Category Archives: Good to Know

Making Your Own Soap

I have a problem. I am addicted to new hobbies. Its time consuming and expensive…..and so much fun! Last spring my husband, some friends of ours and I all went to Asheville, NC to attend the Mother Earth News Fair. We were all like kids in a candy store attending one talk after another ranging from composting, milk production, crop rotation, bee keeping, and my favorite of the weekend, soap making. Robin Bedford of Possum Hollow Farms (located in Perkasie, PA) gave a presentation showing how easy it was to make your own soap in only 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES! She made it look so easy and, as I mentioned before, I am always looking for a new hobby. I fell in love. We all left the Mother Earth News Fair motivated to be the best homesteaders we could be, full of new ideas and knowledge; I was especially motivated to get going on this soap making, hoping for a way to get Stout Grove on the map while we were still waiting for our previously planted blueberries and trees to produce, and to give me something to do in the spare time I don’t really have.

It took another month before I was able to gather all the supplies I needed (mainly sodium hydroxide – AKA lye) and the nerve to tackle this task that Robin had made look so easy. Ultimately I found out that the task is pretty easy in itself; it is the preparation and making sure that you have all of your ducks in a row to ensure that you are mixing your oil and lye solution in the correct ratio and that you won’t ruin any of your kitchen (or your personal self) with lye solution. Needless to say I was a little nervous my first go around. I also fell in love after my first go around and went out to the store to buy more oils so that I could make another batch that afternoon 🙂

The first thing to understand about soap is that there are few ingredients needed to make it, which is scary when you look at the huge laundry list (no pun intended) of ingredients on the back of your typical packaged soap from the store. Soap is essentially: Oil, water and lye. You can choose whatever mixture and ratio of oils you want depending on the different properties you want to come through in your soap. For example, olive oil is often used as the main base because it is cheap, easily available and makes a nice, hard moisturizing soap. I also really like coconut oil because it produces a nice lather and hard bar of soap. Each oil that is used in soap making has its own special properties and changes the make-up of the soap depending on the ratio of it used; it’s a whole science all on its own. Each oil also has its own Saponification value – meaning that you need X amount of lye to saponify (i.e. turn into soap) a certain amount of that oil. Depending on the ratio of different oils in a batch you will need a different amount of lye. If you are not careful and change your recipe a little bit, you can end up with too much lye and some very angry soap users. Luckily there are plenty of inline tools to help you through this.

Basic supplies you will need:

  • Kitchen scale – everything is measured in weight, not fluid ounces
  • A metal whisk
  • Rubber spatula/scraper
  • Thermometer
  • Stick blender – or you can use your whisk, but the stick blender will save you a lot of time and energy
  • 2 large heat resistant containers (1 for your lye/water solution, 1 for your melted oils) – keep these containers as your soap only containers – do not use them for food after
  • Soap mold – make sure you have this all prepared before you start making soap – something as simple as an old yogurt container or milk carton will do for your first time
  • Rubber gloves and clear glasses – SAFETY FIRST!
Get all of your equipment together: Mixing bowls, gloves, scale, lye, etc.

Get all of your equipment together: Mixing bowls, gloves, scale, lye, etc.

Very carefully measure out your lye by weight.

Very carefully measure out your lye by weight.

The mold I am using for this batch; it allows for a 2 color bar of soap with the divider in the middle.

The mold I am using for this batch; it allows for a 2 color bar of soap with the divider in the middle.

One of my favorite recipes to use makes a 45.00 ounce batch (I use a mold that is 3.5” X 2.5” X 14”) – which is a lot of soap. I suggest not starting off too big. That is another one of my problems. I tend to dive into hobbies. Go big or go home right?! For my first batch I took a recipe out of a book and made it. I had no idea how much soap it would make and what size containers I would need. When it came time to pour the soap in the mold I was running around the kitchen frantically trying to find more containers. I have since found conversion tools that help you know how much oil to use based on the dimensions of your mold. But you can’t learn if you don’t make some mistakes right? Below is my favorite recipe downsized a bit:

A 20 ounce batch for a mold that is 3.5” X 2.5” X 6” (or anything that you want to use that has the same volume) will make about 6 bars of soap:

  • 8.4 ounces – Olive oil
  • 5.4 ounces – Coconut oil
  • 5.4 ounces – Palm oil
  • 0.8 ounces – Castor oil
  • 2.8 ounces – Sodium Hydrozide (Lye)
  • 6.6 ounces – filtered water (preferably distilled or rain water)
I also used a dark beer instead of water for this batch, which is why my lye solution is so dark.

I also used a dark beer instead of water for this batch, which is why my lye solution is so dark.

Everything is measured in WEIGHT. This is very important since it allows you to be more accurate and make sure you do not have too high of a lye:oil ratio.

Put all of your measured oils together in 1 of your large containers (*note: Palm oil and coconut oil are solid and need to be melted. Palm oil is not homogeneous, so when you melt your container of it to measure out, you need to melt the entire container to make sure it is thoroughly mixed. Coconut oil, however is homogeneous and can be melted as needed). With your gloves and glasses on, measure your lye and water in separate containers (I use an old tupperware to measure the lye into and the other large heat resistant container for the water). Carefully add the lye to the water – NEVER add water to lye! One method I learned to remember is that “the snow always falls on the lake” meaning your white lye crystals need to fall into the water. Mix the solution together and don’t breathe the vapors (an open window is helpful). You will see the chemical reaction that is occurring – the solution is suddenly producing a lot of heat!

Slowly and carefully add your lye solution to your oils.

Slowly and carefully add your lye solution to your oils.

MIx

MIx

And mix some more until it becomes thick.

And mix some more until it becomes thick.

Ideally, you want both your water/lye solution and your melted oils to be the same temperature as each other and around 120° F. When you get this, slowly add the water/lye solution to the oil mixture while using your stick blender to mix them up. Be careful of splashing! Lye is not something you want to mess around with. You will notice right away that the mixture turns opaque and will quickly start to thicken up. This is called “Trace” when the mixture is thickened up. Ideally, you want a medium trace where the consistency is like pudding. If you want to add any colors or essential oils (make sure they are soap safe) add them now. When you have arrived at medium trace (about 3 minutes of mixing) pour your mixture into a mold and set aside. To help the soap cure, you want to help keep it warm so that it can achieve a “gel phase” during the next 24 hours. Wrap the mold up in an old towel and cover with some old cardboard.

I split this batch in half to make the 2 different colors.

I split this batch in half to make the 2 different colors.

And then added them to each side of the mold - after pouring them, I took out the center divider so it would be 1 bar of soap.

And then added them to each side of the mold – after pouring them, I took out the center divider so it would be 1 bar of soap.

Now comes the fun part of waiting and also cleaning up. Remember, there is a curing time needed for the lye to react with the oils before it is safe. You need to keep your rubber gloves on during the entire cleaning process! Using hot water and dish soap (anyone else see the irony?) wash all of your dishes and equipment thoroughly. As mentioned above, keep all of your soap making equipment separate from your food tools, etc. Also, if you have a septic tank, the lye can be harmful to your system. If this is the case, find another place to wash, or wait until the next day when the saponification reaction has occurred and the lye is neutralized. You can then wash like normal – some people say this is easier since the oils are no longer oily and are soapy instead.

Wrap your mold in an old towel and set aside to keep warm.

Wrap your mold in an old towel and set aside to keep warm.

Wait at least 24 hours before you unmold your soap. When you unmold it, be careful of any potential lye solution that didn’t mix with or react to the oil. Cut your bars into the desired size and let them sit out to cure for at least 4-6 weeks. The longer you wait the harder the bar will get and longer it will last in your shower, or next to your sink.

Enjoy! Let me know if you have any question or need help finding information about oils, figuring out how much oil creates how soap, where to buy products, etc.

Complete bar of 2-tone soap.

Complete bar of 2-tone soap.

Making Fondant for Your Bees

A new bee colony is like a small child. When it first shows up you are nervous as heck to hold them; you spend a good amount of time feeding them with little thanks; you worry about their safety and well-being and when it comes time to say good-bye to them (for the winter months), you want to make sure they are well fed and going to stay warm. After an entire summer of caring for and checking on your hive, it would be a terrible waste and huge bummer to come back in the spring and find that your bee-kids didn’t have enough food to get them through the winter months and you are left with an empty hive.

But it doesn’t have to come down to that! You don’t have to come back in the spring to find that your bees starved through the winter and didn’t make it. By taking just one final step of caring for them before saying goodbye for the winter, you can help ensure they make it through the cold, barren months. If you started the spring with a brand new colony of bees, you are probably no stranger to feeding them sugar water to get them through the slow start of spring and summer. Unfortunately with cold weather, the less you disturb your colony the better, not to mention that sugar water freezes in the winter! So what is the better winter solution? FONDANT! Not the fancy, expensive stuff you put on your cakes – the homemade kind. What you would expect out of a homesteader J

As I have mentioned in past posts, our queen bee was not doing her job all summer and our hive had barely produced any honey for them to live off of for the winter. Ideally you want to have 2 hive bodies filled with sugar plus a smaller honey super to get them through the winter. Our hive didn’t even have 1 full hive body. Not good at all. While we have had a top feeder on our hive for the last few months providing them with up to 1 ½ gallons of sugar water at a time (so long as it wasn’t cold enough to freeze), there still wasn’t enough stored honey to make us feel comfortable leaving them for the entire winter. Once winter comes around and temperatures are cold, you cannot get into your hive at all. Any extra stress, or blasts of cold air would definitely not help their survival.

Top feeder - where the bees can access 1.5 gallons of sugar water at a time from inside their hive.

Top feeder – where the bees can access 1.5 gallons of sugar water at a time from inside their hive.

In the end I referenced a few different sites, taking bits of information from each of them to create my recipe.

http://www.bamboohollow.com/fondant-recipe.php

http://www.honeybeesuite.com/how-to-make-fondant-from-table-sugar/

http://www.wolfcreekbees.com/bee_candy.pdf

http://www.colonialbeekeepers.com/index.php/faqs-mainmenu-25/76-how-to-make-fondant

The basic recipe is:

  • 4 parts sugar:1part water
  • ¼ tsp vinegar for each pound of sugar
  • Honey B Healthy

You will also need:

  • A large pot (we used a large turkey fryer pot)
  • A long handled spoon to stir with (splattering boiling liquid sugar on your hands is not a good time)
  • Accurate thermometer (this has always been the most frustrating thing for me. I have 4 different thermometers in my house and they all read different)
  • Hand mixer – a paint stirrer that attaches to a drill is ideal
  • Some time – depending on the size of your batch it may take a while for everything to come to temperature
  • Necessary ingredients: Sugar, vinegar, large pot and Honey B Healthy.

    Necessary ingredients: Sugar, vinegar, large pot and Honey B Healthy.

Some good tidbits of information:

  • 1 quart of water weighs approximately 2 pounds
  • The mixture should come to an initial boil at approximately 220 degrees

Since we needed so much fondant for our hive, we filled out top inner cover and 1-side of 6 super frames. For this we used 16 lbs of sugar and 2 quarts of water. We also used a turkey fryer outside in our barn to help keep down on extra steam in the kitchen…plus we just happened to be out there working anyway.

Directions:

  • Add the water to the pot and slowly add the sugar while stirring (the heat can be on at this point).
Slowly add the sugar to the water while mixing.

Slowly add the sugar to the water while mixing.

  • Add 1/4 tsp of vinegar/pound of sugar. This helps the sugar not crystallize too much and stay smooth. It also helps convert the sugar from sucrose into a glucose structure which is better for the bees.

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  • Bring to a boil while stirring often to make sure it doesnt stick and burn – this took us a little bit of time (but we were also using our turkey fryer with a really low tank of propane)
  • It should start to boil at around 220 degrees and turn clear.
Once the mixture comes to a boil it should turn clear.

Once the mixture comes to a boil it should turn clear.

  • Keep boiling until the water evaporates off and the temperature is 234 degrees (remember back to high school chemistry: Water with a higher concentration of particles in it (eg – sugar) has a higher boiling point and lower freezing point).
  • Cool the mixture down to 200 degrees – luckily we had a bunch of buckets outside collecting water which were half frozen – we dumped that water into a wheelbarrow and placed the metal pot in the water and it took no time to cool our mixture down. Keep stirring as the mixture is cooling down as it will begin to thicken.
  • Add the Honey B Healthy. I didnt know how much to add. There was only 1 site that mentioned using it and it said 1 cup/5 lbs of sugar which seems a little over the top considering you only use ½ tsp per gallon of sugar water in the spring and fall. Overall I added about 2 tsp for my entire batch.
  • Use the hand mixer or paint stirrer to whip the mixture. It will turn white and get thicker – it will also be cooling down as you do this.
Whip it.

Whip it.

Whip it good!

Whip it good!

  • Whip it until it is relatively thick. You want to be able to pour it but don’t want it slopping all over the place. It will cool pretty quickly once you start to pour it out. By the end my husband and I were using our hands to scoop it out and mold it into the last few frames.
Finished fondant on the inner cover and 2 frames.

Finished fondant on the inner cover and 2 frames.

  • Let the fondant cool and place in your hive when the weather is good.
The bees are already testing out the fondant on the inner cover.

The bees are already testing out the fondant on the inner cover.

The whole process is not too hard, just sort of time consuming while bringing it up to boil. We made sure that the frames were on top of wax paper so it didn’t make a mess, but the mixture was so thick we didn’t have too much leak out the cracks. Also make sure that you put some tape over the back side of the inner cover hole until the mixture cools, then you can punch out the hole so the bees can still crawl through and to help with ventilation. As another measure of precaution, we left our top feeder on the hive as well. While the sugar water in it may freeze over the winter, if there are warm days, it will melt and provide extra food for them. The top feeder is also nice because less cold air can get into the hive if you lift off the cover to fill the feeder quick.

And so now our waiting game starts. It won’t be until sometime in the spring that we are able to get into our hive and see if they survived through the winter; but at least if they don’t it wasn’t for lack of trying on our part.

 

Turning Logs into Lumber – Part II

So, after my last post about stacking saw milled lumber, you should all be experts in the first steps of getting ready to crank up that sawmill and get to work! When my husband and I realized that we would need to cut down a dozen trees where we planned to build our house, a friend mentioned having someone with a sawmill come in and cut them up into lumber for future building endeavors. As this idea started to morph and become its own beast, we suddenly became the proud new owners of a Wood Mizer LT15 sawmill. Why pay someone to do your dirty work when you can slave and sweat over it all summer long yourself? 😉 And so the story began where every spare moment was spent cutting down trees, cleaning up their tops, having huge bonfires, stacking loads of firewood and cutting lumber out of the wide bottom trunks.

The sawmill we own is a hand cranked and manually adjusted model where the log lies stationary on the mill and the human pushes along the gasoline powered ban saw blade, taking off slices of wood one by one, picking them up and moving them to the side. While not extremely hard, it was a loud and dirty process. I got more sawdust in my eyes that summer than I ever hope to get in there for the rest of my life combined. When we first started we also ran into the problem of how to get a round log into a bunch of rectangular pieces with the least amount of waste. On top of that, with a motor running and earmuffs protecting our hearing, it was pretty difficult to discuss with each other the best plan of attack for each log. Eventually we figured out a good system, and learned a new silent language we devised, composed of pointed, head nods and facial expressions.  We were on a roll.

Ready to go. Make sure your mill is on a level surface.

Ready to go. Make sure your mill is on a level surface.

The first thing you need is a plan for what dimension lumber you want cut. Without that already in your brain it makes it the whole process much more difficult. Coming into the process all willy-nilly just doesn’t cut it. Since we were building a barn with all of our wood, we needed wood in all shapes, sizes and lengths. Hmmm, lengths: that brings up another point I forgot to mention before. When you cut the length of your log, it is best to make it at least a foot longer than the lumber you need. For example, if you need 8’ long boards, you should cut your log to at least 9’ in length. This is in case the ends of the boards split while drying. Painting the ends of the logs before milling will also help keep the boards from splitting since rapid moisture loss (the main culprit in board splitting) is stopped with the paint barrier at the end.

Get the most out of your log.

Get the most out of your log.

The single most important tool you will need is a “cant hook”. A cant is the term for your log once the rounded edges are cut off and it is more square in shape. A cant hook is a simple tool with a hinged hook on one end that digs into the log while you use mechanical leverage to help roll the log. It’s pretty amazing and makes you feel super strong when you are able to move a humongous log by yourself.

A simple Cant hook

A simple Cant hook

So right now, you have your drying racks set up, know what dimension lumber you want, have cut the length of your log longer than necessary and have both ends painted, and you have your handy cant hook in hand. You are ready. Using your cant hook and some ramps (or the forks of a tractor if you are that lucky) get your log up and onto the sawmill! Ideally you want to have the narrower end of the log at the beginning of sawmill track; this allows you to have an idea of just how much the logs needs to get whittled down when you start the blade up.

Always wear your ear protection!

Always wear your ear protection!

This is how we went about making our round log into rectangular pieces with the least amount of waste:

The first cut you make should be shallow. Since the log is tapered and wider at the end of the log, starting with a ½” cut could still result in a 4” thick slab at the end, which can be pretty heavy and awkward to move.

Start making your cuts.

Start making your cuts.

After you make the first cut, you need to think: Do you need to make a second cut on this same side again? Remember that ideally you will end up with a square(ish) log with little bark remaining on it. Most likely you will need a second cut. Cut thickness can go in any increment that you want. If you are interested in cutting a bunch of 2” thick boards, then maybe your next cut should be 2” thick. It will take a lot off of your log, but the scrap could be set aside and trimmed into a board in the end.

A second cut to get enough bark off may be a good idea.

A second cut to get enough bark off may be a good idea.

Once you are satisfied with your top cut(s), get out your trusty cant hook and roll the log 90° so that you can trim off another side. Just like before, take a thin slice at first and then decide how much to take on a second cut. Continue this all the way around the log. When you get to the last side, remember what dimension lumber you want in the end.

You got to love leverage!

You got to love leverage!

Make that last cut to get your square cant.

Make that last cut to get your square cant.

Most likely there will be one or two sides of the log which will have more bark on it than the other sides. What size do you want your cant to be before you start taking slices off of it for your boards? Are you cutting 2”X6” boards? Then you should aim for a cant that is 12” in at least 1 of its dimensions since that will allow you to get 2- 6” boards. Are you looking for 1”X5” boards? Aim to have 1 side of your cant 10” so you can get 2- 5” boards out of each slice. Sometimes it is not that easy and you may have to mix and match your dimensions you end up with. Maybe a few 2”X6” boards and some 2”X4” boards if your log is only big enough for a 10” cant and not 12”. Remember to save any worthy trim pieces that could get trimmed into lumber at the end.

Make any last cuts to get your cant the right dimension and get rid of any last bark you don't want. Remember to save these trim pieces for the end!

Make any last cuts to get your cant the right dimension and get rid of any last bark you don’t want. Remember to save these trim pieces for the end!

Perfect 12"X12" cant.

Perfect 12″X12″ cant.

Once you have your cant to the right size, you will want to start double flipping your log after each cut. Since the tree you are cutting has been growing for decades under all sorts of conditions, it is likely that there will be a lot of tension in the heart of the tree. You will be able to notice this tension being released (much more in some logs than others) when you take your slices off and the board bows up. By flipping the log twice after each cut, you are alternating cutting from the top and bottom of the cant, releasing the tension in the log equally from both sides and hopefully cutting down on how much bow you have in your boards. As you cut your slices off each side, set them aside if they need to be cut in half again.

Taking a slice off 1 by 1.

Taking slices off 1 by 1.

Congratulations. You now have a stack of lumber! Do you still need to trim them up a little more to get your desired dimensions? Maybe you wanted a stack of 2”X6” boards but you currently only have 2”X12” boards. Don’t turn that sawmill off quite yet! Bring a few of the 2”X12” boards back over to the sawmill and lay them on their 2” sides stacked next to each other. Clamp them in place and set the sawmill blade at 6”. Now you have a bunch of 2”X6” boards. Remember all of the trim pieces that I told you to save? You can do the same thing with them too. Lay them on their sides and trim off the remaining bark to get usable lumber. Viola!

Lay the slices on their side and cut to the desired width.

Lay the slices on their side and cut to the desired width.

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Lastly comes my least favorite part: stacking the wood on those beautiful drying racks you already made and covering them with sheet metal and a weight to help them dry straight (I don’t know why but I really dislike stacking the wood. I think it is because when the sawmill gets turned off I think I am done for the day, only to realize there is still more work waiting). Wait a few months for them to dry. You can buy a moisture meter for pretty cheap to see how much water content is still in your boards. 10% is pretty darn good for air dried lumber. Now get to building something!

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*Another thing that we ended up doing was buy an hour meter for our mill. This helps keep track of how long your machine is running which is good for maintenance and resale purposes.

Turning Logs into Lumber – Part I

In past posts I have alluded to a sawmill that my husband and I bought last spring; one which took over our summer last year and resulted in us building a barn in the fall. With the exception of a few small sessions using it to trim up some boards, the sawmill hasn’t really been fired up since this winter when we cut wood for our chicken coop (remember when I wrote a post about how cold days and sawmills don’t work? Funny enough, a week after that post we cut most of the wood for our chicken coop….in the snow). The newest task which my husband and I have taken on is committing to cut all of the window and door trim as well as the baseboard for our house that we should be breaking ground on at the end of this month. Unfortunately, the sawmilling isn’t really the ambitious part of the project. All in all it took us 2 days to cut the 1,500+ linear feet of wood we need. What worries us is that in a few months, once this wood is dry, we need to send it through a planer, joiner and router to make them house-worthy trim. And to make matters even worse, we just realized yesterday that while we are plaining, joining and routering all of this wood, we will most likely be doing it in our barn….and if all goes well, by then we will have sold the house we currently live in and we will be living in the barn. See where I am going with this? Look for future posts discussing the trials and tribulations of that!

Wood, wood and some more wood.

Wood, wood and some more wood.

But really, how does one take a big ol’ log and turn it into usable lumber? The process is not really that difficult. It took us a little bit of time to figure it all out, become efficient and waste the least amount of wood as scraps, but after cutting enough wood for a barn we have gotten pretty good at it. It also took a few attempts to figure out the best method for stacking all the cut lumber; trial and error and re-stacking lots and lots of wood. And while we may not have been rock climbing as much all summer while we were stuck working, we still managed to stay in shape and “farm strong” from lifting so many boards.

Stacking Lumber

We had read many places the proper way to stack lumber: Make a level surface above the ground, place 1 layer of pieces of lumber on the surface with approximately 1” spaces in between the boards, place 1”x1” pieces of wood (AKA Sticker) on top of that layer perpendicular to the lumber to keep airflow, add another layer of lumber, repeat.  We created the stacks by using 6 cinder blocks (1 at each corner, and 2 at the center edges) and laying 2”x6” boards on their side (they are stronger that way) width wise on top of them. Make sure that the 2”x6”s are level, and that they are all the same elevation – these are what the lumber will lay on for the remainder of the time drying. See the illustration below.

Stacking Wood Diagram

What wasn’t specified strongly enough in everything that we read, some of which caused us great difficulties later, were a few things:

1)      Make sure your initial level surface above the ground is a few feet above ground to increase the amount of airflow moving through the pile of lumber from the bottom.

2)      Keep all lengths of lumber on the same stack. Since you will only have 3-4 bottom supports (i.e. the 2”X6” on the cinder blocks), it makes it difficult to put lumber that is shorter or longer than the stack on the pile. If you do, the end(s) of the lumber won’t be supported and will end up drying crooked.

 

Stacked maple. Note the stickers between each layer and evenly spaced.

Stacked maple. Note the stickers between each layer and evenly spaced.


3)      Keep all the same width boards on one stack, or if you really need to mix and match on a single stack of wood (e.g. having both 2”x4” and 2”x6” pieces), stack the same size wood vertically on top of each other. This will keep airflow moving vertically through your pile of wood. Ideally, you want to be able to see down to the ground between each piece of wood you stack. This is major thing that we did not do right and ended up forcing us to re-stack almost all of our wood after we noticed some had some black staining on it because it was not drying quickly enough.

4)      On the same note, keep boards of all the same thickness within the same stack row. The 1”x1” stickers used in between each row of stacked lumber not only help keep horizontal airflow, but they also keep weight from the rows above them on the stacked lumber to help them dry straight.  For example, you don’t want to have 1” thick boards stacked in the same row as 2” thick boards. The stickers will not be able to put any weight on the 1” thick boards and they will most likely warp when they are drying.

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Vertical and horizontal air movement is necessary for quick drying.

Vertical and horizontal air movement is necessary for quick drying.

5)      Have a heavy duty tarp, or better yet, sheet metal on hand to cover the wood. Rain on drying wood will not do it any good! Make sure that you have sufficient overhang on all 4 sides of your lumber stack and keep weight on top of it all to 1) keep the metal on the stack, and 2) to keep the boards from warping while they dry.

6)      Also, having your stacks of wood in a sunny, well ventilated place is good. Our stacks were under trees, but at the edge of the tree line so we still had a lot of good air flow to help dry them out quickly.

Always make sure to keep you wood covered too!

Always make sure to keep you wood covered too!

Once you have all of your drying areas set up it is time to start milling!! Stay tuned for the next post about the art of milling up your lumber.

Strawberry Jam

July 4th has come and gone in a whirlwind of playing, working, cooking out and blowing things up. Along with it has long ago pasted strawberry season in southern West Virginia. Fortunately for my cupboard void of strawberry jam, my husband and I had a trip to New York planned in late June where their season was coming to a close. Quickly I was reminded of one of the things I miss most about growing up in New York state – plentiful small scale produce stands and You-Pick farms lining the straight, flat rural roads. Before hopping back in the car for the 6+ hour drive home we stopped at one such place and picked until our fingers bled…or at least that’s what they looked like after the 12 pints of red, fresh, juicy, amazing smelling fruit we picked under the blazing sun. And while I may have been complaining that day about the sun beating down on my already partially burnt and freckled shoulders, I didn’t really care that much because the hot sun cooked the berries ever so slightly adding to the intoxicating smell of the fresh air surrounding us.

The farm we picked strawberries at goes on forever with lots of different fruits and vegetables.

The farm we picked strawberries at goes on forever with lots of different fruits and vegetables.

Alright, I need to stop. I really want some more of those strawberries, and alas, they are all gone; eaten or turned into jam. In the end we only turned about 6 pints into jam. On our way out of NY we stopped at my husband’s parents’ house where my parents also came to join for lunch and we gave them each 2 pints. We also gave another to our friends who watched our dog over the weekend; and before we could get enough time to make the jam a few days later, we devoured almost 2 other pints. It was so worth it.

Photo Jul 02, 8 04 05 PM

A few days after we got back from our trip I went out to buy more jelly jars since we used most of our other ones when making maple syrup and a whole lotta sugar. Why does jelly taste so good? Partly because of the awesome fruit that’s in it, but let’s be real folks, we all know it’s because of the loads and loads of sugar in it 😉 I also picked up a package of Sure-Jell Certo liquid fruit pectin to help jell up my jelly. You can also buy low or no-sugar pectin, but I just grabbed the first thing I saw this time.

So much sugary goodness.

So much sugary goodness.

Jam is super easy to make so long as you follow the recipe and don’t try to skimp on the sugar. My husband and I spent 15 minutes taking all the tops off the strawberries (putting the tops in another container to feed our plump little chickens later on) and placed them in a large pot to mash them up. This was always my most favorite part of making strawberry jam when I was a kid; taking the trusty old-fashioned potato masher and squishing the holy heck out of those juicy berries. After doing that and breaking them up a bit we measured out 8 cups of strawberries and placed them in a large stainless steel pot, turning the heat on medium and stirring occasionally. While getting the berries up to temperature, 14 cups of sugar (yep, you read that correct) were measured out and added to the fruit mixture. At this point it is helpful to add a little dollop of butter on top of your fruit. As the mixture starts to boil away it will create a foam on top of the pot; the butter helps keep this down. The foam is fine and still tastes good but it does make for a less-pretty jar of jam in the long run. We skimmed our off the top as it cooked and ended up saving it, using it for sandwiches and ice cream later on.  

After we brought the strawberry mixture to a strong, rolling boil (stirring constantly to make sure nothing burnt) the Certo pectin was added and the mixture cooked 1 minute longer. While all of this was going on, our canning pot full of water was coming to a boil and all of the mason jars we planned to use were in there getting sanitized. There was also a small pot of boiling water on the stove where our new canning jar lids were placed and warming up in. Then the fun began! While my husband ladled hot strawberry mixture into the clean jars, I took a wet towel and wiped the rim of to make sure nothing was there and getting in the way of the seal. On went a warmed up lid then a screw top over that to keep it tight. When all 18 of our jars were full, we placed ½ in the canner and boiled them (with 1” of water over the tops of the jars) for 10 minutes.

Ladling the fresh jam into jelly jars.

Ladling the fresh jam into jelly jars.

After they were all done boiling, we took them out and placed them on a towel to cool until the morning when we could check if they had sealed or not (100% success!!), although it did not take long until we started to hear the popping sound of the jar lids sucking down and sealing (what a great sound!). Now we sit and eat and wait until next spring when the strawberries come out….although blackberry season is picking up right now…..  😉

 

Finished product!

Finished product!

Photo Jul 04, 9 37 18 AM (1)

Here are more concise directions taken from the Certo box (What we made above was a double recipe):

  • Prepare and sanitize at least 8 jelly jars
  • Use 4 pints of whole strawberries
  • Discard the stems and crush the berries
  • Measure out 4 cups of crushed strawberries and place in a large pot
  • Add 7 cups of sugar and stir – add ½ tsp of butter on top to reduce foam
  • Bring mixture to a full rolling boil on high heat, stirring constantly
  • Stir in pectin and return to a full rolling boil – boil for 1 minute longer stirring constantly. Remove from heat and skim off any excess foam
  • Ladle jam into prepared (sanitized) jelly jars, leaving 1/8” of head space and making sure to wipe rim of jar with damp cloth to remove any jam residue that may have spilled
  • Take a new lid from a pot of hot water and place on top of the jar and screw on metal rim lid
  • Place the jars on an elevated rack in a canner and submerse them under boiling water (at least 1-2” of water above lid). Boil jars for 10 minutes (you may need to adjust depending on elevation)
  • Carefully take the jars out of the canner and place on a towel top-up to cool for 24 hours. Once cool, check to make sure the lids sealed by pressing on the middle of the lid – if it pushes down and springs up it has not sealed  – either process it again or put in refrigerator and eat right away.
  • Store on the shelf up to a year or opened and in the fridge for 3 weeks.

Check out the Sure-Jell website for more recipes and inspiration. Strawberries may not be in season anymore but plenty of other delicious fruit is!!

 

Pancakes!

So in celebration of an awesome second year making maple syrup I am going to share with your my mom’s pancake recipe. I know this recipe by heart, even though I don’t use it nearly enough anymore. Since I was a kid, I helped my mom make pancakes at least once a week. I think we have a small addiction 🙂 Add some crushed walnuts or, my favorite, chocolate chips, and you are ready to start the day on a fantastic sugar rush!

Mom’s Homemade Pancake Recipe

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 Tbs melted butter

Mix it all up, let it sit for a few minutes to get that baking powder working and voila! Who needs Bisquick?!

PS – Dont forget some fresh, homemade maple syrup!!

 

Photo Mar 30, 10 23 19 PM

Tree Tapping

With all the cold weather up north and the last snow storm that smacked the eastern half of the country a week ago, it’s hard to fathom that spring is around the corner. But I can feel it! Geese are flying north; more and more robins appear each day; I have heard a lone frog calling the past two nights down by our creek; and most importantly, we have tapped our maple trees for sap! I am sure that you have all indulged in the sugary treat known as maple syrup (and I hope its not of the flavored high fructose corn syrup variety), but few know of the actual process of turning the clear, slightly sweet sap that pumps through maple trees in early spring into the amber liquid we smother breakfast treats in.

  • Did you know that it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup? The sap is boiled and boiled and boiled some more to evaporate excess liquid, leaving us with the finished product.
  • While sugar maples (Acer saccharum) have the highest concentrations of sugar in their sap, silver maple, red maple and black maple are all good candidates as well – you just have to use a few more gallons of sap to get to your gallon of syrup.
  • A maple tree that is tapped for its sap, should be at least 10” in diameter – making it approximately 30 years old.
  • Sap collection season is short – as soon as it is warm enough to make the sap flow you can start collecting, but as soon as the buds on the tree break, the season is over since the sugar content of the sap suddenly decreased and changes the flavor of the sap.
  • After a tap is taken out of the tree at the end of the syrup season, it heals over on its own; a new hole, in a different location, will be drilled and used again the following year.
  • Each tap will produce an average of 10 gallons in a season – which equals about 1 quart of syrup.
The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

The start of our sap production in 2013. This all boiled down to enough syrup for one breakfast.

Growing up, my parents made maple syrup. Before last year I had never attempted it on my own. Before last year, I also never realized how little I had to do with the process growing up – I didn’t quite remember, or know, how the whole process worked. Luckily for me, tapping trees and making syrup isn’t super complicated. Last spring, after cutting down a tree that was in the way for our future driveway, we noticed that it was gushing sap out of the stump. Lightbulb!! We can tap trees!! We can make syrup!! So that’s what we did. Living in the “south”, people don’t really make maple syrup that much. How many times have you gone to a store and bought West Virginia Made Maple Syrup? My guess is none. Finding supplies on a short notice was next to impossible, so we improvised. After a quick trip to Lowes and 3 food grade buckets and 10’ of ½” tubing later, we were on our way! We picked out 3 maple trees on the edge of our tree line and slowly drilled a hole just big enough for the tubing to snuggly fit into. We shoved the tubing in the hole, drilled a similar hole in the lid of the bucket and put the other end of the tube in the bucket. Viola! Easy, simple, cheap. And it worked! Our small production of 2013 gave us a few pints of syrup to last through the year.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

2013 Sap collection with no spile. Simple and cheap.

This year we wanted to amp up production a little more. We decided that we would tap 10 trees instead of 3, and upgrade our evaporating method from a turkey fryer to a cinderblock contraption I will talk more about in my next post. My dad had bought a handful of spiles online and sent me ½ of them, so we would have a better seal on our trees. Spiles are small, hollow pieces of plastic or metal which are inserted into the drilled hole of a tree until they are snug. Either a tube can be pushed onto the other side of it to collect the seeping sap, or a hook is on the bottom side where a bucket can be hung to collect the drips. As I learned last year, they aren’t necessary, but make things a bit easier, tighter, and less wasteful.

Sap starts flowing in the spring and runs the best when days are warm (in the 40’s) and nights fall below freezing. The sap will run for about a month, but the best collection time is the beginning of the season when the sap is flowing strong and sweet. To collect the sap:

  1. Gather supplies: food grade buckets with lids (or some people use food grade bags), tubing that fits snug over the end of your spile, a drill (hand drill preferable, but not necessary – see #3), the correct drill bit size for your spile (most likely 5/16” or 7/16”), small hammer or rubber mallet.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

    Food grade buckets ready to collect some sap.

  2. Identify suitable trees. Sugar maples are ideal, but as mentioned above, red, silver and black maple all work too. Look for a tree with a large crown; this indicates that more sap will be flowing up through the tree to help feed all the different limbs. You also want a tree that is open grown, or on the edge of the woods. Put your tap on the sunny side of the tree. While these aren’t imperative to sap collection, they will help speed up the amount of sap flowing through the tree each day.  

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

    Drilling the holes in the bucket lids for the tubing to fit in.

  3. Drill a hole in the tree 3-4’ off the ground. Angle the hole slightly up and make it about 2” deep. If you are using a battery operated drill, be sure to drill very slow, otherwise you could end up cauterizing the inside of your hole, sealing it up and stopping the sap from being able to flow out. This is why a hand drill is preferable.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

    Slowly drilling the hole in the tree for the spile.

  4. Clean any debris out of the hole and gently tap your spile into the hole until it is snug. Make sure not to force it in too hard or you can crack the wood of the tree, causing your hole to leak.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

    Gently hammering the spile into the drilled hole.

  5. Attach your tubing, or hang your bucket, with your lid to keep out bugs, bark and other undesirable objects. If you are leaving your bucket on the ground instead of hanging it from the spile, put some logs or other heavy objects around it to keep it from blowing over.
    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    Tubing going into the bucket lid, keeping the bugs out.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

    The whole setup: spile, tubing, bucket and a piece of wood to keep it in place.

  6. Check back every day or so to empty out your buckets and keep an eye on your progress. Keep all collected sap in a cool place until you are ready to evaporate it. After too many days in the warm it can spoil.
    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Catching a drip of sap from the spile.

    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.
    Our stockpile of snow keeping the sap cool until evaporating time.

    When the time comes and you are swimming in sap, boil it!! Check back next week when I talk about that.