Sunday, October 25, 2015

Green Onion Powder, Take 2

A while back, we wrote about our green onion powder, which turned out to be a great way to preserve green onions when we had too many to use up fresh.  Earlier this summer, we found ourselves in a similar situation with some overwintered onions that suddenly bolted.  And, as with everything else around here, the process is constantly evolving.  So, here's another couple ways to make green onion powder.

Onion stalk overload!  Ahh!

Cleaned and chopped, they look much less intimidating.  We mentioned that our makeshift solar wax melter only reached about 155 °F, which wasn't very good for melting wax, but is just right for drying food.  We're still working on making dehydrator trays to fit our Langstroth boxes, but the regular dehydrator trays stacked inside give a visual approximation.  Not shown in this picture, but also dried in this batch were some chopped garlic scapes and dandelion roots.

A few weeks later, they're nice and dry.  They probably didn't need so much time, but we got busy with other stuff and had to let them go that long.  The onions probably would have been good for grinding straight from the dehydrator, but we had the unfortunate scheduling demand of taking them out first thing in the morning, when it was cool and damp.  So, in the oven they went at 150 °F for an hour to re-crisp them up.

For the grinding, we turned to the grain mill, which we've now used on eggshells, sugar, sea salt, and green onion powder (also garlic scape powder and dandelion root powder), but not yet grain.  As with the other substrates, it makes a nice, fine green onion powder.  It works really well on the garlic scapes and the dandelion roots, but the chunks of onion we had were a little too large and flimsy (even when crunchy) to really feed into the grinder well.

So, after a while, we turned to the blender (a food processor or spice grinder would also work here).  It doesn't get everything chopped up perfectly, but for many applications (like soups or casseroles, for example), the larger chunks would be fine.

We sieved out the big chunks anyway to get some fraction of fines that make a good powder, and the rest we saved for cooking when the size doesn't matter.

Just for comparison, on the lower left is the grain mill powder, on the upper left is the fines from the blender, and on the right is the coarse fraction from the blender.  All perfectly useful in their own right, and all filled with that excellent green onion flavor.

How do you make green onion powder? (Or regular onion powder.  Or other powdered garden things.)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bee Reset: Honey, Mead, and Sterilizing the Hive Bodies

While our capers with shook swarming and wax rendering have been great, one other main benefit in pressing the reset button on our bees is the edible part.  We humans aren't going to catch the foulbrood, so if the bees can't eat their honey, we might as well!  We just need to extract it.  Fortunately, this post will be a lot shorter than the others.  Heck, we can even throw in the sterilization of the hive bodies for good measure, and wrap this story up!

As a reminder, here's the overall process we're working with.

We did the honey by a whatchagot version of the crush and strain method, since we were working mainly with brood frames, which meant honey around the outside, brood in the middle.  That is, we didn't want to extract whole frames, just select chunks of comb.  Our setup is two buckets; the top one has holes in the bottom.  A t-shirt goes between the buckets to strain out chunks of comb, etc., and the comb gets mashed with our hands and goes in the top bucket.  In this particular case, the bottom bucket also had holes, so the whole setup is in a cookie sheet for secondary containment.

Once the comb is crushed up, the honey will eventually drain out.  It took several days, but it's a low-tech, low-effort system!  Of course, some honey will end up stuck to the comb (probably more than if we had a centrifugal extractor).  We washed the comb through with water, to recover any residual honey for making mead.  Some of the YouTube videos we saw in the research phase of this post showed people washing their wax before extracting it and just throwing out the water--so this is similar, but we keep the water for something tasty!

The water won't be concentrated enough to make a very strong mead as-is, so we added sugar to boost the final alcohol content (hence the name quasi-mead, since this stuff isn't made purely from honey).  Also, the wine yeast need more nutrients than just the (diluted) honey and the sugar can provide, and the mead will need some tannins to keep it from tasting like vodka or cough syrup (depending on how much residual sugar there is), so we added some very strong rose petal-and-raisin-tea.  We might forego the rose petals next time, since they didn't seem to be a very good source of tannins.  Hopefully we'll have a post soon on our approach to making fermented beverages.

Our final yield was about 4.5 quarts of honey, or about 14 lbs. (There is a quart jar-and-a-half missing from this photo because Katie is part pooh bear.)  Note that if you are extracting uncapped honey (as you may be doing during a bee reset), check the refractive index of it to make sure it has a low enough moisture content that it won't ferment in the jar.  Below 20% is normally the standard, but other sources say 17-18% is a better target.  Those other sources also say that if it's a little higher moisture content than that, keeping it below 50 °F can also prevent spoilage.

Finally, sterilizing the boxes.  Some say to heat everything, especially the corners and other nooks and crannies, until the wood is a uniform deep coffee brown color.  The bacteria that causes EFB (Melissococcus plutonius, although it was originally called Bacillus pluton) is inactivated above 65 °C, which isn't enough to turn the wood brown.  But heating until the wood is a little charred is an easy visual to make sure we're in the safe zone for killing EFB (and any other diseases that might be hanging around).  Sort of like roasting a giant wooden square marshmallow, but from the inside (the paint on the outside doesn't need to change color).  By far, the easiest and fastest way to do this would be with a propane blow torch.  But if you don't like the thought of all those difficult-to-recyclable propane canisters, you can get a similar effect with a little alcohol-fired camp stove.  Definitely not the OSHA-recommended protocol, but it works!

Once all the parts the bees have touched are uniformly charred (minus the extra-resinous parts, which saw the same heat, but didn't turn color), we should be good to re-use the box.

 How do you extract your honey and sterilize your hive boxes?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Bee Reset: Wax Rendering v2.0 (and 3.0)

We wrote a couple weeks ago that we used the shook swarm method to put our bees on fresh comb and hopefully help them shake their case of EFB.  So the bees got some new digs, but what happened to the rest of the hive--the honey, combs, frames, and hive bodies that were contaminated? The whole process would make for a very long blog post, so we'll break it up into a couple posts.  But to whet your appetite, here's the overall schematic:

This whole ordeal is a zero-waste process, which is nice.  On tap for today: frames and comb, in particular, wax rendering.

We're continually adapting our wax rendering process.  Version 1.0 we wrote about before, and was more of a treatise on how not to render wax.  Version 2.0 is a solar melter frankensteined together from parts of our cold frame.  The back is a piece from the brooder box, and the places they don't fit perfectly together are plugged with fence panels.

Inside is a regular Langstroth box with a couple 9" x 13"-ish aluminum pans, each with about an inch of water in the bottom (to keep the wax from sticking to the pans).  On top is our winter-time bee feeder...

...which is lined with an old t-shirt and has another Langstroth box stacked on top.

The combs to be melted get piled on the t-shirt, and the melter is covered by the windows from the cold frame, which are stacked to make a double-glazed top.  The windows should be washed to maximize the amount of sunlight that gets through (ours weren't), and every crack and crevice should be sealed tight because when it starts to heat up, every honeybee within smelling distance will be drawn like a magnet. 

We set the whole thing up on the garage roof since it gets intense sun for most of the day.

A few days later, the combs are mostly melted down...

...but the yield of wax is a little disappointing.  A couple things probably decreased our yield.  First, the t-shirt filter held up a lot of the wax itself.  Other folks have had better luck with a paper towel.  Second, the temperature should have been higher.  We added some reflective insulation around the walls, which helped, but not enough.  More insulation and a more airtight construction would have been better.  We could have washed the windows, which would have helped even more.  As it was, we got readings up to ~155 °F inside the box when the glass was on.  Good enough to melt the wax, which happens at ~145 °, but hotter would be better.

Also, when we tried a deep Langstroth box full of frames, we only got minimal melting

Plus, during the time spent with all our rejiggering, we found out that bees aren't the only bugs interested in the wax.  Ants and earwigs love it, too.  But at least there's a silver lining: if you want bespeckled wax, the sprinkles are free!  The final takeaways from version 2.0?  There are some kinks to work out, but there's good potential.  Significant improvements wouldn't be too difficult if we could find the time to properly build a solar oven (which is on the to-do list anyway), but that will have to wait until a future date.  Also, some folks have noted that from some old combs, solar melting, even in a well-designed system, doesn't cut it.  Those combs need steam to release the wax.

Enter version 3.0.  It's inspired by a few other designs we've seen and Keith's comment on our original wax melting post.  The core is a big pot with some water in the bottom, and an aluminum pie pan boat.

That goes on top of the rebuilt Dakota Rocket Silo, which is burning the contaminated frames (and other wood).

A t-shirt filter is secured to the top of the pot.  The combs go in the filter.  The idea is that the steam rises up and condenses on the combs to melt the wax.  The wax is supposed to drip off the lowest point on the t-shirt into the pan below.

The first part of that works well.  The wax melts in half an hour to an hour if the fire is really roaring.

Unfortunately, it also runs down the side of the pot, so in addition to the nice wax cake we get in the pie pan, there's also a layer in the outer pot.  (This picture is from the following morning, after everything had cooled down.)  What we really need is some kind of impermeable insert in the top of the pot that prevents the t-shirt from contacting the pot directly, but that has a hole in the middle to direct the wax to the pie pan.  Probably could be done with aluminum foil. 

Also, we should point out that the wax accumulating on the water in the big pot can be a little dangerous because when a full layer of wax forms, it prevents the water from evaporating normally.  The result is that the water gets super-heated and instead of boiling steadily, it bumps violently, and then does nothing for a few minutes, before bumping violently again.  (The same thing can happen in your microwave if the water is very still while heating.)  When the bumping was happening in our setup, it was actually able to move the pot around, and if we hadn't been watching, it could have tipped over into the fire.  Since the wax is flammable, that would have gotten exciting quickly!

In any case, the melted wax and water can be poured into a pan to cool down.

The wax will form a cake on top, which can be easily removed.  We had a lot of comb to melt, so we ended up with several of these cakes.

To make them more compact, we built a makeshift mold, lined it with aluminum foil, and stacked pieces of the cakes inside.

When the summer heat had broken, we melted it in the oven at ~150 °F.

On cooling down, it solidified, at which point the foil and wax can be removed from the box.  The foil should readily peel away from the resulting block, leaving a nice chunk of purified beeswax to play with.

The stuff that got filtered out (slumgum) can be composted, used to start fires, or used to make swarm traps more attractive.  Since we started this whole ordeal to get rid of EFB, we won't be using it in our swarm traps.  We tried a few different ways of making slumgum fire starters, including packing it into paper egg cartons, wrapping golf ball-sized portions of it in old phone book pages, and packing a thin layer of it between layers of paper grocery bags.  In our experience, it's the residual wax that actually starts burning, and the rest of the slumgum burns, but does more to inhibit the wax burning than to really support combustion.  So, adding additional dry, combustible material like paper, sawdust, or wood chips helps a lot.  Also, getting that extra combustible material to wick up and/or be coated in the wax helps it work under wet conditions.  Once we had everything packed in like we wanted it, we put it in a 200 °F oven for an hour or two to melt the residual wax and get it to soak into the paper. The egg cartons are easily divided, but the slabs with the grocery bags we cut into 1"-2" squares.

The t-shirts themselves can also be cut up to be fire starters, or saved for future use.  Since we don't want to transfer EFB to any future batches of wax, we're going with option #1 for the t-shirts this time.

We did a quick trial run of all four of our different kinds of fire starters (clockwise from top: t-shirt, egg carton, phone book, and grocery bag), and we noticed that the phone book page-wrapped slumgum balls were hard to light and keep lit, the wax-soaked t-shirt lit the fastest and burned up the fastest, and the egg carton-slumgum and paper grocery bag-slumgum fire starters had good longevity but could still be easily lit by a match.

Finally, a quick note on cleaning up the wax.  Many folks caution that it's nigh-on-impossible to clean up cookware items that have been contacted by the beeswax, but we've not found that to be entirely true.  First, the thin coating that forms on pots and pans will eventually wear off in continued use, and beeswax is inert in the human digestive tract, so one approach is to ignore it; no harm, no foul.  Second, we've found that mixing beeswax with some kind of vegetable oil (olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, etc.) when both are above the beeswax melting temperature (~145 °F), makes a blend that can be cleaned up with soap and water, even when cooled back down to a touch-safe temperature.  And third, a scouring powder, in particular Bon Ami, which doesn't have anything in it that we would be worried about contacting food, cleans things up pretty well.

There you have it!  Our current procedure for processing contaminated wax and frames, waste free.  How to you render and clean up wax?