Self Sufficiency

Gettin’ Down on the Mountain

Those that know me personally know that the only thing I’m more passionate about than homesteading and prepping is music.  Music has always been a big part of who I am, whether it is listening or playing an instrument.  And I’m very picky about my music.  It has to be real and emotional.  No pop music really does that for me.  Music is emotional, not a product to be manufactured and marketed to the masses like the latest smart phone or kitchen appliance.  Needless to say I stumble on some unique artists, like Corb Lund.  He’s a fellow from way up north in Alberta.

Corb Lund

I’ve been a fan of his for years now, probably since his debut album.  Most of his music is catchy with sarcastic, witty lyrics.  Songs about getting trucks stuck in the mud or the problems with owning cows speak to the country boy in me.  I love a smart ass, and Corb Lund never disappoints.  His latest album came out a couple of years ago.  The opening track made my jaw drop.  It’s not often a musician talks about prepping or social collapse.  He nailed the mindset perfectly with his lyrics on “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain”.

The song makes use of the word “shit” so if you are easily offended or have little ears nearby, you’ve been warned.

When the oil stops, everything stops, nothin’ left in the fountain
Nobody wants paper money, son, so you just as well stop countin’
Can you break the horse, can you light the fire?
What’s that, I beg your pardon?
You’d best start thinkin’ where your food comes from and I hope you tend a good garden

Gettin’ down on the mountain, gettin’ down on the mountain
Don’t wanna be around when the shit goes down
I’ll be gettin’ down on the mountain, goin’ to ground on the mountain

When the trucks don’t run, the bread won’t come, have a hard time findin’ petrol
Water ain’t runnin’ in the city no more, do you hold any precious metal?
Can you gut the fish, can you read the sky?
What’s that about overcrowdin’?
You ever seen a man who’s kids ain’t ate for seventeen days and countin’?

There ain’t no heat and the power’s gone out, it’s kerosene lamps and candles
The roads are blocked, it’s all gridlocked, you got a shortwave handle?
Can you track the deer, can you dig the well?
I couldn’t quite hear your answer
I think I see a rip in the social fabric, Brother can you pass the ammo?
I think I see a rip in the social fabric, Brother can you spare some ammo?

Major Change in Canning Procedure!

There has been a major change in the procedure for canning in Mason jars.  I’ve been pondering hard on why I’m having too many jars not seal when canning lately.  I’m very careful with my process, so I’ve been very upset to have jars not seal.  As it turns out, there was a change in process that wasn’t widely publicized.

I’ve always trusted my grandmother as the expert on all things canning.  I’ve followed her recipes and advice to the letter.  The same thing goes for my mom.  These ladies have me on experience by decades.  I’d be a fool not to listen.  This new change has taken us all by surprise.  I guess we learn to adapt and overcome!

This change involves the lids we use on our jars.  For 100 years, the process has included simmering the lids in a saucepan of hot water on the stove.  We do this to sterilize the lids, and until recently, to soften the rubber so the lid would seal.  This is now WRONG!  100  years of tradition is gone now.  If you simmer new lids, there is a decent chance they will not seal.  I’ve experienced this a lot lately.  I’ve had a ton of jars not seal while following the process I grew up with.

After all the failures, and researching online to get the new information, we’ve just been washing the lids with warm water and putting them on jars.  We’ve processed a couple dozen jars this weekend and have had no seal failures.  This is a big change, since we’ve had a lot of failures to seal this summer.  I was really getting concerned about my abilities to can.  I’m happy to report, it wasn’t anything I was doing wrong, just a change I wasn’t aware of.

I wish the lid manufacturers would have made a better attempt to inform us of the change, but at least I know now and can pass the information along.  If you are having issues with lids not sealing, stop simmering.  We have, and it has made all the difference.

It is rare that I post two articles in the same day, but I thought this was worth sharing immediately.  If I can spare one of my readers the hassle I’ve been experiencing with canning and having failures, then I will feel a lot better.

Here are a couple of links explaining the change.


Fire Roasted Green Chiles


At the end of every summer, the state of New Mexico shares its bounty with the rest of the world.  The famous Hatch Green Chile is in season!  During this season, all the stores in Texas offer these peppers for a great price.  Usually they can be had for less than a dollar a pound.  Since it is a short window on Hatch season, a lot of us like to stock up for the year.  There are several ways to preserve them for year-round use.

The most popular methods are freezing, drying, and canning.  For our yearly stockpile, we bought a 25 pound case, so we have a lot of peppers to work with.  More than half will be frozen, which is a lot more work than it sounds like.  The rest will end up getting dried.  Drying these peppers will use the same process I covered a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into any detail.

Before peppers can be frozen, it helps to remove the skin.  Most peppers have a very tough skin that will not come off the flesh of the pepper without some help.  This is where the roasting comes in.  Once the peppers are roasted, the skins will slip off.  At this point, the peppers go into small freezer bags and into the freezer.  Be sure to use small, serving size bags because once thawed, the peppers will only last a week or two in the refrigerator.

I planned on roasting the whole batch over hardwood coals in the fire pit.  It works well but was very time consuming.  It also involves working directly over an open fire in August in Texas.  Needless to say, it was hot work. To roast these peppers, pierce each pepper with a fork several times.  Put them over the heat until the skin blisters.  Once it is blistered completely, remove from heat and place them in freezer bag or a bowl covered with a towel to allow them to “sweat”.  Once they are cool the skins should slip off.

About halfway through, some friends showed up to help.  They were born and raised in the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico.   We were quickly onto a different method.  We built the fire up to really increase the heat and procured a large pot.  In this pot, we poured enough vegetable oil to completely cover a few peppers.  Once this oil was hot, we started tossing peppers in and letting them blister.  As they finished, they were laid out on cardboard to drain.  This process took 2 or 3 minutes compared to the 15 to 20 minutes it took over the fire.

There is a method that uses an oven to roast the peppers, but we decided against it.  It works well but makes the house smell of chile peppers and can turn the air in the kitchen into pepper spray.  Even with 3 peppers in the oven, the odor was strong.  We will continue to do all of our roasting outside.

A few things I discovered that will help out…  When handling peppers, don’t touch your eyes or face (or private parts!).  You can wear gloves to help out with this.  When working over a fire, the longer your tongs, the better.  I lost some hair on my hands turning peppers.  The friends from New Mexico said that a gas or charcoal grill works very well.


Photo courtesy of Sarah’s Musical Kitchen.

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.


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.

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.