Waxed Cloth Food Wrap (Made in a solar oven for bonus self-righteousness points)

peanut clothReuseable food wrap made with wax infused cloth is a thing. DIY instructions for it are all over the web. It sort of had its moment in the sustainable limelight a few years ago, so I know this post is not offering anything new for the jaded sustainable DIYer.

But I wanted to tell you that I’ve finally made a couple of pieces to test out, and I like them. If you’ve been using waxed cloth, let us know what you think of it.

The factor which finally spurred me into action on this project was our Solavore Sport solar oven. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for this project, and proved to be so–in most ways. Read on.

In case you missed the craze, these food wraps are simply beeswax infused cotton cloth. Their purpose is to help replace plastic wrap and baggies to some extent. They can also be molded over bowls as a light cover–not an air tight cover, but are likely as effective as laying a plate over the bowl. Waxed cloth can also be fashioned into envelopes to carry snacks.

They can be used over and over, and re-waxed. They can also be washed with cold water and soap.

Food wrapped in wax cloth will dry out more quickly than it would in plastic, and it’s not watertight, so it’s not good for drippy/juicy things. Also, it’s not recommended for wrapping meat, because it can’t be cleaned with hot water. But it works very well for wrapping things like cheese and sandwiches, cookies, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.

In my testing so far I’ve settled on using my cloths as snack carriers, using them to wrap up trail mix or carrots or chunks of cheese to put in my day pack, and I like them very much for this. I’ve not tried them for long-term cheese storage in the fridge yet, because the two I made have been constantly at work in the field. Time to make, more, I suppose!

Though I’ve experimented with using them as bowl covers, I doubt that I will use them for this purpose, as I have plenty of glass bowls with fitted covers, so I don’t need covers often. When I do, I’ve found the classic “balance a plate on the bowl” technique remains more convenient– but it’s worth giving the wrap a try. It is not breakable, so that may be a plus if you’ve got kids rooting around in your fridge.

peanut cloth 2

This is the peanut pack from above, folded for carrying. A more formal sewn envelope might be a touch more convenient, but you can do without, because the wax sort of sticks to itself when folded like this. It holds well enough to jounce around in the pocket of your bag for a day. I’ve not had a spill so far, but you could tie it up with string or a rubber band for extra security.

Professional Secrets

There are at least two companies making and selling these wraps now, and both use not only beeswax to infuse the cloth, but also pine resin and jojoba oil to make a fancier product.

I’m not sure what benefits may come from these extra ingredients–the pine resin may add some antibacterial action to the wax, but I don’t know it it would actually make any difference in terms of food safety. The jojoba is more mysterious. I wonder if it improves the texture?

You could probably replicate this proprietary blend by melting smallish quantities of pine sap, soft or hard, into hot beeswax over a double boiler, then stir in some jojoba. The resulting mix can be grated after it cools. Just be sure to cook this up in a jar you’re prepared to throw away, because the pine sap will never come off.

bowl

When covering a bowl, crimp the edges of the cloth around the edge as you’d crimp a pie crust. If you were really ambitious you could sew in an elastic band to hold the cover tight.

How-To

Making the cloths is very easy. All you have to do is cut some squares or circles of thin cotton fabric, like muslin. Pink the edges if you have pinking shears–this looks better, but I don’t think the edges will unravel much anyway, because of the wax.

Size depends on intended use. I can imagine eventually having a range of sizes and shapes. For instance, I’m imagining that a really large one might work nicely for rolling out and refrigerating cookie and pastry dough.

To begin, though, I’d recommend making just one or two. Test them and see if you like them and how you’ll use them before going into production whole hog. 12″ (30cm) square might be a good starting point.

Lay the cloth on a cookie sheet protected with foil or parchment and sprinkle the surface evenly with grated wax or wax pellets. You don’t need a ton of wax. You want to saturate the cloth, but you don’t want to use so much that the coating becomes thick and flaky. I used about 1 tablespoon of wax pellets for cloths about 11 inches square, just to give you an idea.

Place the cookie sheet in an oven set between 150F/64C and 185F/85C for about 10 minutes, just until the wax melts.

Safety note: Keep the oven low–don’t be tempted to use a hot oven for speed, because the wax could discolor at higher temperatures, or even burst into flame if the oven reaches 400F/204C.

Take the sheet out and check for coverage.

My experiments had pretty even coverage without any coaxing, because the hot wax wicks through the cloth. But if it looks spotty, you can spread the melted wax over the cloth with a silicone pastry brush or a dedicated paintbrush.

I specify a silicone pastry brush because the wax will come of the silicone brush– I used ours, so I can testify to this fact–but wax will never come off a regular bristle brush. However, if you use an inexpensive brush, you can keep that brush and use it again and again for waxing purposes by simply warming it until the bristles soften. For this reason you’d want to choose a brush with a wooden handle. Hardware stores sell cheap wooden paint brushes with natural bristles which would work perfectly for this purpose.

While the wax is still warm, hang the cloth up on a line to dry and cool. You’ll also need clothes pins or binder clips to secure the cloth.

The only things to remember are as follows:

  1. Less wax is better than more. If you use too much, your cloth might flake or be otherwise strange.
  2. Wax cools super fast, so if you’re working with the newly waxed cloth, be quick like a bunny. Instagram later! If your cloth cools before you finish, you can put it back in the oven and rewarm it.
  3. On the same note, you have to take the cloth off the cookie sheet the moment you remove it from the heat or it will bond to the sheet when it cools–and that happens fast. If it sticks, just put back in the oven.
  4. Have the drying line set up before you start. You’ll want to hang the hot cloths up right away to cool and dry, not be searching for somewhere to put them while they harden into odd shapes in your hand.

I don’t have many good pictures of the process, so for further research I’m directing you over to Mommypotomus for more details. She also has a cute plan for a snack bag that I might make.

Consider repurposing old textiles

I’m using some of my grandmother’s hankies for this project. I knew there was a reason I kept them around for so long! Take that, Kon Marie!

As I type this, I realize that sounds gross. Be assured, these hankies never saw service. In the 60’s (or earlier ?) people apparently sent one another novelty hankies that came folded inside matching greeting cards. Maybe these were the equivalent of our musical cards, a way to upscale a greeting card ? My grandma had several of these tucked in her bureau.

I claimed her nice linen handkerchiefs for my nose (I never saw her use one, despite having piles of them–she liked those little Kleenex packs), but these novelty hankies, made out of cheap printed cotton, are perfect for food wraps. The cloth covering the bowl in the photos is one of those.

These hankies are particularly nice because they have a finished edge, but this project is also perfect for making use of other textiles you might feel wasteful for throwing out, like old top sheets or a dress shirt with one unfortunate stain or fabric scraps from sewing projects.

Solar Oven Specifics

Beeswax melts at just below 150F/64C. It can discolor if heated above 185F/85C. Its flashpoint is 400F/204.4C.

While many home ovens can be set to 150F, my home oven is really primitive, it doesn’t have a pilot light and it doesn’t cook below 200F. I could fuss with it, prop the door open or whatnot to get lower temperatures, but I never wanted waxed cloths enough to bother with it.

But now that we have this Solavore Sport to play with, I realized I could achieve these lower baking temperatures easily, and simultaneously reach a new pitch of self-righteousness.

Regular cookie sheets don’t fit in the Sport, so I cobbled together a cooking tray out of a shallow cardboard box (a canned cat food case) lined with foil. It barely fit in the oven. It doesn’t even sit on the floor, in fact, but balances above, because the sides of the oven are wedge shaped. Hard to explain, but this should make sense to someone with a Sport.

Back in March, when we got the oven, it peaked around 150F if it didn’t have clips on the lid to seal in the heat–which would be perfect for this project. Now, with the sun higher, it rockets up past 200F pretty quickly even without the clips.

So, at this time of year, working at midday, all I had to do was watch the time and temperature to make sure the oven didn’t get too hot.

I put the tray in the oven, closed the lid (no clips, making the heating is less efficient on purpose) and waited about 10-15 minutes. The temp would quickly rise above 150F and the wax would dissolve, then I’d take it out before it got any hotter. Fast and easy!

Again, the reasons you want to keep the temps low is because 1) you might get discolored wax if you let it bake for too long above 185F and 2) in the very unlikely event the oven temp got to 400F, you’d risk the wax bursting into flame.

The only downside of using the Sport for this project is size limitations. The oven floor is wide but narrow, so I can’t make wraps bigger than 11 inches square. The floor is actually only 9 1/2 inches deep. By wedging the cat food box higher in the oven, off the floor, I was able to fudge things enough to make an 11 inch waxed cloth, but that’s the limit.

I may be able to fold a cloth in half for coating, perhaps layering the wax between the two halves. This is something I’ll play with if I decide to make more.

What’s next for the solar oven?

My next crafty project with the sun oven is going to be infusing oil with herbs, and perhaps drying herbs as well.

And for those of you who were following our solar cooking initiative, it has been on hiatus because our weather this May was dominated by a heavy marine layer which kept the skies overcast until mid-afternoon. I love this weather, personally, but it has put a wrench in the cooking experiments.

June, however, is coming in hot and bright. Usually June in LA is characterized by these same overcast conditions–we call it “June Gloom”– but I’m thinking the gloom came early this year and may be over. So look forward to more cooking posts soon!

Meet the Solavore Sport Solar Oven

IMG_7172 (1)As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Solavore have loaned us a solar oven to play with this summer. We’re still working on how to cook in the thing–more on that later–but we thought we’d take a moment to show you the oven itself.

The basics:

This is a Solavore Sport, which sells from their website for $229.00 US, plus $39.50 for the optional reflector. (We’d recommend the reflector, unless you live near the equator, or only plan to use your oven at midday in high summer.)

Solavore is a woman-run company, based in Minnesota, and the ovens are made the U.S. Plus, Solavore partners with NGOs to bring sun ovens to sun-rich, fuel-poor developing countries.

Solavore keeps an extensive, and attractive recipe section on their site.

The oven itself:

The floor of the oven measures 9 1/4 inches x 17 1/2.

It weighs 9 pounds.

It is entirely made of plastic. The body is all black molded insulated plastic, while the lid is double-walled clear plastic, molded to fit the oven body.  There seems to be a trade off going on here between portability (and perhaps lower shipping costs) and structure. They opted for it not to have a heavy casing.

It doesn’t seem flimsy by any means, but at the same time you can imagine doing it some serious damage if you were to trip over it. I worry particularly about cracking the lid around the thin edges. Yet at the same time, I really appreciate the portability. I love how light and easy the Sport is to manipulate. It is simply no big thing to move it around, and until you get the hang of solar cooking, and learn the way the light moves in your yard, you’re going to be moving it a lot. It’s light weight makes it good for camping and picnicking, too.

IMG_7224The oven is made to hold two cooking pots at a time, which is handy, because you can do a main dish and a side at once, or a pot of something for dinner and a pot of something for lunch.The Solavore comes equipped with two shiny new black Speckleware casserole pots for this purpose, though you may choose to use any pot you like–though lightweight black pots like the Speckleware are best for solar cooking. It’s also big enough hold a casserole dish or a quarter sheet pan.

The Solavore also comes with a free standing thermometer which you can use to monitor the internal temperature of the oven.

We don’t have experience with any other commercial sun oven by which to compare the Solavore Sport, so all we can say so far is that it totally works. It’s been getting to cooking temperature easily (200-250F), even though the sun is still a little low in the sky at this time of year, as long as you follow the directions and use it correctly.

IMG_7174Quibble with the clips

So far we have no complaints at all, and only one quibble: the clips.

The lightweight lid must be clipped down to the oven body to maintain proper heat efficiency. Having failed to read the starting instructions properly (ahem), I missed that detail on our first trial, and had trouble getting the oven up to cooking temp–which lead to a lentil disaster.

I failed to notice the lid clips were there at all first time out because they are not immediately obvious. They are small metal hooks which are permanently affixed through holes in the oven’s body. They come up over the lip of the lid to hold it down tight.

The good thing about these clips is that they are very simple and would be easy to replace with a piece of wire if you break them. Also, since the clips are tied to the oven, they can’t be lost, which is another major advantage.

The downside is that they are finicky to use. I have a hard time getting them over the lip of the lid, and always feel like I’m in danger of abrading or even cracking the edge of the lid as I force them on and off. Each time I  wrestle with them, I dream of a quick release system, or wish I could just use binder clips to clamp the lid to the body–but regular clips don’t work because of the particular shape of the lid/body interface.

But all in all, that is, as I say, only a quibble.  We’re enjoying playing with the oven, although as I alluded to in my last post on the subject, there is a learning curve to solar cooking. We’ve had a few disasters, which we’ll talk about, but we’re beginning to get a good feel for what works well in this cooking system. More to come soon!

083 Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine

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Our guest this week is journalist Kris De Decker, the creator of Low Tech Magazine, a blog published in English, Dutch and Spanish that covers low tech solutions in great depth and detail. Without exaggeration, I think it’s safe to say it’s my favorite blog. On the podcast we discuss high tech problems, Catalan vaulting, fruit walls, Chinese wheelbarrows, open modular hardware, fireless cookers and alternate forms of the internet.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

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Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

sundiner
So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?

004 Egg Ethics, Solar Food Dryers and a Question about Earth Ovens

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On episode four of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss the tricky ethics of eggs and mayonnaise, what kind of solar food dryer is the best and we answer a question from Ed about earth ovens.

Plans for the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer can be found in an article on Mother Earth News.

We have a detailed post on how we built our adobe oven here.

If you want to leave a question you can call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected].

The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho.

A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.