Want to Make Bread? Get a Scale

Liquid measuring cup on left, dry on right. Get a scale for baking.

The current issue of Cooks Illustrated Magazine has an interesting test of the accuracy of liquid versus dry measuring cups. When measuring flour, the dry measuring cup was up to 13% off when compared to a scale. The liquid measuring cup was even worse–26% off.  When baking bread, even 13% could be the difference between a decent loaf and a hockey puck.

Surprisingly, measuring water wasn’t much better, even with the liquid cup, which was 10% off. The dry measuring cup was 23% off when measuring water. I’ve always felt a bit silly scaling water, but now I can see its importance.

For bread baking, I’ve been using an electronic scale for many years now and have had reasonably consistent results. Scaling helps me be consistent. Now if only our kitchen didn’t swing between broiling hot and drafty…
 

Three Power Tools Every Urban Homesteader Should Own

On nearly all the work I’ve done on our house, everything from chicken coops to wood floors I’ve used just three power tools:

  • corded drill
  • circular saw
  • sabre sawjig saw

While I also own a router, a miter saw, a sander and a few other miscellaneous power tools, the three tools above I consider essential. Even if you don’t own a house, but would like to build some furniture or help a friend or relative with a repair project, this great triumvirate of tools will get you through 99% of all jobs. For that 1% of problems that require an exotic tool, you can rent one.

I prefer corded tools as I hate it when a battery dies in the middle of a day’s work and corded tools have more power. That being said, there are a few times when I wish I had a battery powered drill. I’d also recommend spending a little extra to get high quality models of these three tools. They’ve all lasted 10+ years of heavy use.

I’ve got a non-powered backup for each of these tools, with the exception of the drill. Sometime before that that zombie Apocalypse/Mayan 2012 meltdown thing happens, I’d love to learn how to use hand tools. But in the meantime, I’ll stick with electricity.

U-Dig-It Folding Shovel

I came across this nice little folding hand shovel called the “U-Dig-it” at a surplus store. It measures 5 3/4 inches when folded and weighs six ounces with the convenient belt holster. I used it this morning to transplant some okra seedlings and I can also see taking this tool camping.

I dig the U-Dig-It design, and I already prefer it to the hand shovel that got buried in the yard somewhere a few months ago. I can see this tool becoming part of my gardening “EDC“.

Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

A Favorite Tool: Canning Funnel

I heart my funnel

Mrs. Homegrown here:
If you are a home canner, you probably already have one of these and know how useful they are. If you don’t can, you might never have seen one before. I hadn’t before we started canning–and I don’t know how I lived so long without one. See, a canning funnel is just a wide mouthed funnel made to fit the mouths of canning jars. It allows you to quickly and efficiently ladle up hot food from the stove top into the jars. If you’re canning without one, heaven help you! Go get one! 
Even if you don’t can, you still need one. If, like me, you’re buying more dried goods and bulk foods, or drying herbs and vegetables, you probably use a lot of jars. Canning jars are an easy, efficient way to store food–far better than a cabinet full of random bags and boxes.You can see what you have and exactly how much you have. They line up in attractive rows. They’re also moth safe, if you’re using proper canning lids. I’m always transferring something or another into a jar–a bag of beans, a batch of dried mint, fresh yogurt–whatever. The canning funnel makes this a snap. Before I had one, I was either winging it and spilling a lot, or fashioning funnels out of newspaper. Life is just to short to chase beans around the kitchen. I use this thing every day.
Here’s a hint: If you have one of those little mesh tea strainers made to fit in the top of a tea pot (they always sell them in Asian markets), you’ll find it fits perfectly both into the funnel and into the mouth of a quart jar. Using one with your funnel, you can strain off tea, oil infusions, vinegar, etc. with no fuss or muss.

Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. Pepé le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

The Austrian Scythe is the New Weed Whacker

Scott at the Huntington Gardens gave me a quick lesson on the Austrian Scythe, setting me l

oose to whack a stand of summer weeds. The scythe is to the weed whacker what the fixed gear bike is to the ten speed. Or, for you motor heads, it’s what a non-synchronized manual transmission is to an automatic. The scythe is all about technique, not technology and like riding fixed or “ten forward gears and a Georgia overdrive“, it’s the considered life, an exercise in attentiveness . . . and frustration.

There’s definitely a learning curve and after a few minutes of ineffectual flailing I traded the scythe for a hoe. Still, the act of swinging this tool is infused with symbolism. Someone hand me a black robe! With a little practice I’d be knocking down weeds and getting some exercise, never a bad thing in our sedentary modern world.

Like all journeys into the “manual” life there’s a fair amount of maintenance. The blade must be sharpened frequently and periodically “peened” (the term for using a hammer to smooth out nicks).

Scythes come in European and American styles. The European configuration is ergonomic and the American style is clunky and uncomfortable to use. There’s also several different blades for weeding and harvesting and, like a bicycle, it’s crucial that your scythe fit your height.

Scythe use is intellectual for me since years worth of mulching, a dry climate and a very small yard means that I don’t have any stands of weeds to knock down or wheat to harvest. But, if I had a large yard and grass to deal with, I’d dump the weed whacker in a heartbeat.

For more info see Scythe Supply’s Scythe faq

Drawing from www.thescytheshop.co.uk.

Sweatin’ Pipe

Working with copper pipe is a skill that everyone should know, in fact SurviveLA thinks it should be taught to elementary school children. Home owners, renters and kids all should know how to put pipe together with a blow torch since you never know when a pipe is going to burst, not to mention being able to construct some of the solar water heating projects we touched on last week. The tools needed for this job are cheap, and thanks to youtube, we have this dude to show you how to do it. We don’t know why one of his hands is bandaged, but he does a great job sweatin’ that pipe. Just remember not to catch the house on fire – keep some water handy!

Essential System #7 – Repair Kit and Tools

We were going to use this category to wax poetic about the early 90s Leatherman multi-tool that we wear on our belts at all times but, hold the blog press here, self-sufficiency geniuses Stephen Box and Enci gifted us with a category-busting set of tools that, get this, fit within a tiny 30g (1.5 oz) Altoid tin!

Believe it or not this pocket size Altoid tin contains the following items:

1 inner tube piece – a section of a bicycle tire that can be used as a tourniquet, bandage, or slingshot

1 boot lace – always handy to have a section of string

1 saw wire – you can cut wood with this sharp wire

2 finger rings

1 can opener

1 duct tape (40cm) on straw

2 saw blades – these attach to two screws on the bottom of the altoid can so that the can functions as a saw handle

2 fasteners (#6-32 x 3/8″)

2 Exacto blades #11

1 needle/thread

1 upholstery needle

2 needles

1 red LED bulb – the bulb and the small hearing aid batteries fit in a tiny hole in the side of the Altoid can, thus turning the can into a flashlight – the red bulb is so that you can read in the dark without ruining your night vision

2 batteries for LED

6 match heads (sealed in wax)

1 striker for match heads

6 fire-starters made out of lint and wax (we’ll describe how to make these in a future post)

1 tin foil

1 rubber glove – for gathering or distilling water or for one-handed first aid

8 water purification tables (in straw) – see our earlier post on water

6 safety pins – for, among other uses, creating a sling with a shirt for a broken arm

2 medicated Bandaid strips

1 package first aid cream

6 aspirin

1 baling wire

4 fish hooks (snelled #2/#8) – for fishing!

4 split shot sinkers – also for fishing

1 snap swivel (#10)

1 filament (10 meters)

Beyond having enough items to repair virtually anything, this tiny kit can be used for signaling, trapping, fishing, filleting small animals and first aid.

A tip of the SurviveLA hat to Box and Enci for producing an innovative response to the problem of how to lug around basic essentials!

The Sound of One Hand Snapping

We’ve had to do a fair amount of carpentry around the compound – part of that self-sufficiency thing – and countersinking nails with a nail set, those pen like things you use to get the nail head below the surface of the wood, is a pain in the ass. Which is why we think that this tool, the “Noxon Two Bit Snapper” by the mysterious Spring Tools Corporation may be the handiest tool in the SurviveLA compound tool box.

The Snapper model we have is double sided, and has a spring connecting the two ends which consist of a center punch and a nail set. You hold one end against a nail and pull the spring back. The spring bangs one end into the other, thereby driving the nail. We’ve used it for years, and driven hundreds of nails with it, hanging molding, fixing windows, making furniture, and countless other tasks. It’s possible, in fact, to drive nails with this thing without using a hammer and it’s especially useful in tight spaces where there is not enough room to swing a hammer.

If SurviveLA ever sells out, it will be to whore ourselves out to the folks at Spring Tools who manufacture this elegant, simple and effective tool right here in our own fucked-up USA. In fact, it seems that Spring Tools holds the patent for this whole spring-based concept and has extended the idea of “spring driven technology” into a number of areas. We’ re especially intrigued with the potential of their spring driven I.D. Stamper which comes with a set of letters for stamping out a message in metal. Though we have not tested the I.D. Stamper, it seems like some illicit fun could be had with that thing . . .