How to Make a Ginger Bug (for Homemade Ginger Beer and Soda)

Starting a Ginger BugI’ve wanted to make ginger beer for quite some time, but something about it felt really intimidating—probably the “beer” in the name, since I’ve hung around and watched others brew enough times to know that it’s much more complicated than a batch of kombucha or a jar of sauerkraut. To be honest, however, both kombucha and sauerkraut were initially pretty intimidating as well, yet now making them is just part of my weekly routine, something I don’t even have to think about. And I do love ginger beer. Not only that, but as with kombucha and sauerkraut, the good stuff  is far from cheap. So after some encouragement that it really isn’t all that hard, I decided to just suck it up and try my hand at ginger beer.

Ginger Bug Side

Bubbly ginger bug, four days in.

And, wouldn’t you know, it’s really not that hard. The first step to making ginger beer (along with several other fermented homemade sodas), is making something called a ginger bug or plant—which will serve as the starter culture for your ginger beer.

In this post I’ll walk you through the process of starting and feeding your bug, and I’ll save the actual brewing and bottling process for a separate post.

How to Make a Ginger Bug

You’ll need:

    • fresh ginger root
    • minced jalapeno (optional)
    • sugar
    • filtered or distilled water
    • a clean glass jar, a piece of cotton fabric, and a rubber band

To begin, grate around 2 tablespoons of ginger. Some sources say to peel it, but I never do because the skin is where the yeast that’s going to turn your ginger-sugar-water mixture into ginger beer lives.

Add the ginger, 2 tablespoons of water, and 2 tablespoons of sugar to the jar, and stir well to combine. If you want your ginger beer to have a real kick, feel free to throw in a jalapeno as well. Cover the jar with the fabric and secure with the rubber band. This is your ginger bug.

Every day for the next week, feed your bug another 2 TB each of grated ginger, sugar, and water. When you feed the bug, be sure to use sight and smell check its health—it should smell sweet and gingery (not sour or acrid) and there shouldn’t be any mold. Within the first few days, you should notice small bubbles rising to the top of your bug. This means your bug is alive! Keep feeding it to encourage these yeasts to grow. After about a week, your bug should be ready to brew about a gallon of ginger beer.

Ginger Bug AboveTroubleshooting Your Ginger Bug

Why isn’t my bug bubbling?

  • Ensure that the jar doesn’t get too hot, as too much heat will the yeast.
  • Likewise, don’t let it get too cold, as too little heat will drive them into hibernation.
  • Make sure the water you’re using is distilled or the chlorine has been removed or allowed to evaporate (leave it sitting out for 24 hours), as chlorine can stunt or kill your yeast.
  • Try using organic ginger, as conventional ginger is sometimes irradiated, killing off the yeast.

Fermentation? Doesn’t that mean this ginger beer will be alcoholic?

  • Short answer: Maybe?
  • Long answer: Probably ever-so-slightly. In Cooked, Michael Pollan says that wild yeast like the stuff we’re cultivating for this ginger beer will only ferment to about 5% alcohol, and that’s if you’re trying. As you’ll see in my next post, I typically only ferment this for about a week before putting it in the fridge, and it doesn’t ever taste alcoholic to me (that is, until I add bourbon to it). I typically let my kombucha go for much longer, and if I had to guess I’d say it tends to have a higher alcohol content than my ginger beer, but I’ve yet to test it.

But what if I want it to be alcoholic?

  • That makes two of us! In the future, I plan to experiment with adding champagne yeast for a bubblier, boozier ginger beer, but I’ve yet ot try it and so I can’t recommend it just yet. I’ll keep you posted though!

Hopefully that answers the major questions you run into when getting your ginger but established. They do require a bit of attention (from grating the ginger to measuring out the sugar and water, it typically takes about five extra minutes a day.) Have you ever made homemade soda? If not, what’s stopping you? Let me know in the comments!

 

Homemade Plantain Toner (Plantago major)

Toner is one of those things I’ve never used consistently, mostly because I’m lazy, but also because the good stuff is pretty expensive and  none of the homemade versions I’ve tried has ever been quite right. After moving to central Illinois a month ago, however, the need for toner became abundantly clear. It is (unsurprisingly) much cooler here than Mississippi or Louisiana, which means I am walking a lot more than I usually do in the summer. And although it is substantially cooler, it’s still summer, and the face sweat situation was not really conducive to clear skin.

plantain toner

Also, isn’t that measuring cup/spoon combo to die for? They were wedding gifts from our friends Selena, Ben, and Liam, and I smile every time I use them.

Plantago Major Plantain Weed

Image via calindarabus, Flickr

After reading recently about the benefits of plantain—the weed, Plantago major, not the giant banana—I began noticing it growing everywhere around here, so I decided to try and incorporate it into a toner. Plantain is naturally astringent and anti-inflammatory, and people have used it for everything from burns to bug bites to poison ivy for centuries, so I feel pretty okay about putting it on my face.

What follows is the recipe I came up with, if you can call it that. It’s really easy to make, and gentle enough to use morning and night, as well as those times when I come back from an afternoon walk and my face is just too sweaty to deal with. I’ve already been through one batch, and I made the second a few days ago, so it’s safe to say I’m happy with this toner—at least for now.

Homemade Plantain Toner

Put the plantain into large glass measuring cup. Boil the water (distilled or filtered is probably best), and pour it over the leaves. Let this mixture steep for at least fifteen minutes or until cooled. Strain out the leaves, and funnel the resulting infusion into a glass bottle. Add 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, plus 3-5 drops each of lavender and peppermint essential oil. You’re done! Be sure to shake this toner before use, as if you’re not careful the oils can settle on the top and seriously burn your eyes.

A couple notes/suggestions:

Though lavender and peppermint are pretty all purpose essential oils, feel free to swap them out according to your skin type—tea tree would be great for oilier skin, for example, while rose or chamomile would be really nice for dry or sensitive skin, and you should omit the peppermint entirely if you have sensitive skin. As always, be sure that whatever you’re picking is actually plantain, and steer clear of anything that’s on the side of a busy road (covered in car exhaust) or sprayed with pesticides. Once you know what to look for you won’t be able to not spot it along every sidewalk, roadside, and driveway.

Have you ever used plantain? If you decide to try out this toner, let me know what you think in the comments!

I haven’t washed my hair since 2007.

Well, that’s a bit of a fib. I’ve washed my hair with shampoo maybe handful of times since 2007, usually after coloring it with henna or at the hands of stylists who refused to cut it without washing it. Aside from that, I haven’t washed my hair with anything other than baking soda, honey, or apple cider vinegar for the past several years, and I am pretty stoked about it.

Shampoo-Free Haircare

This is commonly referred to as “No Poo”—a name I’m not crazy about, but I guess you can’t argue with 3,470,000 Google hits. I tend to refer to it as “shampoo-free haircare,” or simply “not washing my hair.” The underlying premise is as follows:

Sebaceous glands (which produce sebum—the oil on your face, scalp, and the rest of your body) function similarly to mammary glands (the ones that make milk) in that they work according to supply and demand. Just like cluster feeding in newborns serves to establish a strong milk supply early on (high demand = high supply), using harsh surfactants (like those found in conventional shampoos) to strip the oils from your scalp (and face!) every day signals to our sebaceous glands that they should be making more oil. Sebum, after all, is there for a reason—it makes our hair soft and protects our skin. Stripping away sebum every day leads not only to greasy roots, but to fairly brittle, damaged ends, since the sebum can’t be distributed along with hair shaft (with a natural bristle brush a la Marsha Brady) as nature intended.

In high school I had the classic greasy roots/dry ends conundrum, and no matter which “clarifying” or “moisturizing” or “damage repairing” shampoo I used, or how frequently I used it, my hair just kind of sucked. It wasn’t until someone broke it to me that washing my hair was the problem that I was able to break the cycle—first by simply washing my hair less, then by “washing” with conditioner only, and finally by dropping the shampoo and conditioner altogether at some point during my freshman or sophomore year of college.

I went pretty merrily this way for the next several years—”washing” with baking soda and “conditioning” with apple cider vinegar once or twice a week.People use lots of different methods, but here’s what works for me:

  1. I keep a jar of baking soda on the shelf in my bathroom. Before I shower, I scoop a couple of tablespoons a big jar.
  2. Once in the shower, I wet my hair very thoroughly, which takes a minute or two because my hair is very thick and porous and there’s quite a lot of it (even though it’s pretty short).
  3. When my hair is soaked, I fill the baking soda jar the rest of the way up with warm water, then pour it very slowly over my hair, stopping several times to “scrub” and make sure the soda mixture is distributed. I can tell when I really need to wash my hair because it will feel very slippery.
  4. Rinse.
  5. Do essentially the same thing with apple cider vinegar: a couple of tablespoons in a jar, fill it the rest of the way up with water, then pour over. I typically don’t rinse the ACV out, though.
  6. Go on about my shower business.

However, as I briefly mentioned earlier, distribution of sebum along the hair shaft plays a fairly critical role in this no shampoo thing/no conditioner thing, and it turns out I’d only really addressed one half of the equation. Baking soda does a great job of gently stripping the oil from my scalp, but apple cider vinegar isn’t the best moisturizer. It definitely makes my hair smooth and less staticky, but it’s not an oil, and thus isn’t exactly moisturizing. I tried the boar bristle brush thing for a while, but my hair has just enough wave to get poofy when brushed, so I abandoned that pretty quickly and instead used the boar bristle brush as a makeshift dry skin brush until I was able to find a suitable replacement. To make up for the lack of natural sebum, I typically used coconut, jojoba, or argan oil as a leave-in conditioner. Because my hair is very porous this is okay, but I know it would leave a lot of people feeling a little too greasy.

Then, for Valentine’s Day Ben got me the handmade wooden comb from Kaufmann Mercantile that changed everything. Unlike the boar bristle brush, it doesn’t make my hair poof, and it also feels wonderful, and so I started combing my hair every night before bed. I have never really washed my hair according to a schedule—just whenever the roots started to feel particularly greasy or, when I’d been in smoky bar or a really sweaty yoga class. After using the wooden comb for a couple weeks, however, I realized I hadn’t felt the need to wash my hair, at which point I decided to see how long I could push it. After all, I work from home, and I wasn’t getting married for another few months. Here’s what I learned:

  • When it’s warm outside, a month to six weeks is about as long as I can go between washes.
  • Despite what I kind of assumed, my hair didn’t get progressively greasier until I couldn’t help but wash it. Instead, it looks pretty much the same for six weeks, and then suddenly I have to wash it.
  • Wetting my hair without washing it only makes it get greasy faster.
  • My hair doesn’t smell any better or worse than when washing with baking soda once or twice a week. That said, it really just smells like hair. Since I haven’t used shampoo in so long and I’m pretty sensitive to fragrance anyway, I don’t particularly miss it, but I know this is one of the biggest hurdles for people trying to limit or omit shampoo, so I thought I’d point it out. Adding a couple of drops of essential oil to the ACV rinse is really nice, but certainly doesn’t last the full month. I have considered adding a few drops of lavender to my comb at night and seeing what happens, but honestly I am usually already in bed when I remember and would just rather not getup again.
  • A lot of people have complained that baking soda is just too harsh, and I think that can certainly be the case. To remedy this, many people wash instead with honey, a mixture of coconut milk and aloe juice, buckwheat flour, and all sorts of other things. For me, simply limiting baking soda to every four to six weeks and working hard to distribute the sebum in the meantime seems to be a nice balance and keeps my hair from being damaged by the baking soda.

In summary:

I’m not saying you should throw away your shampoo and buy a wooden comb. However, if you feel like your roots constantly need washing and your ends are really damaged, breaking the cycle and baby-stepping into a low-shampoo or shampoo-free routine might help. Also, there is something really satisfying about not spending $5 to $20 a month on a plastic bottle full of crap I can’t pronounce, and I mean that in the least judgy way possible. If shampooing your hair makes you happy, then please continue to lather up! I know I won’t be giving up my red wine and Netflix marathons anytime soon.

So, how often do you wash your hair? Are you low-shampoo or shampoo-free? Do tell in the comments.

Hitched!

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So, it’s been over a month since my last post. Whoops. Apparently, planning a wedding—even a thirty-person state park one—is much more stressful and time-consuming than I had anticipated it would be. As Ben and I stood outside the Assembly Hall just after the ceremony, we realized that all that planning was finally coming to fruition, and our resposibility was to have fun. Lots of things did go wrong, and it most definitely was not the perfect day that everyone says it will or should be—it was so much better.

Since I started going to yoga regularly a few months ago, savasana has been a tough one for me. It’s the point at which I either pass out due to exhaustion or lie there and try not to worry about the fact that they lost the catering order again, what we’re going to do about the the Assembly Hall’s ugly lighting fixture, or whether someone’s feelings are hurt because they didn’t get an invitation. As I was lying in savasana at the end of my first post-wedding yoga class, however, if finally dawned on me that for the time being I have absolutely nothing to worry about. I know that before long it’s going to be time to start packing, rent a truck, move 600 miles, find an apartment, and so on, but right now I am trying not to let those worries creep in and just enjoy this little break as much as possible.

The Oil Cleansing Method

This post has been languishing in WordPress Draft Purgatory since June 28, 2013—ALMOST AN ENTIRE YEAR. You have my friend Kelly from yoga to thank for my finally pushing the “Publish” button. Just knowing that an actual human person is reading makes me want to step up my blogging game. Much of my hesitation in finishing this post has stemmed from the fact that my skin is not perfect. While it was great through high school despite  just washing my face with Dove soap and eating all manner of garbage, as I’ve gotten older I’ve experienced more redness and inflammation even though, in general, my diet and skincare regimen are better.

Naturally, the skeptic in me sometimes thinks “Obviously eating healthy and taking care of your skin has no benefit whatsoever!” Yet, whenever I really go off the rails these days, my skin reacts violently. Everyone’s triggers are different, but mine are (in order of least to most severe): low quality dairy, vegetable oil, and gluten-containing grains. Obviously some of this is hard to pinpoint exactly, since the most wonderful offending foods often pack a double or triple threat. For example: the best donuts, cheese sticks, king cake, any really good hamburger, and so on. And though the majority of my knowledge in this area comes from self experimentation, I can say that people I know who’ve gone to the trouble to figure out what pisses off their skin seem to agree with these main three.

But why am I talking about food anyway when this is supposed to be a post about skincare? People a lot more knowledgable than I am have written on this subject with much more depth than I could even attempt in a single blog post. Two resources that have shaped my understanding of the gut-skin connection are Liz Wolfe’s Skintervention Guide and this four part series on Eczema by Rachel Wolf.1 I highly recommend them both, but for our purposes the short version is that diet and skin are so so inextricably linked, and topical treatments cannot solve your skin problems, they can only treat the symptoms. No matter how much you’re paying for that fancy cream, balm, or scrub, it’s not going to get rid of your acne and heal your eczema. The same holds true for oil cleansing, a skincare method I can’t praise enough. While it’s much more affordable and way less toxic than fancy drugstore creams, oil cleansing can’t fix your digestion, mediate the effects of inflammatory foods, or make up for the fact that you don’t eat vegetables. So, if you’re having major skin issues and you’re not sure what’s causing them, examine your diet first and foremost. At least in my experience, everything seems to work better when I am giving my body what it needs and limiting exposure to things I know aren’t good for me.2

Oil Cleansing

Now, after the longest introduction ever, let’s talk about oil cleansing. The logic behind oil cleansing is fairly simple—like dissolves like. So, if your skin tends toward oily, then that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t oil cleanse. In fact, you should most definitely oil cleanse, because it has the potential to regulate your skin’s oil production so that you aren’t running to the bathroom to powder your nose or use a blotting sheet once an hour. Seriously! And if you have dry skin, it’s also good for you, because you can choose more moisturizing oils like coconut and really soothe your dry, irritated skin. And if you have combination skin, then obviously it will work for you as well. Oil cleansing is really the traveling pants3 of skincare. So here is what you’ll need to make it happen:

  • castor oil, your “cleansing” oil4
  • a carrier oil of your choosing (jojoba, almond, olive, avocado, coconut5, etc., or some combination)
  • a washcloth (several of them, in fact)

Those are the three most basic supplies, but I find that it’s also exceedingly helpful to have:

Let’s start with your oils. Castor is the nonnegotiable, which I buy in bulk and keep in the fridge until I need it. In addition to castor oil, you will need a carrier oil. If you want to lower the risk bar and use something you already have on hand, I say go for it, as long as it’s high quality and suitable for your skin type. Avocado and coconut are great for dry skin, olive and jojoba are more all purpose/combination oils, and almond is considered best for oily skin.  Whatever you make sure it’s the highest quality you can afford, because you don’t want to be smearing toxins and stuff all over your face. I use a blend of olive, argan, and castor oils and I am really happy with it. Argan oil is totally optional, but it’s great for all skin types, and it’s super high in vitamin E, which means it helps my skin to heal much more quickly when  I inevitably think Chinese takeout and Supernatural in bed is a great idea (which it just sometimes is).

As far as the ratio of cleansing to carrier oil, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general:

  • oily skin – 1:1
  • normal – 1:2
  • dry – 1:3

The first number represents castor oil and the second represents carrier oil. So for me, I use 1 part castor, 2 part olive, and drop of argan. I recommend starting small, either mixing the oils in your hand each night before cleansing, or mixing up no more than a few tablespoons to begin. The oils stay fresher longer if you store the bulk in the fridge, and after a week or so you’ll be able to tell whether your proportions are right or need adjusting. If you find that your skin is too oily or too dry, adjust as necessary—adding more castor for a more drying oil, and more carrier for a more moisturizing one.

Also, don’t forget to consider the seasons. Right now my mix is somewhere between 1:2 and 1:3, but as the weather warms up I’ll probably have to cut back on the carrier oil. This is another reason that mixing small batches is beneficial. If you find that what worked for you in February isn’t working come April, it’s not a big deal to remix and adjust.

Now for the actual process. This is where the bonus supplies come in. I’ll walk you through what I do a few nights a week, plus offer some modifications in case you’re lacking any of the supplies.

  • If using fancy pants, optional ingredients: Put a kettle of filtered water on to boil, and place a clean washcloth in a large glass mixing bowl on your kitchen table. Put 1 drop of lavender essential oil onto the washcloth, and drape a thick towel over the back of your chair. (I didn’t put towel on the list because I’m assuming you have at least one. Also, I use lavender because it’s calming and I love it. I’m also a big fan of eucalyptus whenever I have sinus stuff going on, but you can use whatever essential oils you love and know are safe.)
    • Modifications for un-fancy ingredients: Scrub out your sink and get the tap water as hot as you can. Grab a clean wash cloth and a towel.
  • Use a headband or hair tie to keep your hair back, wet your face with warm water, and then massage something like a teaspoon of your oil blend into your face. If you’re mixing by hand, just do 1/2 t castor and 1/2 t carrier or 1/4 and 1/2 or 1/2 and 3/4 (you get it). Use a firm, upward motion, being careful not to press too hard. After a minute or two have passed, wash the oil off your hands with a mild soap like Dr. Bronners. 
  • Fancy pants: The kettle should be whistling by now (this is a great way to time how long you cleanse), so go back into the kitchen, pour 3-4 inches of water into your bowl (not so much that you burn your nose while steaming, not that anyone would ever do that….), and make a tent with the towel and steam your face for a minute or two or five. Especially with the lavender, this part is so nice that I usually stretch it out for as long as possible.
    • Regular pants: Stop up the sink, put your washcloth in, and fill the sink with the hottest water you can achieve/stand. Make a tent with your towel and steam your face, as above.
  • Once you’re done steaming, drape the washcloth over your face and steam a bit more. Dunk the washcloth back into the water a few times and repeat. Eventually, you can start wiping the oil off of your face, dunking the washcloth and wringing it out, and wiping some more. It’s not an exact science and the process takes a few minutes, so the water should be warm but no longer steaming by the time you’re done. Water from a kettle does get hotter and thus takes longer to cool off, so beware when reaching into the bowl initially.

And that’s it! There’s no need to moisturize after, and I only wash my bowl once a week or so. I love doing this right before bed, as the warm water and lavender are so relaxing. After I’m done, I typically make a magnesium and head to bed for the dreamiest sleep. Yes, oil cleansing is way more work than just washing my face with dove soap, but I think it’s worth the trouble most of the time. On nights I’m too tired to oil cleanse, I either exfoliate with baking soda, wash with honey, or use my konjac sponge; but like brewing kombucha and french pressing coffee, it doesn’t take long for it to stop being a hassle and become part of your routine. It’s kind of ritualistic, even—the massage, the lavender, the warm water… not to mention sitting still for ten minutes without looking at a screen. I kind of love it, and only partially because it keeps my skin in check.

Have you heard of oil cleansing? Have you ever tried it? Do you think I am crazy for smearing oil into my skin on the reg? Let me know in the comments.

Notes:

  1. I never noticed the similarity in their last names until typing them side by side just now, but obviously there’s a correlation between having some variant of wolf as a last name and being a total badass.
  2. And please, please don’t think I am judging you for your less-than-perfect diet or that I survive on lemon water, grass fed beef, and organic spinach alone.
  3. As in, Sisterhood of the
  4. While you can pick up castor oil in the medicine section of the supermarket (it’s a laxative as well), I would caution against it. This is what I purchased when I started oil cleansing, and the results just weren’t great. I can’t be sure it was just the castor oil, but even after I switched to using a tea kettle, I still weird breakouts around my hairline which I blame on inferior castor oil.
  5. If you’re acne-prone at all, let me caution you against coconut oil. While I’ve not personally experienced problems with it, it does seem to make some people’s skin worse.
  6. So, I’ve been oil cleansing fairly regularly for four to five years, and the whole glass mixing bowl thing didn’t occur to me until weeks ago. Despite steaming in more than one basin sink, which are essentially bowls, and loving it, somehow it took a disgustingly clogged sink for me to make the connection. But I am so glad I did because now I can sit down to steam! And it uses less water because you don’t have to leave the faucet running to heat it up.