Saturday, August 29, 2009

Introduction to Soap Making

Well, autumn is on its way. The nights are cooler, the geese are flying and the acorns are falling off the trees in the back yard. The squash is almost ready to pick and the apples are getting red.

Its time to start thinking about making soap for Christmas.
This post is designed to help those who are interested in making their own soap from scratch. I am not going to cover making "melt and pour" soap. You can buy big blocks of commercially made soap for melting down, colouring, scenting and molding. It is called "melt and pour", but you are not really making soap. "Melt and Pour" is commercial soap to which you add your own extras. You can find commercial soap that is unscented at the dollar store and melt it down, too. You can also melt down the tiny pieces of soap left after using up many bars in your own home and make new bars from those. None of this makes "handmade" soap. Its all still commercial soap made by someone else. How do you know it is made from organic products? Does it contain chemical latherers, hardeners, color or scent that dries the skin? Has the natural glycerin been removed? These are all questions that should be researched before using a brand of "melt and pour" soap.

Real handmade soap is so moisturizing and luxuient because of the large amount of glycerin present as a byproduct of saponification (making fat and lye into soap) and the lack of chemicals usually added to commercial soap to make it harder, lather more, colour it and scent it. Glycerin is removed from commercial soap and sold separately. It is used in the manufacture of weapons and is worth more than the soap.

Saponification is a chemical process that changes the fat and all the lye into something completely different - soap. After saponification is complete, there is no more lye. Saponification takes place when specific weights of organic fat and lye are added together under controlled circumstances and temperatures. Petroleum products will not make soap. You cannot use vaseline, motor oil or any other petroleum products to make soap. The fat must be organic from a vegetable or animal source.

I make sure I have collected everything I need before the soapmaking day comes. I buy the goats milk at the grocery store or trade for it at a nearby goat farm. Country folk are usually happy to trade extras for handmade, chemical free, goats milk soap. I make sure I have enough lye. Yes, lye is necessary to make soap from scratch. No lye - no soap. Its that simple. Lye is sodium hydroxide, so when the soap lable says "sodium" they are referring to the lye used. You will need distilled water or rainwater to mix with the lye flakes or crystals. Hard water will not measure correctly.
There are some new things called "soap nuts" on the market that say they can be used to make soap just by mixing with water, but it isn't the same thing. There are some plants that grow wild here, too, that are high in sapons and will make a lather when run through the blender with water. They are members of the saponaria family, like the bouncing bet saponaria that grows wild along the roadsides. Again, its not the same thing as soap. Does it clean as well? Don't know, try it and see.

One of the main ingredients that I have to locate is hard fat, preferably beef. Hard fat, as opposed to oil, makes harder soap that lasts a lot longer and does not dissolve if you leave it sitting in water. (This is important.) I have feelers out to friends who buy beef in bulk and know people with farms where beef are raised and sold. I hope to have some beef fat scraps and suet to render soon. Its not easy to find a lot of beef fat in one place anymore. Most people don't butcher their own cows but take them to a processing plant for that purpose.

Rendering is melting the fat and meat scraps until the fat is all liquid and the meat is cooked. This releases the fat in the meat as well. To do this, I put it all in a huge pot with a little water and slowly bring to a boil. Once it has boiled for just a few minutes and the fat is all liquified, it has to cool. I just leave it in the pot outside on the front porch, with a lid on and a weight on the lid to keep out critters. A bungee cord over the lid works for this, as well. In the morning it will have separated with the fat on top and the cooked meet and gelled juices on the bottom. I scrape off the fat layer and dispose of the rest. The chickens like the cooked beef and juices. Its all unseasoned and organic. (It is important for the chickens to get the protein and calcium they need to make hard shells. )

I will then go through the entire process again with the layer of fat, just to make sure it is pure. I put the pure, rendered, clean, white beef fat in bags and put it into the freezer until I am ready to make soap.

The day before I am planning to make soap I will take the rendered beef fat out to thaw. Sometimes I make vegan soap and use shortening or palm oil instead, but I only make a small amount. It is very expensive and not as hard a soap as what I make with the beef fat.

One of the soaps that I produce is a natural herbal anticeptic and antibiotic soap, made with herb
infused oil that I make myself from the thyme and oregano grown organically in my garden. I prepare this a few weeks prior to the soap making day by putting an organic oil into a container with washed and crushed thyme and oregano leaves. I let this sit at room tempurature for a couple of weeks, shaking it a few times a day whenever I think of it or pass by. I don't measure it, I just fill the container with the crushed leaves and cover it with oil. I will measure out the strained oil to make soap. This oil is not fit to eat after a few days since it is not refrigerated, but it is great in soap. Thyme and oregano are natural antibiotics and antiseptics. Thymol is the active ingredient in thyme. Research was being done in the area of using thymol to mass produce an antibiotic, until penicillin came along. You can still buy oil of thyme or oil of oregano at health food stores for medicinal use.

Other ingredients are used in minimal amounts for various reasons. Coconut oil makes a thicker, richer lather. Sugar also makes more lather. Salt makes the soap harder and castor oil is added as a stabilizer.
Colour that will last is difficult to obtain organically. Soap, with natural additions such as oatmeal or herbal teas and oils, does not usually need extra colour. If you use milk, instead of water, the finished soap will be a natural shade or tan. Unfortunately, food colouring will not last. You can can purchase soap and candle colouring at craft stores but it is not necessarily going to be organic. e careful using candle colour as it is not made for use on the skin. Colour can be added at any time during the process. You can also make a marble soap by just swirling it into the liquid soap in the mold, using a knife or spatula.

As with colour, scents can come from anywhere. There are some great ones in the kitchen. You can buy essential oils and fragrance oils at craft stores. Perfume and body oils will not work. These will make the soap smell great – for the first day, then the scent will disappear. Essential oils will last for awile but not as long as synthetic fragrance oils. Again, fragrance oils are not specifically "organic". Essentail oils will give the soap the health properties of the oils, as well as the scent.

Along with the ingredients, I make sure I have the utensils I am going to need before I start.

Lye and raw soap, not yet aged, are both high in alkyline and will eat any plastic or wood containers or utensils that you use. (This is why you should be wearing rubber gloves.) Use stainless steel or glass for everything. Stirring the fat with plastic is acceptable as it is just fat, but once you mix it with the lye you will have to switch to a steel spoon.

You will need a very large stainless pot in which to melt the fat and a glass or steel bowl for mixing the lye with water. A hand blender is used to "stir" the mixture until saponification takes place. Women used to stand over a large pot with a big wooden paddle for hours and hours, stirring. Using a blender this way, the soap usually takes less than an hour to saponify. You will need a glass, candy thermometer and a digital weigh scale. A digital scale is the only method of measuring that is exact enough for making good soap that has no lye remaining.

After all of the ingredients and utensils have been collected, it is time to start making the soap.

I am hoping that this blog will be a help and encouragement to those of you who wish to make their own soap and simply don't know where to start.
It is very rewarding and a lot of fun!

You can buy our e-book "Making Your Own Organic Soap At Home"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Growing Winter Squash & Recipes

Squash is one of my favourite vegetables from the garden. This also includes the sweet pumpkins, which are in the same family. It is so versatile and so good for you! It can be boiled, baked, sliced for the BBQ, grilled, baked in a pie for dessert and made into delicious soup. It can also be eaten with lots of real butter and a drop of maple syrup for a side vegetable dish.

I took an interest in the various different types of squash this year and planted five different kinds of winter squash. Having grown only hubbard, acorn and buttercup in the past, I was astounded at all the types of winter squash available out there. Some have long growing seasons and may not do well up here, but most of them look like they will produce well enough if started early indoors and given lots of hot, sunny weather. Unfortunately, we didn't get the hot, sunny weather this year, but I think we will have plenty of squash, nonetheless.

In the actual vegetable garden, I planted hubbard, ambercup (a golden buttercup type), butternut and nutty delicata. I have never grown the nutty delica squash before, but I thought it sounded good. I love nuts and this is suppose to have a "nutty" flavour. It is a relatively new Japanese ebisu hybrid type. I have not previously grown butternut, either, although I have eaten it and seen it in the stores.

I planted acorn squash in the back field on the fence. Only two of those came up but I grew a very large acorn squash plant in the front flowerbed. It was an accidental dropping of the seed in the wrong place, but that bed was new and needed some greenery anyway, so I left it there.

It took over a large part and is producing extremely well, much better than the same seed grown on the back fence. I think that is due to the extra chicken manure dug into the flower beds. It looked nice there too with the large golden blossoms and huge green leaves. I may consider doing that again next year. Is that what is referred to as a "Potager Garden" - veggetables mixed in with the flowers? I like it. It had four little squash on it until yesterday. I accidentally left the gate open and the chickens got into the front yard. They ate three of the little squash. I managed to cover the other one up with a bucket for the rest of the evening. They had not found it yet. The vegetable garden has a fence around it to keep out the groundhogs that live under the garage, so the chickens cannot get in there.

In my search for squash types, I found one in particular that interested me. It was the Hopi pale gray winter squash. I came across a reference to it as being an especially good "keeper". These squash are an heirloom variety originally grown by the Hopi indians but have almost dissappeared. When I tried to find a source, I was dissappointed. The Hopi squash are very difficult to acquire. I did manage to get some seeds, in a trade from this year, 2009, for both the Hopi pale gray and the Hopi black squash, to grow for next year. Since they are from more southern regions I will start them very early next spring on a heating source. I am excited about growing these next year to test for the perfect squash and as a source of rare seed.

All of my winter squash plants have small squash growing on them, except for the butternut. The first female butternut flower opened this morning. I hand pollinated it. Even the long seasoned hubbard has small squash growing. We have had exceptionally cool weather this year. I don't know why there is a difference.

Perhaps the butternut need more heat? They are all in the same bed and have received the same treatment. I planted the butternut because I read that they were good producers, making a lot of squash on one plant. We will see how it goes...

I am looking for the perfect squash. One that is not stringy, keeps all year and has a fabulous, sweet and nutty taste. Is there such a thing?

Squash like to be grown in very light, loose soil so the roots are well aerated. They are nutrient hogs and like a lot of water, without being waterlogged (see previous sentence). I dug chicken manure into the hills where I planted the squash and I have occasionally fed them with organic commerical transplant fertilizer with a high phosphorus content, that I bought at a garage sale. Avoid using a high nitrogen fertilizer as this causes lots of leaves and few squash.

Squash, pumpkins and gourds are all from the same general family and all depend on bees for their pollination, so a small and dwindling bee population causes a poor harvest. (What will we do when there are no more bees?? ) Last year I had a lot of flowers and very few squash, signalling poor pollination. I am hand pollinating my squash this year and it has made a difference. All of the female flowers that opened were hand pollinated and are now growing small squash. This is exicing and so rewarding! I did that myself! It can be frustrating when the male flowers are plentiful and the female flowers have not opened yet.

The male flowers open first in the center of the vine. The female flowers are located further along the central vine and on the lateral branches. The male flowers are on taller stalks while the female flowers sit tighter against the branch on a little ball which, if pollinated, will be the growing squash.

To pollinate the female flowers you will need to use a small paintbrush. Just rub the paintbrush against the pollen in the male flower and then paint the pollen onto the center of the female flower. You can also pick the male flower, remove all but the pollen sitck and rub it against the center of the female flower. I prefer to use a paintbrush and leave the male flower growing where it is, to be used again later unless there are plenty of open male flowers.

There are many rare and delicious winter squash out there, yet to be discovered. Some are heirloom varieties that have been grown for centures in North America and have just slowly been replaced with the modern hybrids and genetically modified versions. One of the main reasons for that is the patenting of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seed. Seeds from vegetables grown from patented seed cannot legally be saved by the grower for the following year. The farmer legally must repurchase these seeds each spring. Natural and heirloom seeds cannot be patented and so, there is no money in selling them. Large seed companies, such as Monsanto, sell only genetically modified and patented seed. The old fashioned heirloom varieties are slowing dissappearing. The gene pool is shrinking and we are losing valuable material. Not necessarily inferior material either!

We really enjoyed the little acorn squash last year, baked with maple syrup, raisins and dried cranberries and I know that hubbard and buttercup both make excellent pies. Some softer skinned buttercup varieties of squash do not keep very long, however, so they need to be cooked and frozen shortly after harvesting. I have read that the delica squash are not good keepers, either, so we will cook and freeze those when they are ready.

I have collected a selection of squash recipes that we have found to be delicious and have made many times. Winter squash and sweet pumpkin are interchangeable in any recipe, since they are the same thing. Pumpkin and squash are both members of the gourd family. No canned pumpkin will ever taste as good as the homegrown vegetable.

All spices are dried and ground. If you wish to use fresh, you will need to research the amount.


Squash Pie

1 1/2 cup squash,cooked, mashed and unseasoned
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs
2 teaspoon all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk

Mix all dry ingredients together. Add squash. Beat eggs in another bowl and add milk to eggs, then add to squash mixture. Pour into an unbaked pastry lined pan. Bake at 350F until firm in center, about 1 hour

Squash Loaf

3 cups sugar
4 eggs beaten
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2/3 cup water
3 1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice or 1/2 tsp mace
1 cup oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 1/2 cup squash, cooked, mashed and unseasoned
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat oven to 350F, grease 3 loaf pans. Mix sugar, oil and eggs. Add squash. Sift together all dry ingredients and add to squash mixture. Add water and pour into pans. Bake 1 hour.

Squash Soup

2 pounds uncooked squash
1.5 pints of stock, chicken or vegetable (can be made with bouillon)
Onion: 1 medium, diced Garlic: 1 crushed clove
Cream to add before serving, amount is optional
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon: (optional)

In a large saucepan, slice and saute the garlic and onion in oil or butter until tender. Add squash, stock, nutmeg or cinnamon, salt and pepper. Boil and cook for 25 mins until squash is tender. Puree mixture with a blender until smooth and return to saucepan. Before serving, add cream and gently heat. Do not boil.

*Stock amount can be changed, depending on how thick or thin you want your soup.

**Add thick applesauce for a special taste treat.


Squash Muffins

1 cup squash, cooked and mashed
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon mace

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease muffin tin or use papers. Mix together squash, eggs, oil and corn syrup in large bowl. Stir until well mixed. Stir all other dry ingredients together in smaller bowl. Add dry ingredients to squash mixture. Fill greased tins to the top. Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 mins until lightly brown on top.
* Very good with raisins added.

Add raisins to batter if desired.

Squash Dessert Squares

1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups squash, cooked, mashed and unseasoned
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease square pan. Beat together shortening, brown sugar and shite sugar unti light. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in squash. Combine dry ingredients and gradually stir into beaten mixture. Spread in greased pan. Bake for 30 mins. Cool in pan. Spread with orange icing (optional). Cut into bars.