Failures in Soapmaking!


As promised, I finally attempted a batch of homemade lye soap.  I had plans for an informative how-to article.  Those hopes have been dashed for the time being.  Here’s how to NOT make soap…

The first problem I encountered was not a lack of information available, but there is too much information online about soapmaking.  And a lot of it seems to conflict.  The only standards are the amount of lye to use per weight of specific fats.  That’s the crucial part.  I used the Hot Process in a crockpot.  In theory, this allows for a soap that can be used immediately rather than curing for weeks.  Sounds cool, right?

Before I get into the failure, I’ll give some basic information on soap.  Soap is made by a process called Saponification.  This involves properly mixing a caustic (lye) with a fat (lard).  The lye is pretty constant across recipes.  The fat can be any animal fat or plant oil.  During the Saponification process, the lye and fats interact chemically to produce a product called soap.  Very specific amounts of lye are used to ensure a complete reaction so we don’t have a soap that is still caustic.  Nothing like a nice chemical burn in the shower to start the day!

That’s where it all went wrong for me.  I was using a recipe that I was a chart for an amount of lye for different fats.  It was not.  It was a recipe that actually called for all the fats listed.  My fault.  I didn’t follow the recipe, and ended up way short on the weight of fats needed for soap.   Apparently it is difficult to adjust a recipe in the middle of the process.

I measured out my lye (4.4 ounces by weight) and my lard (6.4 ounces by weight).  Any soapmakers reading this are shaking their heads at me right now.  I got the lard in the crockpot and melted it.  While it was melting, I dissolved the lye in 12 ounces of water.  Once it was dissolved, I mixed it with this woefully small amount of fat.  After stirring like crazy to mix it, I realized there wasn’t nearly enough ingredients for the volume I was expecting.  I re-read the recipe and realized my mistake.  At this point, there is a chemical reaction going on.

In a rush, I calculated how much more lard I needed to add for the amount of lye, another 26 ounces or so.  I should have used 2 pounds of lard at the beginning.  This lard gets added, but it takes a while to melt.  I don’t know the mechanisms involved, but it severely disrupted the process.  Probably like trying to add 2 cups of flour to a half baked cake.

After stirring for an hour, it never did thicken up like it was supposed to.  I went ahead and accepted defeat and turned the crockpot off and went to bed.  I awoke to find the process did work to a point.  The crockpot was full of a hard soap-like substance.  I tested it by sticking a small piece to my tongue.  Believe it or not, it’s an accepted way to test for caustics.  It tasted like a 9 volt battery.  Still caustic.

I decided to go for broke and I turned the heat back on to re-melt this failure.  After 4 hours and adding enough water to get it thinned out enough to mold, I placed it in disposable bread pan molds lined with wax paper.  It looks like lumpy mashed potatoes in a bread pan.  And it is still caustic.   The Saponification process will continue, but it will be more like the Cold Process where it will have to cure for weeks before I can test it and see if it works.

While I was washing the residue out of the crockpot, it did lather up and form bubbles.  Technically this goopy mess is soap, just not anything I planned on.  Now I’ll wait and see how it turns out.

I’ll be giving this another go in the next few days and try to get it right.  I’m still holding out hope that I can write a how-to article.  And I really want some homemade lye soap on the homestead!  Stay tuned, and remember to always follow directions!

Preserving Peppers!

This year my pepper plants aren’t doing well.  I’m not sure if it was the weird spring weather that stayed cold longer than normal or something I’m doing wrong.  Whatever it is, the plants are stunted.  They look healthy, but small.  I’ve managed to harvest a couple of Jalapenos and a handful of small Cayenne peppers.

Luckily, my dad’s pepper plants are doing great this season, so he sent me home with a ton of peppers this weekend.  I ended up with a dining room table full of Jalapeno, Cayenne, and Banana peppers.  Now it’s time to move to get them preserved before they can go bad.

Dehydrating is the easiest way of preserving peppers, but it limits their uses later.  They can be used for cooking or as a seasoning, but not really enjoyed by themselves.  I always like to keep a good stock on hand for uses in chili and stew recipes, so several pounds of this batch are getting dried.   Dehydrating peppers is a pretty simple and straightforward process.

Peppers have a pretty tough skin that seals moisture in, so each pepper needs to be pierced or sliced so they can dry evenly.  For thin peppers like the Cayennes I make a slit along the length of each pepper.  For thicker peppers like the Jalapenos, I simply slice them in half along the length.   Once all the peppers are sliced, they get loaded on the trays of the dehydrator.  Unless you have a very well ventilated spot inside, I recommend running the dehydrator outside.  As peppers heat up and start to dry, they turn the area around them into a pepper spray gas chamber.  Usually in 10 to 12 hours, everything is dried out well and ready to store.  I use Mason jars to keep them moisture free.  That allows them to keep for years.

Some basic tips for dehydrating:

1. Thin items dry much faster than thick pieces.

2. Peppers, onions, and other foods can put off very strong odors while drying.

3. If you dehydrate outside, make sure the dehydrator is protected from animals and birds.

4. Some items can impart their flavor to others if dehydrated at the same time.  Don’t dry onions or peppers with your apple chips!

5. Check your food every couple of hours.  You can’t really over dry most items, but no sense in running a dehydrator longer than needed.


Sick Puppy! Meningitis?!

I got clever and wrote a couple of articles ahead of time and set them to publish at later times in WordPress.  I figured it would give me some time away from the computer for work, family, and homestead responsibilities.  As it turns out, I’m not one for automation.  I screwed up on some setting so nothing has posted in weeks.  Live and learn!!!

Very soon I will have articles up about dehydrating peppers and canning tomatoes.  A friend from work and I are going to jumping on the vermiculture bandwagon, so there will be info posted as we learn that.

On the puppy front, we’ve had some problems with Maevis.  For those following along, she is now a touch over 4 months old.  Over the weekend of the 4th of July, we had to take her to the animal ER at 10pm.  She was very disoriented and wobbly.  I was horrified that she ate some toxin or poison.  After $370 and several early morning hours, the vet thinks she aspirated vomit and caused lung inflammation.  Two weeks later, she presented the same symptoms, only much worse.  She actually fell off the bed and couldn’t get back up. She would yelp if anyone touched her.  Back we go!!

This round at the animal ER was a late night ordeal on a work night.  And it cost another $330.  This time the diagnosis was a little more firm.  We opted for the Distemper test just to rule it out, but the vet was very confident in the problem being Meningitis.  Apparently, the lung problem was an infection that decided to go nasty on us.  After a few days, Maevis is starting to act like a puppy again.  We’re doing a ton of pills twice a day.  Two antibiotics, a steroid, and pain medication.  It’s been a long, expensive road, but I think we’ll have a healthy puppy again.


Making a Tincture of Plantain

Plantain (the weed, not the small banana) has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb.  Native Americans and Europeans have used it to treat a variety of medical issues including skin wounds, insect and spider bites, snake bites, and indigestion.  It is said to even help with acne and blood clotting.  Overall, this prolific weed has some powerful medicinal uses.  I’ve just recently discovered it, but I’m already impressed with it as a treatment for bug bites.

With all of this new information I have, I ran into a problem.  As it gets hot here in Texas, the Plantain is starting to dry up and crumble away.  I researched ways to preserve some of it.  Dehydration is an option, but I’m certain a lot of the medicinal qualities would evaporate away.  It looks like the best option to save the qualities I want is by making a tincture.  Tinctures are liquid extracts, usually made with ethanol.  I just happened to have a stash of moonshine at a pretty serious concentration, probably close to 180 proof (90%).  A bit of Google research turns up that tinctures are simple to make.

The basics are to add plant matter to the alcohol, let it sit a while, then strain the plant matter out with a filter or cheesecloth.  The alcohol will absorb the herbal goodness.

Raw Plantain Leaves


Rinsed and Chopped Leaves


Leaves in a Pint Mason Jar


Adding the Alcohol


Leaves Steeping

The leaves will steep in the alcohol for a week or two to do its work.  After this time, I will strain the plant matter out and save the liquid.  This liquid is the tincture.   This batch will net me around 9 or 10 ounces.  Once it is done, I will put it in a dropper bottle and test it out on the numerous bug bites I receive here on the homestead.  I’m really hoping it can offer some relief from all the chiggers that seem to find my legs delectable.  Stay tuned for an update in a couple of weeks on the final product and the relief it might offer.

An Update on Maevis

Maevis is now coming up on 11 weeks old.  In the past few weeks, she’s started to lose the roly-poly fat puppy look.  She’s gotten a lot taller, and all of it is legs.  She’s also a lot more effective at chewing on everything.  She chews on shoes, furniture, Sarah, Me, the kids, and Maddie the McNabb Shepherd.  The puppy teeth are a trial, but at least she lets us sleep through the night now.  House training is going ok considering her age.  She alerts us when she needs to go outside, but we have exactly 2.3 seconds to open the door before she leaves a puddle in the entrance way.  It usually takes me 4.7 seconds to get to the door.

Maevis is starting to learn a few commands.  “Sit” and “Stay” are catching on quickly, so I’m starting to branch out and increase the vocabulary.  She is learning quickly, but is still completely disinterested in the “Come” command unless she thinks there is something in it for her.  She’s a very clever girl, but I think we are in for some stubborn attitude.

Sorry for the slightly blurry image.  The puppy is in constant movement and has complete disregard for anyone wanting a good picture!


Brewing Beer From Scratch!

This is a first at Surviving Modern Life.  I’m featuring a guest author for an article.  As promised in my last article, the Brewmaster has given us a lot more info than I could offer.  A link to his blog is included at the bottom of the article.  Swing by and say Hi!



Home Brew: Adventure or Plain Cheap?
So, what to do on a wonderful Saturday morning? Mow the yard? Weekly chores? No… Let’s do something a bit more productive with our time. I’m speaking, of course, of practicing the now growing art of home brewing.

If you have ever drank a commercial beer, and yes I’m talking about the BROs who feel Bud or Miller Lite is a beer, you my friends, are sadly mistaken. I got into this enjoyable art not because I was too cheap to wanna buy good beer, but because I wanted an outlet. Something I could stand back and take pride that this cool, foamy goodness was crafted by my hand. So the following is a brief overview of a Saturday morning brew with My cousin Justin.

I started off this brew morning by addressing one of the most important steps any brewer should never skip, cleaning and sanitizing. I like my equipment clean and sterilized. Any outside mold spores or wild yeast can dramatically change the beer on a best case scenario, and worst case…. Well that’s a batch that the drain will get to drink. I use a dye and scent free soap and boil my metals in water for a couple minutes to ensure nothing is left over. I use Starsan Rinseless to clean out everything that has a large surface area. Cleanliness is next to beer godliness.

Justin and I decided to brew this batch up so he could get a better understanding of the brewing process. We started off by filling my mash tun with 6 gallons of distilled water. The water choice is nothing more than preference, but i find it has the lowest count of minerals in it compared to spring water. The water is then heated up in the mash tun to around 160 degrees F. Once at temp, Our grains went in. Now the water has to be at around 152 degrees with the grain and SACCHE, or rest, for an hour. ( That’s nothing more than fancy speak for steeping..) After an hour, its time for mash out. The heat goes up to a constant 158 to 160 degrees for about 15 minutes. This help caramelize the sugars, break down the proteins and extract the “goodness”. The Wort, or unfermented beer is now ready for boil. About 4 gallons of the the hot wort is transferred to a five gallon pot for the boil. The last bit was used as sparge water to make sure all the sugars from the grain are extracted. Once this was done, the grain went into the composter and the last gallon or so of wort went in the fermenter.

The boil off is simply heating the wort up to boiling, helping with the breakdown of the last of the proteins and allows the yeast ample food for fermentation. Once the wort comes to a boil, the timer starts. There were three hop additions to this. The first stage of additions is usually added at the beginning of the addition boil and is known as the bittering stage. Hops are very bitter in taste and it helps offset the super sweet malt sugars. Ours went in at sixty minutes to start the boil. Now this is where the new experience came into play. This was a first using whole leaf hops and I fell in love. After letting this sit at a rolling boil for 45 minutes, the next addition was ready to go in. This beer used the same hops for bittering, aroma and flavoring. We added our aroma hops and let the timer count down. At 55 minutes, the last of the hops went in. Five minutes later, our wort was ready to chill. But before that, the OG, or original gravity, needed to be checked. Now, still being a newer brewer, I can’t explain how it works, as I have an app on my phone that automatically fills the info in. I filled my
hydrometer tube and checked the gravity. Right on spot.

Now, I don’t have a wort chiller yet, and rest assured, it will come when I can afford it. So I used what is known as an ice bath. Simply put, place the boil pot in the sink and Fill up as much as the sink will hold with cold water. Swirl the sink water one direction and stir the warm wort the opposite. It is a slow counter-flow type system. After the cooling process and the wort has cooled off to around 70 degrees, it was time to pitch the yeast. Another first for me, I used a liquid yeast. I normally use a dry yeast that I rehydrate. Its seems to work better for me and I am a little more comfortable with it. A swift stir of the wort before the yeast goes in, ensures enough oxygen for the yeast to thrive.

From there, the yeast goes in and the lid goes on. The airlock gets installed, sanitized of course, and I fill mine with vodka, just as an extra precaution. The whole setup goes into my beer fridge and the worst part of the whole process begins. Waiting. Five weeks. But all we can do is wait it out and just look forward to this cold goodness it will be. Now, around week three, I will check the beer for its gravity and give myself a rough estimate of alcohol content. It will be checked again around week five for the final gravity to ensure its done fermenting and clearing.

The last step is bottling. I prefer to use the resealable bottles over those that have to be capped after every use. I use dextrose sugar and two cups of water. I bring the water to a boil and stir in the dextrose, and then let it boil another five minutes. After cooling, the dextrose solution goes into the bottling bucket and then the beer gets poured in. The dextrose is used in bottling to give the yeast something to feed on with its in the bottle. As the yeast eats, it releases CO2 with carbonates the beer in the bottle as it cant escape. This process can take from 10 to 14 days, but once it is complete, you have yourself a good carbonated cold beer.

Yes, this seems like a lot of effort just to end up with a couple cases of beer, but what drive me, is the simple fact that it’s mine, and there isn’t another beer out there quite like this. Follow me as I later on continue this Beerology and learn and experiment more down the road.

Brewing Beer at Home


Give a man a beer, waste an hour. Teach a man to brew, and waste a lifetime
-Bill Owens


A few weeks ago, I had the chance to learn a new skill relating to self reliance.  My cousin has taken up the new hobby of home brewing beer, and asked me to give him a hand with a batch.  Brewing is something I’ve read extensively about, but never actually tried before.  Knowing how something is done is not the same as knowing how to actually do it.  I wanted to share a little bit about the process I learned, but this won’t be a step by step article.  My cousin will be doing a guest post soon to go into more detail.

He is still a novice, but he is advancing very quickly in his abilities.  There are a few ways to brew at home ranging from very simple to extremely complex.  For this project, we took on a more advanced method.  A lot of beginners use malt extract brewing.  This means the grains have already been mashed and canned.  For this, you add water to the contents of the can and go from there.  There isn’t much that can go wrong, because the hard part has been done already.  You don’t have to closely monitor temperatures and mash times.

A step up in complexity is mashing the grain.  For this method, you take raw malted barley and hold it at a certain temperature for a specific amount of time.   This step converts the starches in the grain into a sugar that the yeast can ferment.  Yeasts are very picky about their food sources, and starches are pretty much useless to them.  They must feed on sugar to produce alcohol.  If mash temperatures are too cool, it takes too long to convert to sugar.  If the temperature gets too high, you will destroy the enzymes that do the conversion.

Once the grain mash was done and the starches were converted, we moved to the hops.  Hops are the flower of a vine that has been used for centuries in beer brewing.  They add the bitterness that offsets the sweet flavor of the malt, and act a preservative and stabilizer.  Once the mash was complete, we brought the liquid (called Wort) to a boil and started adding specific amounts of hops at specific intervals.  This step took about an hour.

At this point we had a wort that needed some yeast.  Aside from being picky about their food sources, yeast are temperature sensitive.  If you pitch the yeast into wort that has just come off a boil, they will all die.  So here we are with a 5 gallon bucket of steaming liquid and a yeast that likes room temperature.  Let the waiting begin!

We helped the cooling process along by filling the sink with ice water and setting the bucket down in it.  This method isn’t exactly efficient, but since we didn’t have the proper cooling equipment, we had to handle it this way.  Once the waiting game was over we were able to pitch the yeast and start the real beer making process.

The beer we brewed is a classic German Lager recipe.  This type of beer requires a fermentation temperature in the 40s.  This really slows the fermentation down, but provides a very crisp flavor when it is done.  Most beer styles ferment for a few days at room temperature, but the Lager has been going for 3 weeks and will require at least 2 more in the cold.  If you ever brew Lagers you will need a separate refrigerator unless you are willing to sacrifice most of your fridge space for a couple of months.

This article is very simple and only covers the concepts of brewing.  I’ll be posting a detailed step by step authored by the actual brewer very soon.  In the meantime, check out his new blog!  He covers his success and failure at learning to brew.  You can leave comments there to ask questions, offer advice, or share experiences.


Electric Chainsaw, A Very Handy Tool!

Here at the homestead, saving money is always on our minds.  One of our biggest expenses (as most can relate) is energy cost.  Summer is hard because the house isn’t well insulated and Texas summers are brutal.  The best we can do there is set the thermostat up a little and deal with the fact that it is going to be warmer than we like in the house.  Any unusually cooler days in Summer will see windows open and the air conditioner taking a break.  Those days are few and far between in Texas.  We just suck it up and budget for high electric bills from June through September.

Winter is a different story in Texas.  We can get cold here, but nothing like the folks up north.  A really cold night will be in the upper teens, and single digit temperatures will set records.  We just came out of an unusually cold Winter, and my electric bill reflected that.  I posted an electric bill in December that rivaled the highest Summer bills.  Time to get serious on reducing that bill!

We have a fireplace in the house, and using it reduced the amount of time the electric furnace runs.  It’s a no-brainer… Use the fireplace more when it’s cold outside!  The only catch is a fireplace needs a steady supply of firewood.  That means tooling up with the proper equipment to feed the wood stack.  I have a McCulloch gas chainsaw already, but as it ages it is getting moody.  It’s hesitant to start sometimes and can be a pain to keep running at times.  I need a new gas saw, but this one will have to limp along until I can afford something better.

Here’s where the Electric Chainsaw comes in.  I was shopping around at Harbor Freight and saw a Chicago Electric 14 inch electric chainsaw on sale for 50 dollars.  I checked the online reviews on my phone and all seemed good.  I went ahead and picked one up with the idea that I could use it close to the house for small chores.  It came with a bottle of bar oil, and once filled it was ready to use.

I started out with some small jobs to test it out.  A few low limbs here, some saplings there.  It never missed a beat and did everything I wanted with little effort.  After I was satisfied with the performance, I moved on to a larger diameter tree that needed to come down.  The little chainsaw ripped through an elm tree with a trunk diameter of 10 inches or so.  It was slower than a gas saw, but it got the job down well.

A few weeks ago, I got started on the wood pile for next Winter.  I had already selected two Locust trees that needed thinned out close to the house.  I fired up the gas saw and got one felled.  Halfway through trimming the limbs off, my saw started acting up.  It would run for a minute then die.  After restarting it a couple of times with the same result, I set it down and walked away for a bit.  I debated on taking it apart to troubleshoot, but I had a tree down in the yard and partially in the driveway.  No time for saw repair!!

I strung out an extension cord and grabbed the electric saw.  Within an hour, I had the tree limbed and cut into firewood length pieces.  I was still feeling productive so I didn’t want to interrupt the workflow.  I drug the extension cord and saw out to the next tree and felled it as well.  Another hour and it was done.  My gas saw would have done it a little bit faster, but I didn’t want to waste a good working day trying to get it running again.

The wood is stacked and seasoning so I can split it later once it dries out.  All in all, these two trees provided about a rick of wood.  All of the cuts save the first felling cut were done with the 50 dollar electric saw.  I’d say this little saw passed its first real test with flying colors.

The downside to an electric chainsaw is that it obviously requires an electrical outlet.  It is limited by the length of the extension cord and the location of the nearest outlet.  I was lucky that both of these trees were within 100 feet of an outlet.  You won’t taking it very far into the woods unless you are willing to drag a generator along or have a 1200 Watt or larger inverter on a vehicle.

Overall, I can’t recommend this thing enough for small jobs or as a backup to a gas chainsaw.  There is no fueling, pulling a rope, or warmup times to mess with.  It also weighs half as much as my gas saw, so I can use it longer without fatigue.




Bean Teepee for the Yard Long Beans


While perusing the seed display at a local store, Sarah found a variety of green bean neither of us had heard of.  Asparagus Bean, AKA the Yard Long bean.  This bean is supposed to put on pods up to 30 inches long.  I’ve always planted bush varieties, so climbers are a new deal for me.  Sarah hit Pinterest on ideas for a trellis and came upon the idea of a bean teepee.  Something else that’s a new idea.  Lets give it a try!

I selected two skinny little locust trees about 2 inches at the base and felled them.  This was a lot easier task than their full grown brothers.  As it turns out, the little ones don’t have thorns up and down the trunks.  A few minutes with the chainsaw to clean them up and they were cut to length at 8 feet.

I had a spot by the tomatoes that was already tilled and mulched, so I planted each of these poles in a hole a few inches deep and stood them together.  With a little help, I tied them up with baling wire.  As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t have made it as a member of a plains tribe.  My teepee doesn’t have that majestic look that we see in paintings of teepees in picturesque valleys.  Oh well, as long as the wind doesn’t blow it over and the beans are willing to grow on it, I’ll call it a success.  Once the beans come up and start climbing, I plan to run twine horizontally between the poles.

Hopefully this little contraption will be covered in delicious green beans in a couple of months.  I’ll keep everyone updated on the progress and whether or not the teepee concept works out.




The New Director of Homestead Security

Here at the homestead, I currently serve as Director of Homestead Security.  It can be a busy job at times.  Random cars driving down the private road, coyotes getting too close, rabbits exploring the garden, feral cats tearing stuff up.   We have a lot of security breaches around here and it can be tiring keeping up with all of it.  To make things worse, I work full time, so I’m not home to deal with these breaches during the day.

We have Maddie the shepherd dog.  She’s a sweetheart and my best friend, but security she isn’t.  An intruder would get loved and cuddled to death.  We also have Tito, the blind wonder.  He barks a lot, but an intruder could walk by him.  I can’t hold him at fault because he can’t see.  With their powers combined, we have unseen intruders getting loved and cuddles.  This works out to a completely unacceptable security situation.

We have friends that run goats, and I just swoon over their herd dogs.  These dogs are big and intimidating, but lovable to their humans.  They literally fight coyotes to the death.  Nothing on the ranch escapes their watchful gaze.  When one of them turned up pregnant, I got a little excited.  I asked our friends if they had plans for the pups, they basically said they needed to find them new homes when they were delivered and weaned.   We were all expecting these fluffy white Great Pyrenees puppies.  We thought they would be a legacy to their father, Chuck.  Chuck was a beast that gave his life fighting off a pack of coyotes.  A braver, more noble herd dog has ever lived.  He will be missed by all that knew him.

As it turns out, the Momma Pyrenees was not knocked up by the noble Chuck.  Bruce the fetching, crazy Boston Terrier/Boxer mix was the culprit.  So now we have a puppy that has droopy jowls, floppy ears, and a Great Pyrenees double coat.  And it she grows into those giant feet, we’re going to have a beast!

Momma kicked her and 7 other litter mates off the teat early, so we got a 5 week old puppy.  We haven’t slept in a week.  The puppy has actually made Sarah’s face bleed two nights in a row.  She has teeth.  And she loves using them!

Meet Maevis, the new Director of Homestead Security.  Of course, she’s too young to take full responsibility but we are grooming her for the job daily.


Director of Homestead Security