Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Learning to Make Soap at a Chickens-in-the-Road Workshop

This past Saturday I took a bit of a break from our farm and headed over to Sassafras Farm for a soap-making workshop.  Because getting really dirty is something I do quite well, I thought that making my own homemade soap with my goat's milk would be a useful and fun addition to my list of skills.  Don wasn't particularly interested in making soap but when he heard there was going to be FOOD, he became a very willing participant.  We were accompanied by three wonderful folks who traveled all the way from Indiana to participate as well.  As a side bonus, Suzanne also taught a canning class where we made some apple-maple jam and some roasted garlic jelly. But, back to soap.  Making soap is a fascinating process where you combine fats with lye (sodium hydroxide for bar soap).  Triglycerides present in fats and oils undergo hydrolysis, which is simply a reaction where water is added to a substance to break a chemical bond.  In soap making this reaction is called saponification and the reaction produces glycerol (glycerin), fatty-acid salts and heat (exothermic).  The fatty-acid salt is soap. When the proportion of lye to fat is correct, all the sodium hydroxide (lye) is converted to glycerol and soap.  No caustic products remain. Because glycerin is hygroscopic (attracts water) it acts as a natural skin moisturizer.  In commercially made soaps, the glycerin is chemically removed because it is a valuable by-product.  Home-made soaps are generally very gentle and moisturizing for skin, because home-made soaps retain the glycerin and often contain beneficial herbs as an additive.

The saponification process requires heat to complete.  There are two basic processes for making real homemade soap.  One is cold-process where saponification uses the heat generated naturally during the reaction  to complete the conversion to soap.  In this method, the soap must cure for 5 or 6 weeks in order for the reaction to continue to completion.  We made soap using the hot-process method which uses applied heat (in this case a crock pot) to allow the reaction to complete in a matter of hours.  The soap from the hot-process method is ready to use in a matter of days.

I'm not going to go into details on the soap-making process but the steps are fairly simple for hot-process soap.

1.  Measure all the fats and oils and place in crock pot to melt.
2. Go outside and measure the lye crystals into a container.  It is best to wear gloves and goggles because lye is a caustic substance.  Here I am observing another workshop participant do it first.

3.  Measure the liquid needed, be it water or milk, into a stainless or glass (heat proof and non-reactive) container.

4. Carefully and slowly add the lye crystals to the liquid.  It will get very hot.  In this case I added it to partially frozen goat milk.  The reaction caused the milk to turn yellow.

5a.  Go put 10 goats back in their yard because they got out and are all on the porch now (at my farm not Suzanne's).
6.  Stand by the lovely mural in Suzanne's studio and slowly pour your lye mixture into the melted fat.

7.  Stir with a stick blender until the mixture comes to trace (gets like pudding and the blender leaves a trail).

8.  Go eat while the mixture cooks. I may have that step out of order but we ate a lot (and often).
9.  Periodically check the crock pot.  Once the mixture resembles lumpy mashed potatoes the saponification reaction is completed or nearly so, and it is time to test the pH.

10.  The pH can be tested by using phenothaline drops, a pH test strip or by the tongue-zap method.  At the workshop we used the sensible drops and the pH strips.  Knowing me I'll probably use the tongue-zap test.  Basically you touch your tongue to the soap-to-be and if there is any unreacted lye, it tingles the tongue.  It is prudent to try this only if the soap cooking is near completion.  NEVER try this with cold process soap!!!  In the photo below the upper sample shows a pink spot where the phenothaline reacted with the lye indicating the cooking process must continue.

11. Once the cooking is completed, the mixture is transferred to a stainless steel bowl.  At this point you can add things like oatmeal, colorants, fragrances and the like.  Everyone in the workshop chose really yummy smelling fragrances such as red currant and a heavenly smelling lemon/lavender combination.  Well, um except me.  I chose a rather pungent "bug-be-gone scent" since I am usually either itchy or soon-to-be itchy from assorted bug bites.  After the additives are mixed in , the soap is put into a  mold for a day or so.  We all used Pringles cans.  They work great but must be destroyed unmolding the soap.  All you Pringles eaters out there ...SAVE ME YOUR PRINGLES CANS!

The photo below shows my finished soap.

Suzanne's workshop was a blast and I would encourage anyone interested in learning country skills to visit her amazing blog and take a class from one of her many offerings.  You won't be disappointed.

If you want to see lots of pictures from our workshop day also visit the blog WaterFlourYeast&Salt.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Blue cheese experiment - now defunct

Back in early June I started a homemade blue cheese experiment that you can read about here.  I'm sorry to report that the cheese died, probably as a result of the great derecho storm on July 26th.  I had trouble maintaining the proper temperature in my cheese cave, partly due to the excessive outside temperatures and partly due to our intermittent generator power.  Oh well.  Maybe next time.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Gone Fishin'

This past week we made our annual visit to Hampshire County, WV to fish and kayak on the beautiful South Branch of the Potomac.  We visited with my best friend from grade school and her husband (love you too G) who now live in Maryland.    Her sister has a wonderful cozy cabin just a mile or so from the river so we have a great place to stay ( thank you K!!).  Some years we float the 6 mile "trough" but this year the water level was down a bit so to avoid dragging our kayaks through numerous riffles, we opted to launch at the Trough General Store and fish the section just below the trough.  We were fortunate to see bald eagles, herons, and ducks and I saw a mink scamper along the rocky shore.  As usual, the fishing was great for smallmouth bass and the weather was HOT but we tried to avoid the hottest part of the day on the river and hang out in the air-conditioning in the late afternoon...not something we have the option to do at home so it was a treat.  Pictures say it best though.

Getting ready to launch.

Gazing wistfully up-river towards the end of the "trough".

My smallie...it was bigger than it looks?

Don's smallie...it WAS big.
Action photo.

Here are a  few photos from a previous trip down the trough.  The trough, a 6-mile-long gorge with limited access is a famous section of the South Branch.  There is no vehicular access along this stretch so there it is a pristine float. The Potomac Eagle Railroad offers scenic trips along the gorge for those who can't or don't want to take a float trip.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

June Veggie Garden

I had planned to do another veggie garden update for June a bit earlier but the week-long power outage put an end to those plans.  But I thought I'd go ahead and do it anyway even though it is now mid July.

 The green onions are starting to form bulbs and mature.
 The cucumbers are starting to climb. A second planting of Early Sunglow corn is coming up in the background.  It got mulched too.
 My "no-hoe" experimental corn patch that I mulched is growing nicely despite the lack of rain.  Mulch is great!  Don doesn't have to hoe now so he is just posing for the camera.
 A few tomatoes that we started in the greenhouse and set out with blooms already going are starting to ripen.  I think this is a Park's Whopper.  We have  some heirlooms too.
Peppers apparently love the hot weather we had and are setting fruit like crazy.  This is the earliest we have ever had peppers.  This is a Giant Marconi, a sweet Italian type.
By the end of June we had harvested all our early lettuce and have new lettuce growing under some shade.

 Pole beans (white half runner) are starting to climb.
 My sweet potatoes are sending out their long vining tentacles and will soon cover the garden.  I'm trying to keep the mulch ahead of them to control weeds.
 Some old gates work well for tomatoes and the rest of the tomatoes are starting to grow.
My bush beans got off to a slow start but are growing well now.

Thing will really take off during July so stay tuned!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Derecho Power Outage

It has been a very interesting week following the Derecho that blew through the mid atlantic region on Friday June 26th.  Our power, along with countless others, was off for 8 days. We were fortunate not to have any damage on our farm nor did we have any major trees blown down.  Others were less fortunate.  I blogged some months ago (The Quest for Power, January 10, 2012) about our generator setup. Briefly, it is a 7000W portable generator converted to run on our wellhead natural gas.  It is wired to our service panel and with judicious flipping of switches, will power everything in our house...just not all at once. We installed it in fall 2011 and because of our mild winter this past year, we did not need to use it until now.  We started the outage with 0.5 hours on the meter and ended it with 95 hours.  I figured that by using natural gas, we saved about 10 5-gallon cans of gasoline (which was largely unavailable) and a lot of refueling.  We are very fortunate here to have that set up.  The only thing we did without was internet because I was afraid to plug my computer and modems into generator power.  I managed - somehow. 

Natural gas regulator.