to do it after reading about it online. First, get a digital scale, and don't even consider a recipe that does not include exact weights of oils and lye. Yes, I know our ancestors made soap without a digital scale, but they didn't buy any of their ingredients, so when they wound up throwing out batches, it was only their time that was wasted. In a letter, John Adam's niece once lamented that she had to make three batches of soap one time before she got one that was any good. And the inexact method used a hundred years ago is also why "lye" soap has a reputation as being so bad for your skin.

Do NOT try to make your own lye. While I think it is fascinating that our ancestors made their own lye from ashes in their fireplace, it was a VERY inexact science, and it took years to get the experience to make a decent batch of soap. Yeah, if an egg floats in the lye solution, it's "good enough" to make soap, but how much of the egg should be floating above water? A floating egg is not exact. And if the egg didn't float, you're supposed to run the water through the ashes again. Well, how do you know if it's too strong then?

Do NOT use a recipe that is inexact. That means don't use a recipe that says to use "one can of lye" -- what size can? And one thing I learned early in my soaping days is that a 12 ounce can of lye NEVER had 12 ounces in it. It usually had more -- often as much as half an ounce more, which is enough to take you from a gentle soap to a caustic soap.

That also means that you should not use a recipe that says something like "5 cups oil." There are two things wrong with this. First, you should weigh your oils, not use measuring cups, because weighing is more precise, and saponification values are based on weights of oils, which are different than volume. Second, every oil has a different saponification value, so you should use more or less lye, depending upon the type of oil you use. And this takes us back to the above rule -- I have never seen a saponification chart for homemade lye, so you would totally be winging it to know how much oil to use with homemade lye.

While most of the bad advice fell into the "too relaxed" category, one thing I saw on several sites went way over the top with precision -- saying that the lye and oils have to be the exact same temperature when you mix them together. I never saw that advice when I started making soap, and I know it's not true, because I used to do soap demos in a park, and my lye and oils were not even close to the same temperature. But out of curiosity, I made five batches of soap one day, and  I actually took the temperature of the lye and oils, which I haven't done in about seven or eight years. In the first batch, I mixed them together when they were both 105 degrees. As typically happens when I'm soaping -- because I take all of the milk out of the freezer when I start -- with each subsequent batch, the frozen milk got more and more thawed, and by the end, my lye mixture was 140 degrees, and the oil was still 105 degrees. When you start with less-frozen milk, the lye mixture gets hotter, which means trace happens faster. Trace is the term used to describe the soap mixture when it is the consistency of pudding and is ready to pour into the molds. So, it really is not important to have the oil and lye at the same temperature. It is important, however, that the temperature will not be more than about 120 when they are mixed together, simply because you could wind up with a batch that seizes. Seizing is the term used to describe the soap mixture when it turns into mashed potatoes, at which point it is impossible to get it into a mold. It won't be pretty, but it will still turn into soap.

So, what's so bad about telling people the oil and lye have to be same temperature? It's too hard, and when you make it too hard, people mess up. I read about one woman whose husband came in and drank her lye mixture that was sitting on the counter cooling. (She'd left the room.) There is another story of a woman who was waiting for her lye mixture to cool, and her toddler grabbed it and dumped the whole pitcher on himself -- yes, he had serious chemical burns all over his body and in his eyes. And one of my former soap students let her lye mixture get too cool, so she put it in her microwave to heat it back up, and it blew up her microwave. Please note, I did NOT tell her they needed to be the same temperature. So, in the book and in my classes, I am telling people that they do NOT need to get the lye and oils at the same temperature, because that kind of perfectionism just causes problems.

Making your own soap is a lot of fun, and the product is more gentle than anything you can buy in the store. But you have to be sure that the recipe you use is accurate. In addition to following the above rules, you should also double check the amount of lye in a recipe by using an online lye calculator like the one at Majestic Mountain Sage or Brambleberry. It is always possible that even the most knowledgable soap maker could accidentally type in the wrong amount of lye when writing down a recipe.

Complete soap making instructions and recipes are included in Homegrown and Handmade, and from time to time, I'll post additional thoughts on soap making here on the blog.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Spiced pear butter

Last year was the first year we ever made pear butter, and it was the first time I ever ate pear butter, which I discovered is delicious. I especially like a couple tablespoons added to a bowl of oatmeal. In fact, I'm not a big fan of jams and butters on toast or biscuits, so the vast majority of our canned fruits find themselves in oatmeal or yogurt.

6 to 7 pounds pears
4 cups sugar
¼ t. ginger
½ t. nutmeg
½ t. cinnamon
¼ t. cloves
1 t. grated orange peel
1/3 cup orange juice

Wash, peel, quarter, and core pears. Put them in a pot with half a cup of water and simmer until pears are soft. Puree in a food mill. You can also use a food processor, but be careful that you don’t turn it into total mush. Put two quarts of pear pulp and the sugar in a big pot and stir until the sugar disappears. Add the spices and cook the mixture until it is thick, stirring often to prevent sticking. When you scoop up a spoonful, it should just sit there, rather than dribble off. Once the pears have turned into butter, fill the hot jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Place lids on jars and tighten gently. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's breeding season!


If you want to milk your goat, she has to have kids, and before she has kids, she has to get bred. People with goats usually don't let their buck run with the does, even if they have only one buck, because he would make the girls stinky, which would make stinky milk that has a terrible taste. That means you have to know when the does are in heat, so you can set them up on a date with Mr. Right. Most dairy goats are seasonal breeders that give birth in the spring, which means they will come into heat in the fall. Nigerian dwarf goats are one exception. Some of them will cycle for most of the year, although there are no guarantees, and I don't count on being able to breed them for fall kidding because it doesn't always work.

So, how do you know when a goat is in heat?

Having a wether (castrated male goat) can really be helpful. Even after nine years I keep a wether with my does, and he lets me know when a doe is in heat, even when they are not showing some of the obvious signs listed below. Wethers don't know that they're not real bucks, so when a doe is in heat, he'll mount her, and if the doe will stand for him, that means she is in standing heat. If the doe runs off or starts to butt heads with the wether, they're probably close, so you can keep an eye on them for the rest of the day.

Sometimes does will mount each other when they're in heat, but it can be like a free for all with them. Usually the one being mounted is the one in heat, especially if she is standing for it. If a doe is mounting other does, and they're running away, then the one doing the mounting is probably in heat.

Flagging is a sign of heat -- that's goat speak for "tail wagging." It's really constant when they're in heat. My milking parlor felt five degrees cooler last week when I was milking a doe that was in heat. She was flagging the whole time. I think they do that to get the smell out there so that bucks will know they're in heat. It isn't anything that humans can smell, but it's obvious that bucks love it because they sniff the doe's back end a lot  and do the lip curl.

A small number of goats will get very vocal -- pretty much screaming their head off all day -- but you can't count on that. Maybe one out of every seven or eight does will do that.

The vulva may look slightly puffy, and there could be a tiny amount of white or clear discharge. It's not usually enough that you'll notice without looking, so you have to make a conscious effort to check under the tail. If you happen to notice dried mucous causing the hairs to stick together on a doe's tail, mark your calendar for 18 days and start checking her for slight puffiness and discharge at that time for her next heat. They come into heat every 21 days.

Some goats may also get very violent, butting heads with everyone. In the middle of summer, our intern came to get me because Star, my 12 year old doe, was beating the snot out of everyone. She was facing off with three or four does at once. Because I have absolutely no desire to breed her, and because I was afraid she was going to get hurt, I just locked her up in the barn by herself for the day. Maybe one out of three or four does will act like this when they're in heat.

Like everything else, you'll get better at recognizing a doe in heat as time goes on and you get more experience. If you haven't noticed your doe in heat, and it's December, you might want to consider pen breeding, which means you put the doe in a pen with a buck for a month. The disadvantage to pen breeding is that you really don't know when the doe is due unless you get lucky enough to see the breeding.

From the time you breed your doe until the time she kids, it is usually 145 to 150 days, with Nigerian dwarf goats giving birth a little earlier than standard sized goats. Five months may not sound like a long time, but that last week or two can seem like an eternity when you're waiting to see those cute kids!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reusable canning lids


Like a lot of people, I was skeptical when I first read about Tattler reusable canning lids, but I'm quickly turning into a convert. We've used them now for pickles and pizza sauce, and they seem to be holding up well. Sixteen out of sixteen jars sealed so far. The plastic lids are food safe and do not contain BPA, which coats the inside of store-bought cans and disposable canning lids. Rather than having a skinny little seal as part of the lid, there are rubber rings that are separate from the lid.

They are used a little differently than the one-time-use lids. With the disposable lids, you are warned against tightening the rings after taking the jars out of the canner. The lid manufacturers are concerned that if you muscle down on the lid too much, you will press through the sealing compound on the lid and your jar won't seal. That is not a problem with the reusable lids though because the seals are quite thick.

And the icing on the cake is that they are made in the U.S. and the lids have a lifetime guarantee.
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