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Soap making gearGoggles- check, mask- check, rubber gloves- check…….Yes, we did look like a couple of nerds about to embark on a scientific experiment. By this stage we had our equipment to hand and our ingredients organised. Our soap saga was ready to take to the next level –  the actual making of the soap. The process involves chemicals and (potentially hazardous) reactions so, as you can see, we togged out accordingly. Here’s how we proceeded:

Getting ready

  1. After decking the kitchen with several layers of newspaper we read our instructions thoroughly, and once more for good luck…
  2. We decided to use an infusion of herbs instead of pure water so first off, we poured boiled, filtered water over fresh herbs and and left it to cool before straining.
  3. Using a digital scales we weighed out all our ingredients, bar the caustic soda.
  4. Then we put on our protective gear (amid giggles and snorts).

The “scary” bit……

  1. Placing our small designated glass bowl on the digital scales we carefully measured the caustic soda and set it safely to one side.
  2. We placed our larger designated glass bowl on the scales and poured in the required amount of water (which was actually a herbal infusion.)
  3. After that we moved both vessels to the sink, close to a large open window (ventilation is important) and as one of us very carefully poured the caustic soda into the water* the other gently stirred the mixture with a hand whisk. We both held our breaths during this step to avoid inhaling any fumes. I’m pretty sure our faces went a funny colour…..*CAUTION: NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE CAUSTIC SODA – IT COULD HAVE EXPLOSIVE CONSEQUENCES…
  4. When all was combined we left the bowl standing in a safe position in front of the open window to cool a little while we finally gasped for air.

Blending ingredients

  1. The bain-marie was then brought to the boil, using a large saucepan of water and an equally large pyrex bowl, to melt the hard fats. The liquid oils were added to the melted fats/butters. This was also left to cool down a bit as the temperature of the lye and the oils must both be within a certain range- between 40°C and 50°C .
  2. We used one thermometer to read the temperature of both bowls making sure to wipe it well after dipping in the lye- we were still wearing our gloves and being very cautious. On reflection – 2 thermometers would be handier….
  3. After about 5-10 minutes we had reached the correct temperatures and it was time to carefully pour the lye into the oils. This is where the stick blender comes in, making sure to use it as low as possible in the pan to avoid any splattering.
  4. We blended until the mixture became the consistency of custard. What is known as “trace” occurs at this point. When you lift the switched-off blender out of the mixture and run it across the surface it should leave a line or trace for a few seconds before the surface becomes smooth again. Time to stop blending when this happens.

The final stage

  1. This is the time to add the smelly, scrubby elements. It’s important to work fairly quickly to avoid the mixture becoming too thick to pour. We swiftly mixed in the essential oils (and for one batch, our poppy seeds) stirring the mixture well.
  2. Next up, the whole lot was poured into our moulds. We had a mixture of plastic moulds. Some were specifically for soap making – one large tray for a slab-like block that would require cutting (not best choice) and another with individual sections for complete bars (good choice)-  and then some small takeaway containers which had lids (perfectly adequate- lids a plus). We later made a mental note that silicon moulds would be the easiest to work with.
  3. The moulds were covered with cardboard (plastic lids for the takeaway boxes) and left in a warm place for 24 hours before removing them from their moulds. We cut the larger slabs of soap into bars (no need if you have dedicated moulds) and left all the soap to air. We did have some difficulty removing the large blocks from their moulds, even after 48 hours and had to cut the soap in its container first. Leaving it in the fridge for a spell can help with loosen the soap- if your container is small enough to fit. We then placed the soap bars on cooling racks in a dry dust-free spot to air for 4 weeks. The soap needs this time to cure.We’ve been using the soap for a few months now and find it lovely and creamy with a great lather. The lavender version is my favourite.

And that, is how we made our own soap! I hope I have demystified the process enough for you to give it a go. I imagine we will be making the ritual a bi-annual event so that we have enough for our familes and some for gifts. Have you made any interesting soaps? I would love to hear your recipes and stories.

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Last year my friend Sharon and I completed a very informative soap-making workshop run by Natasha and Martin of Sun Rose Garden. Since then we’ve been plotting a soap-making Saturday where we could make enough soap to keep us and our families squeaky clean and fragrant the whole year round. Commercial soap brands can contain nasty chemicals and additives under the guise of perfume and colorants so our homemade suds would, first and foremost, be made of natural ingredients. The skin is the largest organ of the human body. Whatever it comes in contact with is absorbed into our bloodstream and other organs so it pays to be picky. A good general rule of thumb is: don’t rub anything on your skin that you wouldn’t feel safe eating. If the list of ingredients on your shop-bought soap reads like a pharmaceutical bunfest then chances are it’s not the healthiest option for you.

First time soap-making requires much planning. There are gadgets to gather. A multitude of containers are needed. For the inexperienced it’s useful to work out a system. Sharon made a spreadsheet. I scribbled all over it. Between us it took about 3 weeks to gather enough paraphernalia and bravado to make our first batch of soap. You’ll need a free afternoon and access to a well ventilated kitchen. As you’ll be handling sodium hydroxide, aka caustic soda, you’ll need to declare your space off-limits to kiddies and pets for the few hours. Once your equipment, ingredients and head are all in place then the process moves along quite quickly. But the prep work is key. For that reason this post is dedicated to the bits and bobs you need to gather before you touch on the fun part- recipes, ingredients and the endless possibilities for smelly, scrubby or colouredy combinations.

Soap-Prep illustration

Containers

  • Moulds in which to pour your soap- the easiest ones are silicone cup cake moulds or loaf tins. Used plastic take-away containers are also fine. You can buy specific soap making moulds but hey- you’re a beginner! Save the fancy pants stuff for later.
  • A glass or heavy plastic container for measuring the dry caustic soda granules
  • A Bain Marie to melt the fats: A large saucepan and a pyrex bowl to fit over the top
  • A glass/stainless steel bowl to mix the caustic soda and water

Gadgets

  • A whisk to mix the caustic soda and water
  • A thermometer (without plastic or aluminium fixtures)
  • A digital weighing scales
  • A hand blender (a cheap and cheerful one is just fine)
  • A scraper (silicon or tough plastic)

Protective ware

  • Rubber gloves
  • Old towels and newspapers
  • Goggles and a mask (seriously, I’m not joking)
  • Geiger counter (ok – now I’m joking…)

You have now assembled all the equipment for your first soap batch, and all the other batches from here on in. Well done! The next time will be a less stressful experience….provided you remember where you have stashed away your dedicated soap-making-equipment-box……

My next posts will cover ingredients and our actual soap-making experience. So, stay tuned!

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Apple cider vinegar is full of beneficial properties. Most significantly if it’s raw, organic, unpasteurised and unfiltered. Unfiltered means it is bottled with the “mother”- a cloudy residue that sits at the bottom of the bottle. Apple cider vinegar, or ACV as it’s commonly referred to, comes packed with with health-enhancing enzymes, amino acids and minerals. When taken daily it regulated the body’s PH and is said to contribute to weight loss. It cleans up lactic acid, which can accumulate in the body and be a common cause of fatigue. ACV, with the help of its potassium and enzymes provides a much needed energy boost when reserves are low. Quite the wonder food. Several years ago I used to take a tablespoon every morning together with a tablespoon of honey in a cup of warm water. I did this for a number of months and the most (pleasantly) surprising outcome was silky soft skin.

You can imagine my enthusiasm then to recently learn that ACV can be made in the comfort of your own home (thanks Juli!). All you need are the apple scraps from your baking – cores and peelings, a bucket and some patience. Really, it’s that simple. After the bountiful apple harvest we’ve enjoyed this autumn it was an obvious go-to project. Here’s my progress to date.
Homemade Cider vinegar
Having used the actual apple flesh to make yummy desserts I placed the leftover skin and cores in a clean plastic bucket to turn brown. Following that, I covered it all with water and left the bucket in a warm place covered with a dishcloth. After five days I lifted the cloth for an inspection only to be faced with a thin layer of grey-green mould growing over the surface. Apparently this is fantastic, absolutely no need to panic. So after reinstating my cloth I returned the bucket to a shelf in the airing cupboard, where it still sits. The liquid needs to brew for at least a month. In another few weeks, if everything goes to plan, I will have my very own homemade ACV. I’ll strain the liquid into a sterilized bottle making sure not to discard the mother. I’m hoping this will become a routine in my kitchen. It not only makes best use an otherwise waste product, it also avails of local produce and means I’ll never have to buy another bottle of ACV again!
UPDATE #1
So a month has passed and to be honest the blanket of mould is not very appetising. And, as Keri (see comments) has rightly pointed out, mould is never good (unless it’s a chunk of Roquefort cheese…). Onto the compost heap with my appley slush and back to the drawing board for my homemade ACV recipe. All part of the learning process, folks! I have been advised to agitate the contents every day to avoid mould growth so I will be stirring the next batch at least daily. Loads of great vinegar making tutorials here.
Watch this space for round two!
UPDATE #2
I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally got to grips with my cider vinegar making. The secret is to make small batches, leaving it in accessible spot in the kitchen to be stirred at every available opportunity. After four weeks I’m rewarded with a mildly flavoured cider which I bottle to use for salad dressings, in cooking and to make herbal tinctures.

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EcoView_JamesFinlaysonJames Finlayson is a green freelance writer. He become interested in water conservation issues when he first started working for http://www.londonpumps.co.uk, where he still works today. In his spare time James loves to cook and grow his own veg.

Me: Hi James, I know you are passionate about water conservation – can you share your thoughts on the subject with Green Jam Jar readers?
JF: Gallons of one of our most important natural resources falls all around us and leaks into the ground almost daily and many of us do nothing about it. Of course, this natural resource is nothing other than water. On average, each person uses about 150 litres of water per day, and for many, that water comes through our pipes from water treatment plants which purify the water so that we can drink it. But the majority of our water usage is for purposes other than drinking, like watering plants and lawns, washing clothes and vehicles, and flushing the toilet.

Me: 

150 litres of water per day? Wow! So basically we are wasting the valuable resource that is drinking water. What can we do about it?
JF: Harvesting rain water is a great way to save on purified water, and it helps the environment, which is always a good thing! You can also save money on water bills. Another advantage to harvesting rain water is that you get to have your very own source of water. This may not seem like a great benefit, but it will in those hot summer days when the country’s suffering from a sudden drought and there’s barely any water coming from the taps. You’ll be the envy of your neighbours with all your harvested rain!

Me: What’s the best way to go about collecting rain water?
JF: The best way to collect and save rain water is to set up a harvesting system. There are plenty of different types of systems, ranging from simple water butts to whole house water systems like the Lowara rainwater harvesting system. Most systems work in the same way.

Me: Can you explain how a water harvesting system works?
JF: Rain water is collected from the drains around the roof of your house. The water is diverted down a pipe to your water butt. This is where you decide if you want a simple butt or something that will supply rain water directly to your house. If you choose something more professional, the water is then be filtered to get rid of dirt and residue from the environment. It then drains into a collection tank that can be buried out of sight beneath your garden.
This it is then hooked up to your house so you can use cleansed rainwater to run your washing machine and flush your toilet.
A simpler water butt is great if you just want to use rainwater to water plants in the garden or wash your car. But if your household uses a lot of water you may want to connect it to a good harvesting system with pump. This basically provides your home with a second source of readily usable water, and the best thing is, you will never have to pay for rain water.

Me: Sounds like a terrific idea. Thanks James for the useful information!

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International World Water Day is held annually on this day, March 22nd. It is a public awareness day aimed to highlight the need to conserve and protect fresh water supplies. The first World Water Day was held in 1993, after it was recommend during the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and has run each year since.

Wexford native Dan Roche of Bathshop123 is a leading campaigner for this issue. Being in the business of selling bathrooms he has dedicated a considerable amount of time and energy to highlighting problems associated with water consumption.

As a bathroom retailer we supply thousands of water-related products per month, and we take water consumption seriously.

Here in the UK and in many countries we benefit from constant access to fresh water, and it is important that we use our resources responsibly. Many people take water for granted which can result in substantial wastage every day, and we have committed to doing our bit to help educate people about water consumption in the run up to World Water Day 2013.

In early 2013, Bathshop321 launched our very first annual Water Usage Survey.

We contacted a section of our customer base, as well as some of the general public, and asked a few simple questions about water usage habits in the home. The aim of the survey was to understand how people treat water consumption in the home, and to identify areas where water wastage could be reduced.

In total, we surveyed 508 people, and some of the key highlights can be found here.

World Water Day 2013 Infographic

We don’t experience extreme water shortages this side of the world and with our frequent rainfall it’s hard to understand why we should preserve our water supply. But clean water is not a given- it’s a precious commodity that takes time and effort to manage. You can see from the above statistics provided by UN Water that it is vital we take responsibilty for our water usage.  Take a look at this site for tips on saving water in our own homes and do your bit for World Water Day.

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It’s hard to eat salad this time of year when a hot bowl of hearty soup is infinitely more appealing. To get the beneficial antioxidants from fresh greens I like to harvest bean sprouts in the comfort of my own kitchen. Years ago I first tried to sprout seeds by way of a large jar with muslin tied over the opening. I never had much luck with this method – it usually resulted in dingy looking sprouts with a faint musty whiff. This may have had something to do with me forgetting to rinse out the jar on a very regular basis. Anyhow, after several failed attempts I abandoned the process altogether.

bean sproutsThat is until a month ago when I took another stab at growing sprouts. I was at a friends house where she introduced me to her favorite new kitchen gadget- a home sprouter. A lidded perspex unit with several tiers to it. It’s easy-peasy she said. Just pour water into the top layer twice a day. It’ll drain down through the tiers into the base tray. You can feed your plants this residual water as it’s full of nutrients. After 2 or 3 days you will have a lively crop of wholesome sprouted beans or seeds. Bigger sprouts like those from Mung beans take about 4 – 5 days to grow to size. I was eventually seduced by the vast array of vitamins and minerals packed into those little mini plants and off I trundled to my local health food store to bag myself a home sprouter.

It sits on my kitchen top, pride of place. We now get to enjoy fresh alfalfa sprouts on our sandwiches or in our soup. A convenient and natural way to get our daily multi vitamin boost. And full of tasty cruchiness to boot!

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LED lights ChristmasChristmas festivities are fast approaching. Time to dust off the decorations and to jolly up your environs with tinsel and flashing lights. If your Christmas lights have been with you since that time in your life when Santa was as real as the tooth fairy then it may be time to replace them. Older lights are likely to be incandescent bulbs and, although reasonably cheap to buy, they use far more electricity than the newer LED versions. So if you are replacing or adding to your Christmas light collection consider the benefits of LEDs.

Benefits of LED lights
But LED lights are not just for Christmas! Recently we replaced some of our spot lights with Panasonic LED bulbs. We were pleasantly surprised at how much LED technology has improved. The light is soft and atmospheric in comparison to the glaring cold light of the first generation spots we installed a few years ago. The cone of light is 36 degrees – suitable for most applications. The LED spot uses a mere 4 watts compared to its halogen equivalent of 35 watts, giving us an impressive energy saving of 89%. Brilliant!

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