How to polish your silver effortlessly–with Science!

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Tarnished flatware waiting for a bath

Here at Root Simple, we live high on the hog. We eat off of silver spoons every day. It’s true. I inherited a set of silver flatwear and utensils from my mom’s side of the family, and instead of saving them for Christmas and Thanksgiving, I use them every day.

This is fairly revolutionary, as I come from a family of Savers. Recently, I unearthed a set of six snowy white damask dinner napkins from the family treasury, painstakingly ironed into perfect squares, centered on a cloth covered board and wrapped in a lace cloth and tied with a ribbon. They’re so perfect it’s clear they’ve never been used.

These may have been a part of my grandmother’s wedding trousseau, or maybe even my great-grandmother’s. But whoever gathered them together so carefully, they never thought any dinner party in their entire life was special enough to use them.

Well, this attitude ends with me. Erik and I don’t have kids, and we’ve hit middle age, so I’m burning the bridges behind us. Everything must be used. No more squirreling and saving. Which brings me back to the silver.

We use silver every day, but it gets tarnished. It’s used too frequently to get that  heavy black tarnishing which afflicts unused silver pieces. Instead, our forks and knives and spoons turn a sort of purplish grey. It’s not real pretty.

Hand polishing the lot of it would only be fun if I could do it in the butler’s pantry in Downton Abbey while gossiping about the gentry upstairs. So I looked up that “foil trick” that was half-lodged in the recesses of my mind, and I discovered its a real thing, and it works like a charm.

Tarnishing happens when the silver combines with sulfur in the air and forms silver sulfate. The black stuff, the tarnish, is silver sulfate. When you clean silver by hand, using silver polish, you are physically rubbing off the tarnish–and some of the silver. When you do this trick with the foil, you are actually reversing the chemical reaction–turning the silver sulfide back into silver. In other words, you become a wizard. And I ask you, would you rather be a wizard or a scullery maid?

The caveat: This process strips away tarnish very effectively–too much so, say connoisseurs of fine silver and the gentle patina of age. It will strip all of the tarnish out of all the patterns and nooks and crannies on your silver objects, rendering the surface somewhat flat and new looking in its universal brightness. Just so you know.

The incredibly easy process:

My primary reference for this was this lecture demonstration from the chemistry department of The University of Massachusetts. There are many versions of this trick on the Interwebs, but some of them are unnecessarily complex or persnickety. You do not need vinegar! You do not need batteries!

This linked information is straightforward, and being from a chem department rather than some random blogger (like myself), it’s reliable. It also explains the science if you’re interested–seems like it’s an oxidation and reduction process? As an art major, I’m just waving my hands around at this point.

You’ll need

• A non-metal container to hold the silver to be cleaned. For flatwear, a glass or enamel baking dish works well. You want to be able to spread everything out.  (I hear you can also use an aluminum baking pan, like one of those disposable roasting pans. In this case you can skip the foil.)

• Aluminum foil

• Baking soda (sodium carbonate)

• Salt

• Hot water

1.Line your dish or other container with foil.

2. Arrange your silver in the container.  All the pieces should touch foil and be completely submerged. Don’t crowd them too much.

2. Stir a small amount of salt and soda into hot water. How much salt and soda? How much hot water? I don’t think exact quantities matter a whole lot except that you should use equal amounts of salt and soda, and don’t dilute it to a crazy extent.  Let’s say use a tablespoon each of salt and soda per quart or two of hot water. UMass used rather less, but this is what worked for me.

3. Pour the hot soda/salt water into the container and watch the magic!

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A minute or two into the bath–the color change comes quickly

You should see some changes right away. My not-so-tarnished flatwear only took a couple of minutes total.  A more heavily tarnished piece will take longer, maybe up to 10 minutes or so.

4. Remove the clean pieces of silver from the water and rinse with clean water and dry with a cloth. You could opt to further bring out the shine with some polish or a polishing cloth.

The solution is non-toxic, so you don’t have to worry about wearing gloves, and you can pour it down the sink without guilt.

Just FYI, I was able to do three consecutive batches of flatwear in the same water bath, although I could see some weakening of the effect by batch #3.

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Flatwear in the rinsing bowl, looking much better!

A Day of the Dead Altar

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I’ve been observing the Day of the Dead in one way or another for many years, because I believe it is important to acknowledge the presence of death in life, and to remember my dead family, friends and pets in a more direct way than the usual way of carrying loss around quietly within my own heart.

Also, I live in Los Angeles, which used to belong to Mexico, and still does in many ways. Halloween is big here, and Día de Muertos (more often called Día de los Muertos, at least up here in the north, but I believe Día de Muertos is correct–although it may be one of those cases where the incorrect swallows the correct via common usage) reigns alongside of Halloween, extending the celebration over the course of three days.

The Mexican celebration of the dead goes back to the Aztecs, at least, and during the colonial era was grafted onto the Catholic three day festival, or triduum, of Allhallowstide: All Hallow’s Eve (aka Halloween), All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Care of grave sites and genteel remembrance of the dead is practiced during this period in Catholic communities worldwide, but this more pagan, colorful celebration of the dead is distinctly Central and Southern Mexican– yet it is spreading through Anglo culture, especially in the southwest, and I believe it will spread more widely still, rather as the American version of Halloween has spread across the globe.

I believe the Day of the Dead is taking hold because, as I said above, we need a time to remember our dead as individuals, families and communities–and be reminded of the eventuality of our own deaths. In our death denying culture, such thoughts have been considered morbid, even unhealthy, for a long time–but that is changing.

Continue reading…

How to Shave With a Safety Razor

I grew up towards the end of an era that promised jet packs, flying cars and the perfect shave. Of these three fantasies the most absurd was driven by the ever changing technology of men’s shaving products. Along with the myth of shaving progress came ever greater prices for blade cartridges. A few years ago I had enough of the price gouging and bought an old fashioned safety razor.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to use it and thought that the haphazard stubble I’ve put up with (and Kelly has to look at) over the past few years was proof that those expensive modern razor cartridges really are better. That is, until I watched the helpful video above by shaving guru Mantic59. It turns out my technique was all wrong. It’s true that those fancy disposable razor cartridges are easier to use. But an old fashioned razor works just as well if you know what you’re doing. And they are a hell of a lot cheaper.

Maybe someday I’ll man up and try a straight razor, the fixed gear bike of shaving. For now I’m happy with the my safety razor and way too old for a fixie.

How do you shave?

5 Very Hip Mason Jar Hacks

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Institute of Domestic Technology El Jefe Joseph Shuldiner (full disclosure: I teach bread classes at the IDT) wrote a very cool column for the Los Angeles Times describing 5 mason jar hacks: an adult sippy cup, soap dispenser, tea infuser, twine dispenser and a pour-spout pantry container. No need to launch yet another Mason jar Kickstarter as these are hacks you can do yourself.