How To Manage a Compost Pile Using Temperature

compost temperature chart

I’ve always been confused about when to turn a compost pile. Some people suggest lots of turning while others don’t turn at all. I built a pile in December using a technique I learned from Will Bakx, soil scientist and operations manager of Sonoma Compost. Bakx recommends keeping the pile between 131° F (55° C) and 163°F (72°C) for a period of 15 days. The only time you turn is when the pile starts to dip below 131° F or to prevent the pile from going above 163°F.

The technique is simple–all you do is take the temperature once a day with a compost thermometer and write down the result on a calendar. The graph above is the result that I got from a pile made out of horse bedding, chicken manure from our hens, plant materials, straw and brew waste from a local brewery.

The red area on the chart is the thermophilic temperature range (135° -160° Fahrenheit). The dip you see at day 15 is the one time I turned the pile so that I could keep it in the thermophilic range. Using temperature as a clue to when to turn the pile has a number of advantages:

  • You can make sure that the pile does not get too hot. Above 160° F  you start to kill off the thermophilic bacteria that decompose your pile. To decrease temperature you turn and add more carbon material and water.
  • Washington State University recommends subjecting all of the pile to temperatures above 150° F to kill potential pathogens. I’m fairly certain that, with the turn I did at day 14, all of the pile got up to 150°F.
  • Weed seeds are killed above 130°F–another reason to watch temperature.
  • Failing to get high temperatures can be an indication of too much carbon or a lack of water. To correct, add more nitrogen and water and turn.
  • A loss of temperature could indicate that the pile is going anaerobic. The solution is to add more carbon material and turn.

Once the pile has had 15 complete days over 131° F you just let it sit. Compost is done when it is dark, smells like earth and you can’t recognize the original ingredients. It will likely be several months before it’s ready to use. I’ve found that I need to turn the pile periodically and add water after the initial thermophilic period due to our dry climate.

The mass of the pile is a factor as well–I’ve found that it needs to be a minimum of one cubic yard of material to start with. So I save and scavenge materials that I can use to build a pile all at once. The small trickle of kitchen scraps we generate each day goes into our worm bin.

Despite the geekery with using a compost thermometer, I’ve found that this method saves labor. Back breaking turning only happens when it’s necessary.

How to Freeze Food in Canning Jars

Canning jars are the best way I know to avoid using plastic when freezing foods. You’ll want to use wide mouthed canning jars like the one above, that come in pint and half pint sizes. Don’t use jars with shoulders–these jars will break due to the expansion that happens when food is frozen.

Kerr and Ball jars are marked with a freeze fill line that’s about an inch below the rim. Don’t put food you intend to freeze above this line.

Avoiding plastic lids is more difficult. Two piece Ball lids have a BPA coating (which, I’ve heard that they are considering phasing out). I suppose you could use a BPA-free Tattler lid, though I haven’t tried them. For freezing I use food grade plastic lids sold by Ball. Food is not in contact with the lid, so I’m not too concerned about the plastic, though I understand that some people won’t agree. At least the lids are more easily reused than ziplock bags. It looks like Ball now has BPA free lids.

But jars won’t work for freezing a pork chop–see an interesting thread on Chowhound about this issue that Root Simple reader Peter Shirley alerted me to. Long story short: home freezing is a product of the post WWII era of plastics and refrigeration, so there’s not a lot of alternatives other than the jar option and less than optimal aluminum foil and heavy paper. It’s hard to beat the moisture retaining and freezer burn excluding properties of plastics. The plastic-free meat freezing alternative is to bring back the corner butcher shop and buy fresh.

Freezing Meat With Freezer Paper

A good question came in on Friday’s post about freezing fruits and vegetables about how to freeze meat products without using plastic bags. I don’t know of a way to avoid plastic with meat products, but you can use freezer paper instead of ziplock bags. The University of Georgia Extension Service has a handy info sheet on how to wrap meat with freezer paper: Freezing Animal Products.

Correction: an earlier version of this post was entitled “How to Freeze Meat Without Using Plastic.” I had forgotten that freezer paper is coated with plastic. You can use glass canning jars to freeze (just don’t use a jar with a shoulder). While jars are a great way to freeze soups and stews, they are not suitable for cuts of meat. If you are aware of a way to freeze cuts of meat without plastic, please leave a comment.

Root Simple Video Podcast Episode 2: How To Make a Cotton Ball Fire Starter

In the second episode of the Root Simple Video Podcast you’ll learn how to make a cotton ball fire starter. It’s easy:

Rub some petroleum jelly in a couple of cotton balls and store them in a pill bottle. That’s it. We got five and half minutes of burn time–most of that strong flame–out of the ball we made for this video. Them dead dinosaurs burn good!

Make some of these and the next time you need to start a fire in a hurry, or under less-than-perfect conditions, you’ll be a happy camper.

You can download a copy of this video here.

And note that the Root Simple Video Podcast is now available in the iTunes store for free here. Subscribe and you can play our videos on your iPhone, iPod, iPad and iScroll™ (ok, made up that last one). We’re still working out a few technical kinks, but you can look forward to a lot more videos, including bread baking how-tos, in the coming year.

Hoshigaki Success!

I’d estimate that one out of ten new homesteading projects succeeds. Which is why I’m especially happy that the long process of drying persimmons the Japanese way (hoshigaki) has been a big success. The white powder that looks like mold is sugar in the fruit that has risen to the surface. The result is, incidentally, very different from drying persimmons in a dehydrator (which also tastes good but has a much firmer texture–hoshigaki has the texture of a gummy bear).

It took about a month. One observation is that the persimmons that got the most sun also developed the most “frosting”.

Hoshigaki sells for upwards of $35 a pound–I just saw some at a Japanese market and they did not look as good as the ones I made. This is definitely a project I’ll be repeating next year. They would make a great gift along with some green tea.

You can read our blog post on how to make Japanese dried persimmons (hoshigaki) here.

Note from Kelly:

I thought we should say something about flavor here. They are not as sweet as I thought they might be. Which is not to say they’re not sweet, they’re just not super-sweet. They have a sort of meaty richness to them–in a strange way, they remind me a little of Fig Newtons, minus that seedy texture. The sugar dusting (sucrose powder?) is very delicate and a bit floral. I can only taste it if I touch my tongue to it.

These are traditionally served with green tea, and I have to say that tradition nailed it–that’s a perfect combo of flavors. Other than eating them ceremonially with tea, they are a very nice dried fruit and can be used any way you usually use dried fruit.

How to Cycle Safely

No I’m not making this up. Thank you Bikesnobnyc for finding a “bicycle accident fun set.”

To follow up on yesterday’s post Is Cycling Too Dangerous? I thought I’d post some tips and resources I’ve found handy for staying out of trouble on a bike.

Tips

First, I’m assuming that we’re all following the rules of the road, i.e. stopping at red lights, riding with traffic, as well as using lights, wearing a helmet etc. And I’m talking about rules for adults here–kids are a different situation. These are just a few of what I consider the most important things I’ve learned:

  • Route choice. I carefully choose my regular routes to maximize the time I spend on quiet, seldom traveled side streets or in bike lanes/paths. I will go well out of my way to avoid high speed, bike-unfriendly streets. When going to a place I’ve never biked before I choose a route ahead of time on a map. Google has a bike option now that can work as a starting point. Many cities also have bike maps that can also be handy.
  • When going through an intersection watch out for people making left tuns. Assume that you are not seen even if you are wearing a florescent pink bunny suit. Also watch out for people making right turns. Always assume the worst is about to happen and have a plan to either turn quickly or slam on the brakes.
  • Avoid the door zone. There are rare exceptions when I will dip into the door zone briefly (only while going very slowly). But for the most part you should stay out of it. It is impossible to predict if a door will open.
  • Lane positioning is an art not a science. It comes with experience. At any given spot on a road I might be further to the left or right depending on what time of day it is, what the weather is like and the general “mood’ of the street. A good guide to getting the hang of how far to the left or right to be is an excellent book The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.
  • Controlling anger. This is the skill that took the longest. I’ve since learned to ignore all honking and even the most egregious behavior on the part of motorists. Arguments are not worth the time and can quickly escalate to violence. Plus you come off like the Portlandia bike dude.
  • The sidewalk is, generally, not a good place to be. The problem comes when you roll off the sidewalk and into the intersection. It’s asking to be hit by a motorist turning right or left. They won’t see you and you can’t dodge the car as well as you could as a pedestrian.

Resources

  • Online I really like the website bicyclesafe.com
  • And, once again: The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst. I’m suprised that more people don’t know about this book. It changed my life and saved my ass on more than one occasion.
  • Lastly, a friend of mine, attorney Ross Hirsch has a checklist you can download and carry with you in case you’re in an accident. You can find it here (pdf). It has a list of things you should write down as well as California laws relating to cycling. Even if you don’t live in California the checklist is handy.

Please feel free to add other tips you think I should have mentioned in the comments.

How To Roast Coffee in a Hot Air Popcorn Popper

UPDATE 12/17/2012: My hot air popper died on me. See my new blog post on coffee roasting.

Roasting my own coffee has been one of the most satisfying and easy homesteading projects I’ve ever taken on. I look forward to my delicious, freshly roasted coffee every morning. Roasting your own coffee is so simple, I can’t believe that more people don’t do it.

Here’s how I do it:

1. Every couple of months I order green beans from Sweet Maria’s in Oakland. I’m particularly found of their eight pound sample pack. They choose the varieties–usually from multiple continents, carefully sourced and half the price of what they would cost roasted (if you could even find these interesting coffees). One of these days I’ll find a local source for green beans, but until that time I’m very happy with Sweet Maria’s.

2. I roast a couple of days supply of coffee maybe twice a week. I do it with a West Bend Air Crazy popcorn popper. Note that not all hot air poppers will work. Sweet Maria’s has a complete list of the right kind of hot air poppers here. One drawback is that you can only roast a small amount at a time–no more than a half cup. It takes about 6 minutes for the roast that I like. I keep the kitchen doors closed to prevent the smoke alarm in the hallway from going off. You would probably better get better results with a manual, hand-cranked popcorn popper such as the Jiffy Pop popcorn popper, but I like the convenience of the air popper. I just dump the beans in and in a few minutes I’m done. One drawback is that the West Bend popper is poorly constructed. Repeated use has sort of melted the top a bit. If you roast coffee with and air popper and have a better suggestion for a popper brand, please leave a comment. Despite the slightly deformed shape of my West Bend, it still works fine.

3. Once the roast is complete I dump the beans into a metal colander to cool them off. The beans out-gas CO2 for a few hours so after they cool they go into a 75¢ foil valve bag that Sweet Maria’s sells. I roast in the evening before going to bed. By morning the coffee is ready to use.

4. I make my coffee in a stainless steel French press. And, while I enjoy my fresh roasted coffee I’m also aware that it’s a bad habit. From a prepping perspective it would be much better not to be addicted to caffeine. But it sure is tasty!

How to Bake a Traditional German Rye Bread

In the interest of health, I’ve focused my bread baking obsession of late on 100% or near 100% whole rye sourdough loaves. I’ve used as my guide a nicely illustrated book How to Make Bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou. His specialty is just the sort of rustic German style breads I’ve always wanted to learn to bake. What I love in particular about his caraway rye sourdough loaf (pictured above) is the crust. Unlike most other breads you don’t slash it before tossing it in the oven. The goal is a kind of perfect imperfection–a hard, thick crust with as many fault lines as the state of California. And this is a bread that requires no kneading so you can easily fit it into a busy schedule.

Here’s how I make it (recipe based on Hadjiandreou’s caraway rye sourdough):

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How To Make Hoshigaki (Dried Persimmons)

Hoshigaki image from Wikipedia

Hoshigaki are a Japanese delicacy made by, believe it or not, gently massaging persimmons while they air dry. I took a workshop this weekend taught by Laurence Hauben on how to make this remarkable fall treat. It’s persimmon season right now, so if you want to try this at home you better jump on it. While a lot can go wrong in the month it takes to make Hoschigaki, the process is not complicated.

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