Archive for March 18th, 2008

Tools Part II – Grain Mills

Sharon March 18th, 2008

Ok, if you are storing a lot of grain, you are probably going to want something to grind it with – and something better than the manual coffee mill that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family used in _The Long Winter_.  They pretty much had to spend all their time grinding their wheat to eat – you probably don’t want to do that.

 So you’ll probably want a grain grinder, and probably one that works without power, so that you can use it even in a crisis.  If you want an electric mill too, for daily grinding, the only one I have any personal familiarity with is The Whisper Mill, which I’m told is the quietest of the bunch (although it sounds like elephants trumpeting, so take that for what it is worth ;-) ), which several people I know recommend.  But this is third hand knowledge – we have a manual grain grinder and use it almost daily, and don’t mind not having an electric.  I rather enjoy grinding grain.  Note, however, that we have a strong healthy household with lots of kids who think it is fun to give the grinder some turns.  Not everyone has that, and they might want to look into an electric for everyday use.  It is also sometimes possible to electrify a mill – or even hook one up to an exercise bike.

Note – I have absolutely no connection to any of the companies listed here, with the exception listed below and benefit in no way from these sources (again, with one exception).  I also don’t swear these are the cheapest sources, just the cheapest I happened to find.  Please do your own research.

But I do think everyone who stores large quantities of whole grains other than rice should probably have a manual grain grinder.  Which one depends on how often you are going to use it, how much money you have, what grains you are storing and your state of health and upper body strength.  Here is a link to a review of most of the grain grinders mentioned here:  I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say, but they cover most of the material and electric grinders as well.

 So let’s go through this.  At the very low end of things is the Corona Mill – it was designed for poorer nations where corn is the primary grain.  Corn is an easier grain than many others to grind, and if you have more time than money, and no expectation of using it except in a crisis, a Corona Mill is a good, cheap grain grinder.  New, they cost under $50, and even better, there are tons of these around used.  So if you live in a place where corn is the staple, and don’t imagine grinding grain unless you have to, or have no money, this is not a bad idea.  Not only that, they can be converted to other uses, including hulling rice, if you grow your own or find a source for unhulled paddy rice (unbelievably hard to find in the US).  The lowest price I saw on ebay for a new one was $38, enough less than the Back to Basics Mill that I bother mentioning it. 

 Next up, on the price scale is the Back to Basics Grain Mill, available in a lot of places.  I’ve borrowed a friend’s and it isn’t a terrible little grinder – it is definitely more work to use than the one I own, but it is substantially cheaper.  If  you think you might actually rely on the grinder, but have very little money,  I’d spend the money, if you can, to get this one.  It will still take a good while and a bit of effort to grind enough to make a loaf of bread or pan of cornmeal, but it does work, and seems reasonably sturdy.  I still don’t  think this is as good as some of the others, but it is cheap – I found it here for under $50

The Family Grain Mill is a good basic mill for people who plan to grind some flour regularly by hand.  This is a big step up from the lower priced ones, and of much higher quality – not as high as the Country Living or Lehmans best, but quite decent.  It is reasonably quick, but doesn’t grind that finely.  A friend of mine has used hers quite extensively, and generally likes it a lot.  Best price I found was $114.  If you think you’ll use it a lot, this money well spent.  The one bad thing is that it is attached to a piece of wood, not a sturdier metal clamp, and I’ve heard of them breaking.  But still, it is pretty good.  It can also be electrified, which means you can buy one mill and use it either way.

Riding up the price ranks a bit, I own a Lehman’s Best – and use it all the time.  We do like it quite a bit.  This is not reviewed on the Waltonfeed page.  It does require a bit of effort, but nothing too strenuous and has stood up to a lot of over-enthusiasm by the kids.  It is easy to clean and pleasant to use, and substantively cheaper than the next mill.  I think it is the best and most reliable of the middle priced mills at about $180 - I see no reason why mine won’t last a long time.  As far as I’m aware, Lehmans is the only place that sells these, but I could be wrong about that.  I really like my mill.

I don’t know how it compares to the Country Living Mill, but from the reviews, the CLM is a fairly substantive step up, and if you have the money to throw around (the best price I’ve seen is $365), probably well worth it.  My friend Tom at Sustainable Choice (ad on the sidebar) also sells them, (this would be that potential bias thing ;-) ).   I couldn’t find anyone who owns one – but all the reviews I’ve read say it is a nice, nice mill.  I think if you have physical limitations but want to hand grind, this might be a good choice.  I also haven’t been able to get ahold of a Diamant mill – the near-$600 price range apparently being a barrier in my neighborhood.  But I think I’m going to take the Waltonfeed reviewer at their word, and accept that it is pretty much as good as the Diamante, for $200 less.  And if you are going to grind all your own grains in perpetuity, the CLM is probably a good investment, assuming you can afford it.

 There are other grinders out there, but none of them seems to be good enough to bother with compared to others in their price range.  I’d recommend if you can that you save up and get the best grinder you can afford within the parameters you are likely to make use of. 

If you can’t afford a grinder, is that the end of the world?  No, I don’t think so.  You can store more rice, make bulghur and store some flour.  But it is a nice thing to have and it opens up your options a good bit.

Ok folks, tomorrow more on tools and organizing!


Non-Food Storage

Sharon March 18th, 2008

I never know how alarmist to be even for myself, but it does seem like the financial system is decompensating at an alarming rate – and that food and other supply shortages are a real possibility.  Will everything right itself, or are we headed for a crash?  I have no idea, and I don’t mean to imply that I do.  I think a crash is a real possibility, but I can’t swear to it.  What I do know is that what we are seeing now isn’t just a purely economic crisis – that is, it is also peak oil and climate change, and the three are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. 

So I think it does behoove us to think about the possibility that something more lasting may be beginning.  At the very minimum, rampant inflation seems likely – the FED bailout and interest rate cuts seem pretty much to mean that we’ve chosen a course, and that it is going to be harder and harder to meet basic needs on our budgets.   My own sense is that money may be less valuable than things we need.

Certainly, prices are going up and the dollar’s value is falling – and spot shortages seem a real possibility.  I’ve heard from several seed companies including FedCo, Johnny’s and Baker Creek Heirlooms that their seed orders are well up above the norms – 20% or more.  Idaho Locavore just posted that she’d heard wheat demand is going crazy, and Lehmans reports that it is heavily backordered on grain mills.  The reality is that as people begin to see things falling apart, they are going to start looking for mitigation solutions, and since most lower-energy or renewably powered tools and goods are now niche market items (as, for that matter are whole grains and seeds in many ways), it is going to be very difficult for small companies to ramp up production.  Moreover, I keep hearing people mention Y2K – quite a few small companies got burned in that, ramping up production only to see it drop like a stone on January 2, 2000 – so some may be reluctant to go wild for something that looks like a short-term trend.

Which is why I’m posting this list.  It isn’t a bad general resource, although I wouldn’t recommend people run out and get a generator – I think financially and environmentally, you are better off putting the same money into being able to live well without power.  And I wouldn’t store many too many disposable items – finding ways to live without them is better.

 Still, while I don’t recommend people go crazy, now is probably a good time for those with some leeway in their budgets to meet basic needs.  It is a good time to buy shoes, coats other necessities ahead – as the dollar falls, prices will go up.   If you focus on things that either save you energy in the longer term (solar battery chargers, manual laundry tools, etc…) or that you will use eventually anyway, this can only be a net gain. 

To the extent it is possible, used, freecycled and yard saled items are a really good way for those with low budgets to plan ahead.  Extra blankets, clothes, shoes, and tools are great items to find this way.

 I’d also recommend that people consider storing a little extra for friends and family who may need your help in times to come – or a little extra to bring with you if you rely on them.  The odds are good that many of us are going to end up consolidating housing from necessity, and it isn’t the end of the world – it may even be a good thing.  But having reserves to tide you over makes a big difference if budgets are tight.

It is possible to see these things as a more reliable investment than markets these days - rather than stockpiling for the end of the world - that we are planning ahead for a world of rising prices.  And that, at least, seems likely enough.



The Tools We Use: Part I: Making Dinner without a Conventional Stove

Sharon March 18th, 2008

Putting up your own food, storing food and cooking it in a crisis caused or voluntary low energy life does require some specific tools, some of which you buy, some of which you can make.  This is my attempt at a review of these tools - I’ll start by focusing on Cooking Tools, and then move on to grain grinders, pressure canners, dehydrators, etc…

 First, for cooking.  What do you do when the power goes out?  If you are going to store something better than surplus MREs (yuk!), you need a way of applying heat to food.  In the simplest sense, you could store a charcoal grill and some carcoal, build a cement block fire pit and store some wood, or cook over an open fire.  But if you’d like some alternatives above and beyond this, preferrably something with lower emissions than an open fire, you have a host of choices.

Note: In the case of all these tools, I’ll often be linking to sites that sell them.  I have no connection with any of these sites, nor any investment in what you buy.  The only exception to this is that Sustainable Choice who advertises with me (see the sidebar) does sell the SunOven.  I like to think that this doesn’t bias me overmuch, though ;-)

 The most traditional emergency backup method would be a Camping stove of one sort or another – there are an assortment available here.  They use various fuels to heat food – these are an interim solution – most do not use renewable fuels, but a good backup to have if you are storing for a short term emergency.  I don’t have one, and while I have used a couple of these stoves, can’t particularly recommend any one.  Here, however, are some reviews: and here:

Next best option would be a biomass (wood usually, but you could use other options – pine needles, corn, etc…) powered rocket stove or efficient wood cookstove.  Cookstoves are most valuable where both heating and cooking are needed simultaneously, while rocket stoves use little energy and produce tiny emissions and lots of heat.  The best resource on both of these is this source, The Aprovecho Research Institute - they’ve done an enormous amount to deal produce low fuel, high output stoves.   They have two paper publications: _Capturing Heat_ and _Capturing Heat Two_ that emphasize low input, low emissions home made solutions to cooking and heating.  These are great publications and highly recommended.

 The benefits of these solutions, unlike camping stoves, is that they make sense for everyday.  That is, my own feeling is that reducing our cooking energy emissions is important enough that we should be looking not just for emergency solutions, but whenever we can, for low impact ways to cook everyday.  Besides, a crisis isn’t a great time to be trying to figure out how to use something you’ve barely touched before.

I have used two wood cookstoves, and liked them both.  We initially had a Baker’s Choice, bought used from a friend.  It was a bit too small for our large house, and didn’t hold heat as well as a heavier, cast iron stove would have, so we replaced it with a Waterford Stanley (also slightly used), which we love.  Both are available through Lehmans, which also has a great deal of useful information about cookstoves

Cooking on a wood cookstove does take some practice, but if you are going to heat with wood anyway, cookstoves make an enormous amount of sense – and they are a lot of fun to use.  We love ours – and it doesn’t take that much experimentation to get good with it.  I would recommend that most people who are thinking about a wood backup heat method seriously consider a cookstove (assuming you live in a reasonably cold climate), since it will cut your cooking energy as well.  For me, living where there are no gas lines, this is especially valuable, since electric stoves are terribly inefficient.  If you live where it is cold (most people who live in fairly warm places should probably just invest in insulation and have a rocket stove), and don’t already have a wood or masonry stove (I won’t discuss the latter here but if you can afford one, masonry stoves are definitely the way to go), consider a cookstove. More info here:, but I’ve found a number of them new. 

You can cook on a regular woodstove if you have one – soups and stews will simmer beautifully, and if you have metal working skills, or can hire the job out, a sheet metal oven (basically just a square metal box with some racks inside and a door) can be made to go on top of a woodstove and allow you to bake.  I’m told it usually doesn’t bake bread real well, but works for cookies, biscuits and other small things.

An outdoor masonry oven is a great tool as well – these are made of clay, bricks or even mud, and can produce a great deal of food with small quantities of wood or other readily available biomass.  They cook outdoors, but because they are sheltered and enclosed, you can cook in them even in very cold weather.  Aprovecho has some material on this, but the most detailed option is Kiko Denzer’s excellent book _Build Your Own Earth Oven_ – this project is doable even for the unhandy, and provides not just a good backup heat source, but a low-impact way of cooking every day.  Because the mass of the stove holds the heat well, it can be used for multiple cooking ventures – you can start by baking pizza and as it cools bake bread, cook a casserole and even dehydrate at the end of its warmth.

 But even better than a wood cookstove or other biomass stove is  solar oven.  These are wonderful, wonderful tools, that can be used by everyone, in every climate.  If you live in a warm place, say much south of the Mason Dixon, and make or buy a good oven, you probably can use solar oven for cooking any time it isn’t pouring.  For those of us who live in more northerly places, solar ovens may not be quite as ubiquitous, but you can use them an awful lot of the year – on sunny warmish days in January and consistently from April until October.  They are great tools and given that they are 0 emissions, everyone should have an use them.  We try and have ours at least preheating water for tea or washing even when we aren’t cooking anything.

I’ve made several, and they work very well indeed.  There are links to plans to make your own, or you can buy a SunOven from Sustainable Choice (click on the link on the side) or if you’d rather buy from someone who doesn’t advertise here, they are sold by Lehmans and Real Goods   There are other brands as well, including this one.  The gentleman selling these claims that he recently cooked salmon casserole while the oven sat in a snowbank on his porch in Ontario in March, which is impressive – he is, however, selling them so YMMV – generally speaking, for warmer places, homemade will do you just fine.  It is in the coldest reaches, that when  you want to stretch the usage, you might have problems getting and retaining the heat you want, and thus, might find the commercial ones more valuable.  They also probably will last longer.

These aren’t ways of generating heat, so much as ways of reducing heating energy.  Pat Meadows has a wonderful and very complete description of how a Haybox Cooker is used here:  Essentially, haybox cookers reduce total cooking energy by containing it.  This is a very wise and useful strategy, again, essential in an emergency, but just as good every day.

A pressure canner is another invaluable aid to reducing cooking fuel usage – they can speed up the cooking of foods like magic.  I have a Kuhn Rikon, and love it – I’d like another for fleischig (meat) foods in my kosher kitchen.  There are reviews and detailed information here: and

Finally, you might find useful this list of strategies to reduce cooking energy – both in a crisis and in day to day life.

 Ok, more to come!


Putting Up Your Own

Sharon March 18th, 2008

A while back, I wrote a fairly thorough post about how to put up your own food, with an emphasis on minimizing energy inputs, and I won’t bother to repeat myself - y’all can just take a look:

I thought instead, I’d focus on the organizational aspects of putting up your own food – something that I have never managed to get perfect, by the way.  Because I think it can be overwhelming, if you haven’t done it, to think about food preservation.  Or if you have done it in the past, and did it in a couple of very intensive bursts, it can seem impossible to find the time to devote whole days to food preservation multiple times during a year.

 My own strategy is that I take Carla Emery’s idea of planting something every day that one can plant and putting up something every day that there’s something to harvest as an ideal, and a model.  That is, instead of trying to do all the strawberries in one swell foop (so to speak ;-) , I try and stick some in the dehydrator one evening, and make six pints of jam the next.   A little here, a little there – sooner or later it all adds up to real food.

Now some things still are big projects - there are times when you want to take advantage of doing it all at once.  But once you have a little practice, you know that is coming, and can reserve some time for it.  I know that once a year, I’m going to buy sweet corn from an Amish farmer that sells it at peak at 100 ears for $10, and put up 2 or 300 ears of corn cut off the cob.  Corn chowder wouldn’t taste the same without it, and we won’t do without that essence-of-summer-in-winter.  But because I know that I’m going to do that in late August every year, I simply put on some loud rock and roll, accept my fate and get to work – and build the time into my life.

To do this, it helps to have a sense of how much food you are going to need for the year.  And this is one of those things that takes some practice – actually, I’m still practicing.  I somehow forget that my four sons get bigger each year and eat more ;-) .  I also would note that when eating homemade, quantities tend to multiply.  Home produced is *so* much better than most commercial foods that you may find that jam or pickles or dried peppers go way faster than you thought they would.  My own rule of thumb these days is when starting out, take what I’d expect us to use and multiply by 2 – that’s probably not a useful metric for a family with fewer growing kids, though. 

One of the best reasons to eat home preserved food is the nutritional content – particularly if (like me) you are trying to eat less – the reality is that conventional industrial agriculture has cut heavily into nutritional and trace mineral levels in food, and, as the gentleman in this article over at my friend Keith Johnson’s blog points out, people are literally starving despite eating way too much food.  Food you produce on your own good soil, or buy from farmers who care about soil, not just yield, and food you put up right after picking will provide not just filler, but nutrients. 

Technically our food preservation seasons starts with dandilions, but while a dry a few for herb teas later on, I don’t usually preserve anything until the rhubarb comes along.  But I do do that – it is a favorite here.  We usually put up a compote of rhubarb cooked in a bit of water (enough to just barely cover), with sugar to taste and about 1 tsp of almond extract and lemon juice  per quart of rhubarb.  Water bath can for 15 minutes for quarts, 10 minutes for pints, and you are in good shape.

We also sometimes mix rhubarb with the last of the stored apples, cook both down to sauce, add sweetener to taste, puree them and spread it out in the dehydrator to make fruit leathers. 

 Once the greens start in earnest, they get lactofermented for various kimchis.  Any green is good this way – cover them with water, add tsp of salt, and soak overnight.  Then fill clean quart mason jars with with the greens, 1/2 tsp of salt, and a bit (or a lot if you like it hot) of korean pepper or cayenne.  We use wild greens a lot this way.

As the summer goes on, we get busier with preserving.  We try also to preserve or find a way to use things that often go to waste in the garden – or at least know how to use them if we need them.  Eggshells can be crushed and fed back to the chickens for calcium – but they also can be baked, finely ground in a grain grinder and added to flour to increase the calcium content.  Outer leaves of cabbage and broccoli and wild greens like plantain and dandilion can be dehydrated (you can just hang them upside down loosely in a breezy, dark place) and ground up to add nutrition to flours as well. Wild grape leaves can be preserved when young to wrap grains with, and the more creative you get, the better.

We preserve right into the winter season – sometimes if things can wait, it is nice to wait until it cools off.  For example, I’ve started planting a late crop of cucumbers that produce heavily in September here, and am pushing back some of my pickling to the cooler weather.  The reality is that there is no rule that says you have to do things one way or another – you can experiment.  If you never have time in June because that’s the rush time at your job, plant everbearing strawberries and put up your jam gradually, over the course of the summer.  If you don’t like pickles, don’t pickle – the world is full of other good things to eat.

I do recommend that you learn how to put up food safely - canning low acidity foods incorrectly can quite literally kill you, and just because your grandma did it and didn’t die doesn’t mean you won’t.  This site  has current information on canning.  The most recent version of The Ball Blue Book is also an essential resource for canners.  DO NOT use old methods of food preservation, or old canning books – that’s not to say you can’t use older recipes – but TAKE THE TIME TO LOOK UP THE SAFE METHOD of canning a particular recipe.  It may have changed even from the early 1990s, so keep current on this.

For dehydrators, the book _Dry It, You’ll Like It_ is wonderful and comprehensive.  _Keeping Food Fresh_ by Terra Vivante is a terrific guide to preserving food without canning or freezing, and includes lots of fascinating methods. 

As general books go Janet Chadwick’s _The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food_ is good even if you aren’t busy (and great if you are) and Carol Hupptman’s classic _Stocking Up_, while a bit dated, is a lovely and useful book. 

Sandor Katz’s _Wild Fermentation_ is the best of all lactofermentation books, while Linda Ziedrich’s superb _The Joy of Pickling_ covers the whole range of pickling options.

Finally, if you are interested in how deeply transformative food preservation is, I loved _Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World_ – a fascinating read if you love food.

 Ok, more coming – tool time!  Grain Grinders, Solar and Masonry Ovens and much More!