Making Salves, Lip Balms & etc.: Close of the Calendula Series

My calendula after-bath salve. The camera refuses to capture the deep butter yellow color

On Saturday, as a part of this long series on Calendula (here, here and here), I posted about infusing oil with herbs.

If you’ve got some herb infused oil, you can make that into a medicinal salve or balm. Salve is nothing but oil thickened by the addition of wax. I prefer beeswax salves, though there are vegan alternatives, like candelilla wax. They are used similarly.

Of course, you don’t have to make salves with infused oils. Plain olive oil and beeswax are a powerful healing combination on their own, great for a no-nonsense lip balm or hand treatment. You can also use essential oils to bring herbal essences into a plain salve. 

Once you know how to make salve, you can not only make skin salves, you can make lip balm and headache balm and stick deodorant and homemade cosmetics. It’s a simple technique, but it opens a lot of possibilities.

My favorite herbal salve is made out of a mix of equal parts Calendula (pot marigold), chickweed (Stellaria media) and plantain (Plantago major) oils. These three work together to make an all purpose salve that is as good for gardener’s hands as it is for diaper rash or skin scrapes or bug bites or dry cuticles or badly chapped lips or mild sunburn or whatever. I always have a jar on hand and I give jars to friends and family.

Yesterday I made a batch of pure Calendula salve, a big jar of after-bath moisturizer. Like body oil, salve works best as a moisturizer if applied to wet skin. Calendula extracts are found in a lot of high end cosmetics because it’s a mild but effective skin herb. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, soothing, and helps skin regenerate. I love smoothing it from my cat-scratched ankles and my mosquito-bit knees up to my sun-baked face and arms.

How-to after the jump.

The Secret of Salve

The only secret to salve is that it is so darned easy to make.

The only equipment you need is some kind of double boiler situation: a true double boiler, a heat proof bowl balanced over a sauce pan, etc. What I usually do is put a Pyrex liquid measuring cup into a small pan of water. I set the burner on to medium heat and bring the water to a very gentle simmer. Thus the oil heats without overheating or burning.

To the oil I add a little bit of organic beeswax, and continue to heat and stir until the beeswax dissolves. That’s all there is to it, really, but I’ll explain the details.

First, let’s take a moment to talk about beeswax:

Where do you get the beeswax?  You can order it online, just search “organic beeswax”. I wouldn’t buy it in craft or hardware stores unless it’s marked as organic. Beeswax holds on to chemicals, so if the bees were working fields which were sprayed, traces of those chemicals could end up in your balm. Same goes for cannibalizing beeswax candles. I hope to get some nice clean wax from our hive soon, but in the meanwhile I buy my wax from Mountain Rose Herbs. It comes in both pellets and blocks. Pellets are a lot easier to work with.

Good organic beeswax smells heavenly, by the way, and that scent carries into the finished salve.

How much beeswax do you use?  Making salves is all about simple proportions–the ratio of oil to wax. 4 parts oil to 1 part wax yields a firm salve. You’d want this sort of proportion for roll up lip balm tubes or roll up deodorants, cases where firmness is a virtue.

If you don’t necessarily need a firm salve, you have a lot more latitude. 6 parts oil to 1 part wax makes a soft salve, better for scooping up with the fingers.

To tell the truth, even small amounts of wax wax will firm oil up to a sort of loose ointment consistency. For this Calendula bath salve I just made, I didn’t bother to  measure. I just added a heaping teaspoon of wax to my oil. The ratio must have been 10 or 12 to 1. I wanted something very soft.

So does this make sense? For instance, say I want to fill a particular tin with my skin healing salve. I measure the volume of the tin first, by spooning water into it. Say it holds six tablespoons. The easy math on this one would be to warm 5 tablespoons of oil plus 1 tablespoon of wax (5:1). That would work without resorting to teaspoons and fractions, but if I wanted a looser salve, I might short the wax measure.

Keep in mind it’s very easy to repair a too-hard or too-soft salve. Just reheat it and add more wax or more oil as needed. You can get some sense of how a salve is going to harden up by dropping the hot liquid onto a cold plate–just like jam.

Measuring beeswax: Because salve measurements don’t have to be precise, there’s a few ways to measure out wax. Measuring by the spoonful is easiest–spoonful of oil to spoonful of wax. If you have wax in the pellet form, just measure the pellets by the spoonful. If you have a block of wax, shave the wax and press the gratings into a spoon.

Alternatively, you could measure wax by displacement: pour oils into a measuring cup, then drop in pieces of wax until the liquid level meets the desired measure. For example, for a 6:1 ratio, fill a clear measuring cup to 6 oz. and then add wax chunks until the volume rises to 7 oz.  That equals 6 oz. of oil and 1 oz. wax.

Back to the melting:

Okay, so you’re warming your combined oil and beeswax in a double boiler-type situation, as described above. Once the wax has warmed enough in to dissolve and vanish into the oil, take the oil off the heat.When using herb infused oils, you want to treat them gently and heat them as little as possible.

Add essential oils:

If you want to add any scent, or if you’re into the healing properties of essential oils, this is the time to stir them in–right after you take the mix off the heat, but before you pour it.

For lip balms, I’ll add a few drops of peppermint essential oil. Do be careful with peppermint oil, though–too much will make your lips burn. Think something along the lines of 2 drops of of peppermint essential oil per small tin of lip balm. It’s easy to warm it again and add more if you want it stronger. Same goes for scents. Use a light hand. A few drops will do it in most cases.
 
Also, I should add that you can infuse oils with scented herbs, like dried lavender buds or rose geranium leaves or chamomile flowers. They’re not as strong as essential oils, but very nice in salves. And a lot cheaper. 

Here’s a hint regarding essential oils: For inspiration regarding what kind of essential oils might go into different types of salves, check out the product line at Badger Balm.

Pour into jars:

Once you’ve stirred in the essential oils, pour the liquid salve into clean, dry jars or tins. Make sure your containers are dry and clean. Dirt or water could lead to contamination and mold.

Pour it fast, before the mix starts to cool. I find that the lip of a liquid measuring cup gives enough control to fill even those fiddly little plastic lip balm tubes.

Let the containers sit, open, until they are completely cool. Then lid them and label them.

Clean up:

The best way I’ve found to deal with the waxy grease residue (since I stopped using paper towels) is to shake a generous amount of baking soda into the dish and then rub it around. The soda lifts and traps the grease. It works like a charm.

Shelf life:

To be honest, I’m not sure what the expiry date is on these things. I’ve never had a salve go bad, but they do lose potency and scent. Also, a salve or lip balm that’s being used is exposed to a lot more bacteria than one which is unopened. I’d say the unopened ones could last 6 months to a year, but once you open a tin or jar and start sticking your fingers in it, you should use it up in a few months.

 Self promotional note: We cover all this stuff in much more detail in Making It: salves, lip balm, deodorant, etc. –with proper measurements and everything!

How to make a Calendula oil infusion

Love that golden orange color. It’s prettier in real life.
So finally I get around to finishing off this mini series on Calendula (pot marigold). This post will be on infusing oil, and next week we’ll have the one on salves.
We’ve already covered the growing and drying Calendula:
Oil infusion is as simple as can be.  Oil infusion is soaking. Think of it like making sun tea. You take a nice clean jar with a good lid, and fill that about half way full of dried herb, top it off with oil, and let that sit in the sun.
The resulting oil is medicinal. It can be used straight on the skin, or fashioned into salves and balms. I’m particularly fond of Calendula. As a skin treatment it displays regenerative properties, making it really helpful for healing dry, scraped up, or otherwise damaged skin.
 But lets step backwards a bit and talk about materials. 


Materials

Your herb–Calendula or anything else– should be dry when you start this. It should crumble between your fingers. If there’s any flexibility to leaf or flower, that means there’s still water in there.  The reason you don’t want water in there is that spoilage in oil infusions usually comes about because of the presence of water in the plant material. Spoilage can result in anything from off smells to mold to–worst case scenario–botulinum toxin in the oil. 
Now, to be sure, I know folks who infuse fresh herbs in oil, and they’re not all dropping dead. This is like the prohibition against infusing oil with fresh garlic cloves. Garlic oil tastes really good, and lots of people have done it for a very long time, but, theoretically, bad things can happen because of the water in the garlic (i.e. botulism), so it’s not recommended by the Powers that Be. So it’s up to you–I’m just not going to encourage it.
Regarding Calendula specifically, you can soak either the petals alone, or the whole flower heads. Either way is fine. Just make sure the green part of the heads is truly dry.
Your oil doesn’t have to be super high grade. I use un-virgin olive oil–not the lowest, motor-oil sort of grade–just something a little more experienced than extra virgin. This is also a matter of preference. You can use organic, cold pressed, locally sourced extra, extra virgin oil, for sure. It’s just an expensive proposition. Since I make these oils in quantity, I use the less expensive oil and save the good oil for salads. 
It doesn’t have to be olive oil, either, but it should be something good for the skin, like jojoba oil or grapeseed oil. I don’t recommend common cooking oils, like corn or canola. Some people infuse into petroleum jelly (making insta-balm), but that makes me shudder. I’ve not tried infusing coconut oil, but I imagine it would work great. 
The Soaking
All you have to do is fill a very clean jar with a good lid about half way full of dried herb,  then top it off with oil.

If the herb you’re using is very fluffy, and as a result has a lot of air around it–imagine a jar of dry chamomile buds, for instance–you can fill the jar almost to the top with dried matter.

This not an exact science, so don’t get worked up about exact quantities. The only thing you should keep in mind in terms of measurement is that you’ll get less oil out than you put in. The herbs soak up a good bit of the oil, and don’t give it all back. Also keep in mind that you don’t need to make a ton of this stuff unless you’re planning on selling it, or doing a big Christmas project. Salve stretches a long way. A jam jar–the kind that holds 1 cup–is not too small for an experimental go at this.

Now wait
Cap the jar tight and let the plant matter infuse in oil for about a month. The best place is in a sunny window, where it gets some heat and light. Very gentle warming is the idea. You can take your jars outside when the weather is good. When the sun is hiding, I’ll put my jars on the stove top, where there’s constant warmth from the pilot light. 
Give the jar a shake every now and then.
There are other ways to do this. Some people simmer on the herbs and oil on the stove top. I avoid this because plant essences are so delicate and heat sensitive. A crock pot is more controlled, but I don’t have one of those. In Making It I wrote about a technique involving alcohol, the blender, and the stove. It’s tricky, but it will yield finished oil fast. But here at home, I like the simplicity of the long soak. It doesn’t take any energy, and hardly any attention.  
Harvest
Above I said about a month–that’s loose, because again, it’s an inexact science. I’m sure you’d have something useable in a couple of weeks, and I will confess I’ve often forgotten about my oils and left them more than a month with no ill effects. 3 to 4 weeks is ballpark. 
Strain the oil from the dried matter. I used to do this very, very carefully with a tea strainer or with a muslin bag. Now I have the blessed canning funnel.  I line that with various strainers, depending on how clean I want the oil. I have a fairly loose strainer that’s good for big stuff, like Calendula blossoms. Tea baskets fit in there as well. And for very fine straining I can line the strainer with cheese cloth or muslin.
Strain the oil into a fresh, clean jar. Pour off the oil first, then press the dried matter to squeeze out the remaining oil as best you can. You’ll never get it all back.
Label it 
Make sure you label it with the type of oil and the date it was made. Believe me, even if you only make one jar, you’ll forget what it is and when you made it, and a year later you’ll be standing at your cupboard, puzzling over it.

Store

Store the oil in a dark place. Use it up within a year, the sooner the better, to take advantage of the Magick Herb Power.

Of course you should not use oil that smells rancid or looks funny. Smell your herbs and oils as you’re working with them! If you’re familiar with them, you’ll know easily that they’ve gone off.

Don’t throw away old or even rancid oil, by the way. Burn it in oil lamps. That’s a whole ‘nother project that we should cover here. It’s the first project in Making It.

Another item for the plastic haters file

Photo: TWRA. More at link.

As if the specter of hapless marine animals ensnared in six-pack rings wasn’t enough, here comes a story out of Tennessee about a bear who spent three weeks with his head stuck in a big plastic jar. (Perhaps one of those things that holds several gallons of Cheetos?)

They cut it off him, re-hydrated and released him. This is being presented as an happy ending story. And true–it’s a miracle that he survived at all, but he’s lost 3 weeks’ worth of fat reserves. Can he reclaim that weight before winter?

Why do people leave plastic crap lying around in nature? Can we just stop with the throw-away plastic already?

Color me cranky this morning.

Link to the full story at knoxnews.com  (via The Awl)

One way to salvage stale bread

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I bought a baguette this week, which caused Mr. Homegrown to grumble with hurt indignation. His homemade bread is better than any store bought, it’s true–but he hadn’t baked in a few days, and I wanted to make caprese sandwiches. However, my plans went awry and the baguette went stale.  Oh, the shame on my head! Just where did we put out our supply of sackcloth and ashes?

However, tonight I salvaged the bread by making it into Melba toast (?) or rusks, maybe (?).  I have a fondness for hard, blandish cracker breads like this. You can pile an amazing amount of dip-like-substances on them, and as I’ve said, I could live on chips and dips.

I have to admit that for anyone who’s ever made croutons, this recipe is a little “Well, duh”– but, nonetheless:

All you have to do is slice the stale bread up into reasonably thin slices. Lord knows my slices vary in thickness quite a bit. Thinner is easier on the teeth.Very thin would be exquisitely crunchy, but mine are never very thin because I am both uncoordinated and lazy. Baguettes make perfect rounds, but you could chop up larger loaves into bite size squares.

 I like to make these out of bread so far gone it could not be sliced the next day. You know that thin line between salvageable and brick? That’s what this recipe is for. I think there are better things to do with only slightly dry bread–like making bread salad, for instance. See below.

Then I use a garlic press to add garlic juice to some olive oil–maybe one or two cloves to 1/3 cup? It doesn’t really matter, because this is a very loose process. I put the bread slices in a big bowl and drizzle the garlic oil over them and toss them about until it looks like all the slices have been well greased. This usually means I add some more olive oil. I like lots of oil, but I’m sure it would work fine with less. It would also work fine with no garlic.

Finally, I toss the greasy bread with lots of salt and pepper. And yes, of course, you could use all sorts of herbs and spices at this point. Whatever takes your fancy.

The bread goes on a cookie sheet into a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes to a half hour. I’m not sure about the timing because I just check until they look done. “Done” means they’re brown, but not black, and have gone dry and hard as rocks.  Timing will vary by how stale the bread is when you begin, fresher bread taking longer. Thinner slices dry out faster than thicker ones.

Not so wild about melba toast? I don’t have tested recipes on hand, but google up “bread salad” or “panzanella.” This is basically just pieces of stale bread tossed with basil and tomatoes, lots of olive oil and a touch of vinegar. It can be jazzed up with cucumbers or olives or hard boiled eggs or whatever is on hand.

Also, I just saw this recipe for cold bread and tomato soup at the Awl. Haven’t tried it, but it looks interesting.

What do you do with your stale bread?

The grape that ate the world

grapefail or grapewin?

We’ve posted about our grape problems before. Pierce’s disease makes it hard to grow grapes in SoCal. We’ve been trying to get resistant varieties to grow on our patio arbor (aka The Masculinity Pavillion) with no success. Our most recent planting attempts are stunted and unhappy, meaning that once again we’re experiencing A Summer Without Shade.

While our “resistant” varieties are proving not-so-resistant, there is at least one grape that laughs at Pierce’s disease: the native California grape, Vitus californica. I believe this sturdy wild grape provides the root stock for the vineyards up North. We planted one of these near our north side fence maybe five years ago now. While the rest of our grapes wilt and struggle, this one is completely the opposite. It is monstrously huge, cheerfully indestructible, and absolutely out of control.

Without water or any encouragement whatsoever it has grown all along the side of the house, from the back yard to the front yard–some 50 feet. It long ago swamped the 6′ chain link fence and now entertains itself by making grabs at both our house and our next door neighbor’s.

This week we have to go next door armed with pruners and machetes and flame throwers and beat it back out of the neighbor’s yard. Meanwhile, tendrils of the vine are reaching into our kitchen window. I’ve allowed this to go on because it pleases me to be reminded of the supremacy of nature–and also, it ensures we can’t forget to go save the neighbor.

(And yes, we really should have done this over winter, when the vine was bare. As I recall, I made noises about it, and Erik grumbled, “Put it on the list…” Anyway, the monster didn’t lose its leaves until quite late–maybe December or January, then seemed to sprout again immediately.)

The grape grows about six inches a day. Since I took these photos, 3 more vines have made their way in and one has reached the ceiling. It’s going beyond cute to somewhat alarming.

Oh, and do we at least get fruit from this beast? No, we do not. It has never fruited. Not a single grape. californica does make fruit, supposedly, but we’ve never tasted it. Our vine is too busy putting all of its energy into swamping the world.

You may be asking why we don’t plant a Vitis californica on our arbor. The answer is we probably will next year. Erik had his heart set on a tastier grape, so resisted that option, but judging how the newest set of contenders are struggling out there, I’m thinking we have a native in our future. Perhaps the beautiful Roger’s Red.

If we do so, we will definitely be better about staying on top of the pruning. This is our lesson learned.

Why we love fennel

Fennel is an invasive plant, and there are plenty of fennel haters out there, many of them our friends, but every year we let a stand or two of wild fennel take root in our yard anyway. We just had to pause now, while the fennel is high, to say that we love it, because it is hardy and beautiful and grows with no water and no encouragement. Feral fennel bulbs aren’t as good as cultivated bulbs for eating, but we eat the flowers, the fronds and the seeds from these wild stands.

But the real reason we let it grow is because fennel attracts more beneficial insects than any other plant, native or imported, that we’ve ever grown in our yard. It’s impossible to photograph, but our fennel stand is swarming all day, every day, with flying insects of every sort, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, ladybugs and many, many small pollinators which we cannot name. At least ten species at any given glance. It is truly a sight to behold.

Quick and Easy Fire Starters

I came across these fire starters this week while sorting out our camping gear, and thought I should blog about them. Then I realized we already have–long, long ago: way back in 2006, when we were all young and innocent.

These little babies are made out of paper egg cartons, dryer lint and old candle stubs. Once lit, they burn long and mightily. I always keep one down at the bottom of my backpack, along with the first aid kit. They’re really handy for starting fires, especially for the fire-challenged, or to give you extra security when you’re working in difficult conditions. Best of all, they cost nothing, and take only a few minutes to make.

Read our original post for the how-to’s.