Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How To Make Your Own Yogurt At Home

One of the things I like to do is make my own yogurt at home. I really enjoy the freshness, and taste of homemade yogurt. I especially like the thicker, Greek-style homemade yogurt. I make and eat homemade yogurt for health and financial reasons, and because most pre-packaged yogurt is made with both sugar, and cow’s milk treated with hormones and antibiotics. Organic yogurt is available, but can be dear to purchase, especially non-sugared, non-fruited varieties. Once you learn how to make your own yogurt at home, you won’t want anything else!

I learned to make organic yogurt at home using this recipe for homemade yogurt.  You'll need a small amount of kitchen equipment including:

  • A food thermometer

  • A cooking pot large enough to hold the amount of milk you’ve put aside

  • A heating pad

  • A clean dishtowel or two

  • A clean spoon for stirring, preferably metal.

  • Several small containers, such as a jar or bowl (glass or metal preferred)

  • A larger container, such as a crockpot sleeve, terracotta pot or canner.

  • So, first things first. Everything you are using should be clean, dry and sterilized.  The heat softens the milk proteins and prepares them for bacterial growth while the other purpose is to keep the milk from growing contaminants. If you let the milk ferment longer than seven hours, your homemade yogurt will be thicker. We use 2% organic milk for our Greek yogurt because we like it rich and creamy. We top our homemade yogurt with fresh fruit, and sometimes honey if we want something less tangy. I have found that mini Ball jars (half size) are ideal for storing and transporting homemade Greek yogurt.  It will last about 7 days in the refrigerator, maybe longer.  It does not freeze well, in my experience.  I use homemade yogurt as a substitute for sour cream in many dishes and salads.
    Let me know how it turns out!

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    What Is A Solar Oven and Where Can I Get One?

    A solar oven, or solar cooker, is a way of cooking food that does not require wood for burning, or natural gas or electricity. A solar oven uses the power of the sun to heat and cook the food. They are very simple to make, and there are multiple designs available. The design for the solar oven I ended up with was a bit of a mix of two designs I found online, due to materials I had on hand or could easily obtain with minimal out of pocket expense. Also, I have included some tips to make the building of your solar cooker easier, based on my experience. In my next blog, I will include a picture of the oven, and hopefully a video of my first test of the completed oven!

    Here is the website where I got the inspiration for my idea:

    Part of my ‘green genie’ project is to keep each project low cost, so I completed this project with materials that were on hand or free. I didn’t succeed entirely, but I believe the whole project cost me about $6-10 all told.

    Here’s what you’ll need to build your solar oven:

    1. Three boxes, one with a lid. I like copy paper boxes for size and sturdiness. I used that as the outside box. The inside box should be smaller and fit within the larger box, leaving a gap of at least ½” room to spare on each side (more is okay). The inside box does not need a lid. I used a business envelope box. My third box had to be as long as the copy paper box because that is what I will use to create a sunlight reflector. My cost: FREE

    2. Newspaper (or any balled up paper). My cost: FREE

    3. A piece of glass or an oven cooking bag. My cost: $2.99

    4. A glass cutter (they are $3.79 at Home Depot) My cost: FREE

    5. Scissors or utility knife. My cost: FREE

    6. A straight edge or ruler. My cost: FREE

    7. Aluminum foil. My cost: FREE

    8. Flat black paint (tempera, non-toxic spray paint, permanent marker or a mix of soot and flour paste.) My cost: $1.99

    9. Stapler with staples. My cost: FREE

    10. Black duct tape. I like Gorilla Tape, but it is pricey. (I had this on hand from another project). My cost: FREE

    11. Heat resistant glue. My cost: $.99

    12. Goggles and gloves for glass cutting & handling. My cost: FREE

    I painted the bottom, outside and inside of each box with black paint. I rolled out, measured and cut sheets of aluminum foil for the inside of each box, but left the bottom and outside of each box black. Once the paint was dry, I stapled the sheets of aluminum foil along the sides with the stapler. I set them aside.

    For the copy paper box lid, I painted it black, too. Then, I measured a rectangle in the middle of the box, leaving a one inch lip from the edge. The box lid should look a lot like a picture frame.

    I am not big on plastic oven bags but they are an alternative if you have no glass and you don’t mind replacing the bag when it deteriorates from heat. I prefer glass and bought a piece cheaply. I went to Goodwill and found an old picture frame for $2.99. I made sure it was made with glass because that’s really the bit I wanted. (I got a quote for having a piece of glass custom cut, and going to Goodwill is by far the cheaper option). If you’re really lucky, you’ll get a piece that matches your box lid dimensions. I wasn’t so lucky and had to cut mine. I used a glass cutter. (This is probably the most labor-intensive and risky part of the project. The first time I tried, I broke the piece of glass and had to use another. Fortunately, I had a spare for that reason.)

    You’ll need a stable surface, a glass cutter, gloves, goggles and a sharpie marker. I took my ruler, measured the box length and width, and took my sharpie marker and marked up my piece of glass according to my measurements. I used the glass cutter to score the glass. Gently, I broke off the piece of scored glass. Please be sure to use glove and goggles, because those glass fragments can really hurt!

    Slide the piece of glass you’ve cut inside the box lid and ensure a good fit. If your glass fits, you can glue it on the inside of the box lid and set it aside to dry. You can edge it inside and out with the black duct tape if you would like some additional support.

    Alternately, you can open your oven bag (splitting it down two sides), lay it flat and tape it into place in the lid. Be aware that although this method is simpler up front, you will need to continually replace the bag each time it wears out due to heat. I have found it has much less durability than the glass method, with longer costs over time (those turkey-sized oven bags aren’t cheap!) Also, it is my experience that the glass retains heat better.

    Now, onto the sunlight reflector!

    Open up the third box and lay it flat. Cut a rectangle that is the same length and height as your bigger box. If you have a piece that is bent into three panels, like a triptych, that is even better. (I had a piece like that and it really helps with the reflection of sunlight.) Using flat black paint, blacken the cardboard. When it is dry, cover the front side with aluminum foil and staple it into place.

    Assuming the rest of your black paint and glue has dried, you can begin assembling the components.

    Take your balled up newspaper and place some in the bottom of your bigger box. Put the smaller box inside and add more newspaper around the sides for insulation. This stabilizes the inner box and allows for heat to flow under your inner box, as well as around the sides, for more even, rapid cooking. Place your completed lid over the top, and you’re nearly there! You can, if you like, staple or tape your reflector on, but I find you can just rest the lip at the bottom on the back of the box and fold the side flaps forward a bit it works fine without having to add and remove it each time.

    I believe this project took me about 75 minutes, start to finish. (The paint dries quickly on cardboard) It is kid friendly, except the glass cutting. That is something only an adult should do.  I would say this project is a good family project, for children 11+ with strong adult supervision.

    We are going to give our solar oven a trial run on the weekend, and next week I will post pictures and video of how our oven worked and what we cooked in it, and how long it took to cook the food.   Stay tuned!

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Build A Rain Water Collection System (aka Rain Barrel)*

    * It is advisable to have your own home with gutters on the roofing system if you want to build a rain barrel or rainwater collection system. It simplifies this project to something that can be completed in less than an hour.  If you rent a house, please get permission from the property owner before modifying anything and if you're in an apartment, you'll need a different system.

    I am an avid gardener, not only for ecological reasons, but because I am frugal. Tomatoes at $4.99/lb are anathema to me. In leaner times, when the weather isn't great, I will purchase a half share of produce locally from HomeGrown Organics. Their produce is fantastic, and recently they had a Groupon available for more than half off a half share. $25 worth for $12! I bought one, and received one as a gift.  We love Groupon! What a great gift! We really enjoyed the produce..and the price break! I will still use HomeGrown Organics in future, when either I am in need or the weather is not good for growing my own.

    But now that the weather is great for gardening again and I have no excuse for laziness, I have started my container garden with eggplant, peppers (hot and green), squash (zucchini and yellow), tomatoes (including heirloom), onions, strawberries, figs, blueberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, Swiss chard, kale, green, wax and pinto beans, amaranth, quinoa and various medicinal and culinary herbs. Sounds like a lot, right? Well it is. It requires a lot of TLC, but most especially WATER! Kilogallons of water, to be exact. I was a little behind the eight ball this year with a late frost, so for a month I was stuck watering my plants the expensive way - with a garden hose! Yikes. I spent a ridiculous amount of money to water my plants when I could have been collecting free water. 
    Yep, free. It rolls right off the roof and onto the ground...unless you get smart and collect it. When I went online to price out rain barrels my first thought was, "Are you people on crack?" Those websites wanted upwards of $200 for a fancypants rain barrel that looked cute. No thanks. Function over form is all right in this case.  I figured, I'm smart, and all right with tools and projects, so I should build my own. So, onto Google and YouTube to see other peoples' homemade rain collection projects, and then design my own. (I am no stranger to home projects, I have built compost bins, a solar oven and soon I will be building a cold frame for my winter garden when I get my hands on some recycled windows!)

    You'll need the following for this rain collection project:

    1. Large trash can (preferrably 32 gallons). I found one of decent quality at Lowe's for $13.98. I saw cheaper ones at WalMart for $9.98, but I wasn't sure about the quality and I am not a huge WalMart person. I would rather use a mom-and-pop shop or get one second hand, but if price and availability were a factor, that might be your option. The garbage can needs to be durable and thick enough to hold water, not just rubbish. You don't want it to fold, or buckle, because, well, that would defeat the purpose.

    2. Insect netting. I bought this at Lowe's for about $5-6 dollars. I didn't use the whole roll. I will have some left over for window screening projects (and we have some screens that need it, so I justified the purchase that way). If you can, share a roll with someone else to cut your costs, or see if you can pick up some inexpensive screens that are no longer in use on windows.

    3. Dryer vent kit. I prefer the aluminum, rust- and fire-resistant one that comes with two clamps. Mine retailed at Lowe's for $5.97. Your price may vary depending on how far from the gutter you will need to extend the dryer vent kit. My distance was only 24 inches because of where I rested the can and where my gutter was located.

    4. Tin snips or very sharp scissors. (I paid $3 for my snips at a yard sale. Those tin snips are a fantastic tool, well worth the initial investment!)

    5. A hacksaw. (Borrow one, if you don’t have one.)

    6. A staple gun with staples. (Ditto.)

    7. Pliers, or hammer. (Ditto, ditto.)

    8. Screwdriver. (Ditto, ditto, ditto.)

    7. A sharpie marker. (About a buck.)

    8. A hose. (Hopefully if you garden, you've got one of these~!)

    9. Some bleach, a goldfish or vegetable oil for pest control. (More on that later). It might be overkill, but mosquitoes are a pain in the butt and you don't want larvae in your rain collection system. Not in Florida, you don't.

    10. Clean gutters. If yours are full of junk, that will get filtered into your lid, but eventually it will clog up your rainwater collection system, so clean 'em all ready!

    OPTIONAL: An old hose with the ends cut off, some duct tape and a pedestal or flat stone to raise/lower your can as necessary to connect it to your gutter system.

    First, I measured the distance from where I intended to cut the gutter to the top of the garbage can where I am going to connect it to the lid. That lets me know what size dryer vent kit to purchase. My distance was about 24 inches with the can resting on the garden stone I intended to use for a level surface.

    Okay, so now if you've got your supplies and tools handy, here's what to do: Rinse out your garbage can with a hose to start clean. Put your garbage can near your gutter, where you'd like it to rest. I have a garden path stone under my can to prop it up about 1-1/2” and provide a level surface, but it is not required. Open the dryer vent kit (most are usually 4” in diameter and can surround a traditional home gutter) and with your sharpie marker, trace the outline of it on the lid of the garbage can where you’d like to cut your hole. I put my hole in the center, but it is okay to think outside the box if your resources are limited. Put it as close to the gutter system as you need. Then, with your tin snips, cut the circle out of the lid. Put the lid on the work surface or grass you are using and unroll some of the insect netting. Use the lid to trace a circle of insect netting that will fit just inside. Use either tin snips or sharp scissors to cut the insect netting out. With the staple gun, staple the insect netting to the inside of the garbage can lid, along the inside rim. When you’re done, flip over the lid and use your pliers or hammers to bang down the staples so the sharp ends are folded over. (If you don’t do this, your rain barrel can cut you unintentionally). Once the lid is done, you can move on to the can itself.

    If you want to use a soaker hose with your can (I don’t, I just use my watering can at this point), you can figure out where you’d like to place it near the bottom of the can. (I intend to do this part when I find a used hose at a yard sale that I don’t mind poking some holes in…) I estimate about 4-6 inches from the bottom will be adequate water pressure to push it out of the hose when the barrel is half or mostly full. Measure the diameter of your hose and draw a circle (freehand is okay) that is slightly smaller than the diameter of your hose. (This is important!) Then, push or force your old hose into the hole. It must be a snug fit, on purpose. The rain collection system will leak valuable water otherwise. Then, using duct tape, secure it inside and out. If you don’t want to use your hose or want to dip a can when the barrel is full, you can hang a hook or hose rack of some kind above the top height of the rain barrel and place the hose on that. Some people use a plastic wine cork. When you pull it down, gravity does the work.

    Place the completed lid on the completed can. Then, work on sawing your gutter. (Don’t forget to save the cut off piece, as it can be re-attached later if you no longer have need of a rain collection system. ) Measure the distance again from the lid to where you need to attach it to the gutter. This distance cannot be longer than your dryer vent kit! If your kit is 24” and you need 26”, you’re going to need a longer kit! Longer kits can be cut down with snips or scissors for a custom fit.

    Using the sharpie marker, draw a line horizontally across the gutter where you need to cut, to spot it. Take your hacksaw and start sawing. Once you get to the gutter seam, you may need tin snips to help you out. Once the gutter is off, put it aside for storage or scrap. Put your can on its resting place. Undo one of the dryer kit clamps. Slide it over one end of the dryer vent kit. Slightly bend or buckle the gutter (it is aluminum, should require a gentle touch) until it fits into one side of the dryer vent kit and slide up the clamp, securing it with the screwdriver. It should be a snug fit that doesn’t easily come off the gutter. Extend the dryer vent kit until the other end can be pushed into the hole that you cut into the lid. Voila! Make sure the lid to the can is secure on the base and you’re ready to collect water!

    Now, the insect netting should keep mosquitoes from putting larvae into your water, however, if your can is not secure at any point they could make it past the netting. For that reason, it is recommended that you either (a) employ a goldfish to eat larvae. They can live in the barrel indefinitely, (b) create an oil slick on the surface with food grade vegetable oil to make laying larvae impossible. This will not damage your garden, or (c) use a capful of bleach to give the water an undesirable PH so they don’t want to lay eggs in it. Pick one technique. DO NOT use combinations of these techniques or you will have unintended results.  Don’t mix oil and goldfish (you’ll suffocate the fish). Don’t mix bleach and goldfish (it will kill the fish). Don’t mix oil and bleach. Empty your rain barrel as often as you can. Do not use vinegar – the acidity will kill your plants.

    This project is kid-friendly for children 10+ years with adult supervision.