Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Homemade Laundry Soap Research

Last weekend, I made homemade laundry soap.  I've heard this should only take about 15 minutes to do, but I took at least an hour because midway through I started second guessing which recipe to follow and took a good 45 minute break to research everything.  Again.

There's an overabundance of recipes for homemade laundry soap floating around on the internet.  This website alone has collected 10, and I think the comments include a few more variations. There's a lot of information and a lot of people contradicting each other which it comes to homemade products. (Differing opinions on the internet?!  Who knew?!)  The most helpful sources seem to be the mothers laundering baby diapers.  Not only do they have a need to get some serious junk off what they are washing, it needs to be gentle enough for a baby's skin. 

Why use homemade laundry detergent?  Lots of reasons.  It's frugal (generally $.01/load).  A simple batch generally yields a generous quantity, so there's less frequent making/purchasing.  It's virtually zero-ish waste because containers get reused- think about how many plastic detergent containers you've bought and thrown away.  They may get recycled, but you're still creating demand for them to be made.  There's also far fewer fragrances and dyes to irritate skin- unless you want a particular scent, why have them in there?  Plus, your skills will be in high demand when the zombie apocalypse comes.  It seems to work as well as regular store bought detergent (one example here), so why not?

Well, for one, the effectiveness of your personal soap seems to involve a bit of trial and error and some basic chemistry.  I've been several months off and on researching this before I finally made a batch.  It was confusing.  If you're thinking about making your own, here's a few things to consider.

First: Hard water vs. soft water
It's important that you know whether your water is hard or soft.  If you don't know off the top of your head, go look at your shower head or glass shower door.  If you have limescale deposits (whitish powdery stuff and rather hard to clean off shower doors), you have hard water.  If your soaps lather up really easily but doesn't wash off super easily, you probably have soft water.  There is a regional factor to this: New England, the Northwest, and Gulf coast tend to have soft water.  The Plains and Southwest tend to have hard water.  HOWEVER, about 85% of tap water is considered hard.  If you are confused as I am about your water (but have more disposable income), a hardware store should have a test kit that will tell you how hard your water is.  If you don't want to spend that money but like tea, use this home test.  If you don't like tea, use this test.  The advantage of a test you have to pay for is that you'll find how how hard your water is on a hard water scale (soft, slightly hard, moderately hard, hard, very hard) which depends on how many parts of hardness per gallon you have.  To confuse things even more, previous owners/landlord/etc may have had a water softener hooked up so even if your neighbor has the hardest water ever, you may not.  Ok, now that you know (or know that you don't know!) what the water is like in your home, read on.

Second: Soap vs. Detergent
This is a summary of this article by Heather L. Sanders plus other relavent information I found.

What is the role of soap/detergent in laundry?  As a surfactant (surface active agent), it helps reduce the surface tension of water.  If you walk outside in the rain wearing a raincoat, the rain is probably going to bead up on the outside of the coat.  The surface tension of the water droplet is what allows the droplet to retain it's shape.  Surfactants cut that surface tension so it can soak into the clothes.  Both soap and detergents are surfactants.  Soaps are generally made from natural materials (oils/fats) and detergents are made from synthetic materials (chemical equivalents).  Detergents tend to work better in hard water than soap.  Soaps form a scum that doesn't wash away as easily in hard water. Detergents have been prevalent since WWII because it takes out the trial and error factor of homemade laundry soap- they will work in hard water, no fiddling with a recipe or additives. 

Third: Composition of a Homemade Laundry Soap
There are many variations of proportions and occasionally some other ingredients, but here's what the most common ones do.

1.) soap - surfactant (see above), see #4 for which soaps to use

2.) borax - sodium borate, a whitener and deodorizer.  It raises the ph of the wash water to a basic solution, softens hard water by removing hard water minerals, and is a color safe bleach alternative. This can be found on your laundry detergent aisle as made by 20 Mule Team or online.   

3.) washing soda - soda ash, helps remove dirt and odors. This is NOT baking soda.  Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. Washing soda is sodium carbonate (and can be derived from baking soda when heated, google for instructions).  This can also be found on the laundry detergent aisle as made by Arm and Hammer.  If you don't have luck there, try the pool aisle/store and look for soda ash (just make sure it's pure sodium carbonate) or online.

4.) essential oils - Since many homemade laundry soap recipes leave the clothes coming out smelling like nothing (i.e. no "fresh clean smell"), some people like to add essential oils. 

5.) vinegar - ok, this is not actually added to the recipe (usually), but is often suggested to add to the rinse cycle or fabric softener dispenser.  White vinegar helps strip excess soap/detergent out of the water and lowers the pH of the water.  If you line dry you clothes (like me), it's rather important to have a fabric softener so everything doesn't dry to a stiff board.  I dilute mine in water before adding it to the dispenser.  Oh, and bonus: it's safe for microfiber (most fabric softeners are not, check your care instructions).

Fourth: Which Soaps
Most recipes suggest Fels Naptha Soap (found on the laundry detergent aisle), Zote (I've heard Mexican stores and Dollar Generals if not in your grocery store), Castile, or Ivory. 

Fels Naptha -  a pure soap specifically formulated for pretreating stains and removing residue from poison oak/ivy, etc when washing
Zote - made from coconut oil and tallows and contains an optical brightener and citronella. 
Castile Soap (Kirks, Dr. Bonners**, etc) - made from olive oil instead of tallow
Ivory - made from similar ingredients as Fels Naptha (based on skimming their listed ingredients), but with the purpose of body soap, not laundry soap
homemade soaps- there have been universally positive results from people making their own homemade soaps who then use those soaps in laundry soap.

There is much anecdotal evidence (read: multiple commenters on every homemade laundry soap post) that whatever you use in your shower and the mini bars from hotels will work too.  I caution against that.  It may contain fragrances or oils that could leave stains on your clothes or react with the other ingredients in a negative way.  That said, if one has allergies/sensitivities to anything in the soaps listed above, start with a soap you know won't react with your skin.  Just make small batches and test on non-expensive, easily ruined items.  If you don't have skin sensitivities and just want to make a batch already, start with whatever soap on the list above you can find easiest. 

Fifth: Which recipe
I can't suggest a recipe because I haven't experimented enough to figure out what works best with my water.  I can say that based your water type, you'll have better luck increasing or decreasing certain ingredients.  In general, most combinations should work because the soap is decreasing surface tension, the borax is whitening and deodorizing, and the washing soda is helping remove dirt/odors.  However...

... if you have hard water, you may want to increase how much borax you use.
... if you have extremely hard water, you may want to even double the amount of borax you use. 
... if things aren't getting clean enough (dingy white shirts, etc), try
      ... adding white vinegar to the rinse cycle as a fabric softener or more borax per load
      ... Zote contains an optical brightener (which many conventional detergents contain)(I have no personal experience with this)
      ... add bluing
      ... add lemon (citric acid has whitening properties) 

Sixth: What container
There are powdered soap recipes and liquid soap recipes.  The main complaint against liquid recipes is that they take up more room.  You can store them in old, cleaned pour spout detergent containers, milk jugs, or buckets.  For free buckets, ask the bakery section of the grocery store if they have any extra icing buckets they want to get rid of (bonus: there's about 1/2c of white frosting left in the bucket!).  For powdered soap recipes, plastic containers (yogurt, glad, ziplock, tupperware, etc) work well. 

Seventh: HE machines?
Does this work in HE machines?  I have a top loading HE machine (yes, they do make those!) and I don't want to break it.  I can't find a satisfactory answer to this.  The soaps listed above are low sudsing, which is good for HE machines (using a non-HE detergent in an HE machine can cause it to foam over).  Anecdotal evidence (read: commenters on blogs) say it works great in their machines! However, I did find one commenter (among hundreds that I've read I might add), who suggested this:
This formula is missing the corrosion inhibitors, enzymes and chelating agents that are usually present in a commercial detergent. This may reduce the life of your clothing and washing machine. I would caution against using this in a HE or front loading washer. Because the water use is lower, concentrations of contaminants is higher and these additional ingredients in commercial products are more critical. Also, there are typically special surfactants or surfactant formulations that do not foam as much to prevent damage to the machine.  ~ Credit
Now, his last point about surfactants I feel isn't well founded because Fels Naptha IS low sudsing to the point that many people who start use it get worried that there aren't enough suds.  However, that first part?  I'm not sure. I've tried searching for answers, but it's a bit beyond my understanding of chemistry. 

Eighth: My Unanswered Questions
So, I've learned a lot, but I still have questions.

1.) Does my laundry detergent need the corrosion inhibitors, enzymes, and chelating agents found in commercial detergents to prolong the life of the machine?

2.) Borax raises the pH of the water to a basic solution.  Vinegar lowers the pH to an acidic solution.  If you mix them, you can make salt.  Can I use a homemade laundry soap that contains borax (or use it as a booster to commercial detergent) and still add vinegar to my rinse cycle without making salt?

3.) Would homemade recipes please indicate whether they mean 2 cups of grated soap or 2 cups soap, grated??  They are different!  I grated 4.5 oz of soap and yielded 2 cups grated soap. 

4.) What is the specific hardness of these recipe posters (specifically on the scale of water hardness)?  It's well and good to say "I have hard water and this works great!" but what level of hard water?  What if I don't have hard water?

I've only used my recipe once so far, which is not nearly enough times to recommend it.  If I like it, I may post what works for me.  I have a feeling it will take a while for me to feel comfortable endorsing any particular recipe.

** after I wrote and posted this, I looked at Dr. Bonner's Castile soap in the grocery store.  While it likely does have olive oil in it, there was more coconut oil.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Classic Bottle Opener

I got my husband a mounted bottle opener for Christmas from a thrift store. His last house had one and everyone loved it. They had a bucket on the floor to catch the bottle caps and it was quite convenient for parties. After deciding on the best place to put the bottle opener (on a sturdy stud in a convenient location), we were a bit stumped on what to do for a bottle cap catcher. Problem was, it had to be removable.  We couldn't just nail an old tomato jar up because eventually we would want to empty it.

We found a cool coffee tin from a local coffee company and decided to somehow mount that after we finished the coffee.

We took a finishing nail to hammer two holes in the top, then I took some wire and fashioned a handle.  I used a command hook to mount the coffee can because I felt a nail, while more aesthetically pleasing, wouldn't be as secure.  That spot is extremely convenient because it's a heavy traffic point, however being an heavy traffic point means more bumps than an out of the way place. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Painted Cabinet Knobs

the old cabinet knobs

Problem #1: My cabinets are used. When we moved in, one of the first things we did was clean all the kitchen cabinets we had (we were promised more).  Try as we might, there was odd coloration around all of the gold knobs that we could not get off.  When we finally got the rest of the kitchen cabinets installed (which took a few weeks cuz my landlord is AWESOME), we discovered what the discoloration was.

The previous owners of the cabinets had birdhouse knobs on all of them.

On our new cabinets, we got one birdhouse knob, one gold knob, and one door with nothing on it. This has bothered me for many months now.

Problem #2: We have no closets or coat racks, so our coats most often get thrown over the back of the couch and then fall to the floor when someone sits down.  We also find it hard to keep track of hats.

Solution! Take off all the old gold knobs and buy enough new ones for ALL the doors/drawers that match the kitchen and use the old gold knobs to make a coat hooks.  My first solution was to find old mismatched/vintage type knobs at thrift stores, but after looking for several weeks, I couldn't find any and gave up. 

wood cabinet knobs
Step One: Buy knobs within my budget
Since my budget was "as cheap as possible," I found some $0.85 knobs at a big box home improvement store.  I have lots of paint left over from my college art 101 classes (luckily, they haven't dried out) so I knew I could make these match.  I took an old piece of cardboard and poked some finishing nails through it to give me something to rest the knobs on without smudging paint.

with two coats of paint, no varnish
Step Two: prime, mix, paint
While I've done a fair amount of painting, I wanted to make sure I was using the right products for a kitchen cabinet because it's so heavily used.  I used this how to page as reference.  They suggested sealing/gesso-ing raw wood as a base coat.  My gesso was dried out and unusable, so I used what I had on hand: some of my bookbinders PVA* glue.  I think modge podge would work well too and most crafters have that on hand (and if you don't have any on hand, a 1:1 ratio of white glue and water makes homemade modgepodge!).  I let that dry, lightly sanded, and mixed up a nice red color to match my kitchen. One thing I learned in art classes was to always mix acrylic paints with water to thin it out.  The paint will go on smoother and have less globs and paint stroke lines.  Also, you get a thinner coat, which is actually good because two thin coats will cover better than one thick, globby one. Another tip: add small amounts of white/black to the color you are mixing, don't add color to white/black.  It will take far too long and make waaaay too much paint for pretty much any purpose.  Oh, and I painted all of these in at least two steps: first the curvy part by holding the top and bottom, then the top while holding the curvy part. 

two coats of paint with varnish
Step Three: varnish and wait
After two good coats, I varnished the knobs using a matte varnish I picked up at a craft store (glossy is another option).  Typically things like varnish and paints are cheaper at big box home improvement stores, but when one is doing a project this small, it's not really cost effective.  Same thing if you are buying acrylic paint.  Find a few coupons and go to town at a craft store.  Be sure to varnish the bottoms!  You don't need to paint the bottom, but the varnish will help protect the knobs from any moisture in the kitchen (like wiping down cabinets).  After I varnished these, I waited FULL 24 hours before attempting to put them on the doors.  They were dry within half an hour, but I wanted them to fully cure.  Also, I didn't want to annoy the next owners by having my paint stick to the door like the stupid birdhouses.

the new knobs.  and the paint i can't get off. 
Step Four: install
Then it was install time.  I removed the old hardware and screwed my newly painted knob in its place. 

that birdhouse paint is REALLY tough to get off. Also, aren't my cabinets hung nicely?  Thanks landlord!
Step Five: go to the hardware store to get necessary supplies
I discovered as I was trying to install these that the pilot holes were not big enough for the wood screws that came with my new knobs.  The threads were bigger, the old screws don't work on the new knobs, and I didn't have a big enough drill bit to enlarge the holes to the correct size.  I currently only have new knobs on three doors; the thick drawers gave me a LOT of trouble. 

So now I have Problem #1 solved (pending visit to hardware store).  Problem #2: No Coat Rack, No Problem will be covered in a later post. 

* while Elmer's while glue is a PVA glue, bookbinders PVA is a higher quality PVA.  While high quality PVA can be used in place of Elmers, Elmers is NOT appropriate for bookbinding purposes.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Felt Christmas Ornaments

Disclaimer: I know Christmas is over. However, I intentionally did not post this before Christmas because several of the recipients read this blog (and to my brother and sister-in-law whom I still have not sent presents to, surprise!)

Christmas this year was tough.  People tend to show their appreciation and friendship for others through presents, but presents cost money.  Money is tighter than I've ever experienced and while I finally got a part time job mid-way through December, my first paycheck was after Christmas. Not having money to afford things didn't stop the feeling that we needed to buy things for friends and family.  However, I did have time, energy, and pocket change so I tried to find something I could make that wouldn't look cheap and like I had made it. 

I think I mentioned before that I joined pinterest a few months ago.  I am not nearly as into it as it seems everyone else is, but I find it a great place to stash a picture and link of something I want to make and come back to it later when I have time.  Around Christmas, I found some amazing felt ornaments on pinterest linked from etsy and various other places around the web.  I pinned all the ones I found interesting and decided to make ornaments for friends and family for three reasons: first, felt is crazy cheap, second, embroidery thread is super cheap, and third, I wanted to learn more about needlework and embroidery.

tools needed:
- felt
- embroidery thread (or button&craft/heavy/upholstery thread if you have it on hand)
- needles (I don't own embroidery ones; experiment with what you have on hand)
- scissors

tools I found helpful
- disappearing fabric marker - I did half of them without it and broke down and bought one.  love it.
- scrap paper to draw your own patterns
- fiber fill for making plush ornaments
- cookie cutters - I don't own any, but I heard you can trace the interior and exterior to make patterns)
- needle threader for threading several strands of embroidery floss onto tiny needles not made for embroidery

Step one: make a pattern for the shape you want.  For me, this meant drawing it several times until I got the shape I want or printing out a line drawing I made in Illustrator.  Then I cut it out in felt and traced any design I wanted in the disappearing ink.  I used pencil at first, but it doesn't rub out of felt very easily. 
Paper pattern star and felt cutout with disappearing ink

Step Two: Embroider away!  If you're like me and haven't really done it before, I found Sublime Stitching to be helpful in telling me how to do basic stitches.  By the way, I'm fairly certain I do it incorrectly (I knot the ends of the thread together to form a sturdy anchor knot) but I don't particularly care due to my medium of felt.  OH, another thing: it took me several ornaments to develop the sort of skill allowing me to do straight lines and even(ish) stitches, so make sure you start with practice pieces you plan on keeping instead of giving away.     
stitching right along my disappearing lines

Step three: After completing the decorative stitches, I stitched the white felt star onto a slightly larger blue felt star.

Step four: If it's going to be an ornament, add the ribbon to hang it now (I forgot several times)! Also, I suggest stitching your initials and year onto the back piece of felt so both you and everyone else can remember who made it and when.

Step five: I stitched two blue stars together using a blanket stitch (google it).  When I got about 1-2" to closing it up, I stuffed some fiber fill in there to make it poofy and then finished blanket stitching it up. 

Step six: All done!  Stick it in a bag and it's ready to go. By the way, these also make great pin cushions. (I may or may have no used one of my early I-don't-know-how-to-embroider ornaments as a pin cushion for the rest of the project.)
All done!

I ended up making at least six designs just playing around with it (the candy cane has already been given away) and fell in love with the tree in the back.  I made a little forest of them, but since I forgot to add a ribbon, this is the only one I have left.  The two circular ornaments were some of the first ones (the absolute first one never even got stuffed, it was that bad!).  
felt Christmas ornaments

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Best. Cornbread. Ever.

I've had quite a few versions of cornbread. I grew up with the occasional cakey cornbread and delicious honey butter (I know we mixed our own honey butter, but was the cornbread from a box, Mom?) Now that I'm in the South, I've discovered that cornbread or biscuits are served in most Southern diners/restaurants and everybody has their favorite recipe. Most biscuits are delicious but the cornbread can range from corny and bland to super sweet and cakey.

mmm, look at that golden top
I made the best cornbread of my life on New Years Day. I've made corn bread before, but I've always been vaguely disappointed in it- it was too cakey, too thin, or too much "corn" and not enough bread.  This recipe produced a cornbread that was an ideal 1.5"-2" thick, sweet enough to be eaten by itself (but not too sweet I couldn't slather it in butter and honey), and the perfect texture that walks the line between cakey and flakey.  It was so good, I made it two days in a row and only just stopped myself from making it for dinner on the third. 

I thought I'd made this recipe before.  It's from my New Best Recipe Cookbook, but there are two recipes: Northern and Southern cornbread.  Maybe I tried the Northern one and forgot to notate it.  I distinctly remember trying to make cornbread in my 10" square cast iron years ago and it turning out far too thin and consequently a bit too brown on the bottom to be flavorful, so maybe I made the Southern one.  This time I had the suggested 8" cast iron that we picked up at a thrift store and made the Southern Skillet Cornbread.

Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning it gets its rise from baking soda, baking powder, and/or eggs (in this case, all three) instead of yeast. The difference between Northern and Southern cornbread tends to be how cakey it is.  Northern cornbread uses roughly a 50/50 blend of cornmeal and all purpose flour with butter for the fat while Southern styles use all or mostly all cornmeal with oil/bacon drippings as the fat.  This Southern one uses only cornmeal, so it's gluten free.  My dad is gluten intolerant, so I'm always happy to find something gluten free that tastes this amazing.  It comes together pretty quick, so I can quickly mix it up and stick it in the oven, then have 20 minutes to pull together the rest of dinner. 

I don't want to write out the recipe because of copyright restrictions (blogging is a form of publishing), but I will give the basic gist of how it's put together that can be used on other recipes.  The oil (or bacon drippings) is preheated in the cast iron.  The cornmeal is divided and most of it mixed with the dry ingredients.  The remaining cornmeal is whisked with hot water to form a thick paste, then buttermilk and egg is added.  After folding those together, the hot oil from the cast iron is quickly mixed in.  After baking for about 20 minutes, out comes the best cornbread I've ever had.  

An 8" cast iron pan of deliciousness
So why did I made the cornbread?  Well, the South has a tradition on New Years Day: for good luck in the new year, eat black eyed peas, collards, and fat back (or something porky; we did bacon this year).  While I can finish my plate, I don't particularly like any of these traditional Southern dishes and wanted something that I could look forward to in the meal.  It will now be in constant rotation in our meals. 

bacon, collards, cornbread, and black eyed peas

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Grinding Turkey

I've heard turkeys go on sale after Thanksgiving.  I never saw evidence of this in my local stores.  However, I did find turkey on sale for $0.59/lb after Christmas. 

So my parents bought my husband and I an 11lb turkey.

What does one do with an 11lb turkey??  It's just the two of us and while we would like to have parties, we likely wouldn't serve turkey at one.  After a brief discussion on how we would likely use turkey, we decided to grind the whole thing up.  (Actually, our plan was to make sausage, but we wanted to mix beef heart with the turkey and didn't have time to get to the store that sells it).

11lbs of fresh, raw turkey
 First, we portioned it.  We discovered turkey bones are much thicker and tougher than chicken bones.
the turkey meets the cleaver. The cleaver's name is dexter.  no joke. it's engraved.
Then we ground it. I love our grinder attachment for the Kitchenaid. Because turkey meat is so lean, we ended up grinding in some of the skin based on a recipe my husband had read for making sausage.  After seeing it all ground up, I probably would have put in slightly less skin. However, the leanness of ground beef heart will probably balance it out when we make sausage. 
all ground up and lightly salt and peppered

Then we bagged it.
I really need a scale.  I tried, but I know the portions are all over the place.
We got 8 bags of meat with roughly 1lb in each bag.  So far, we're planning on making meatballs and sausage.  We're still thinking about other meals we can do with ground turkey meat. 

vacuum sealed, labeled, and dated

After grinding everything, we took all the bones, sauteed them, and boiled it with leeks to make broth.  We didn't quite have a big enough pot and really we should have made two batches of broth, so we ended up with a super concentrated broth. 

I looked into canning the broth, but I only have a water bath canner.  Due to it's lack of acidity and bacteria that could be present in the meat, I would need a pressure canner to safely can the broth.  My alternative is to just freeze it.  After we refrigerate the broth overnight, we will skim off the solidified fat and pour it into muffin tins (after I measure how much each muffin tin holds!).  After freezing those, I'll vacuum seal them and keep them frozen for future use.

I'm excited.