Monday, October 15, 2018

Tomato Paste

Photo of home-cooked tomato paste in a large pot.

Please note, this post is meant as an overview of canning tomato paste and does not replace or represent itself to be an official guide for proper canning at home. It is important to consult safe canning resources, which are listed at the end of this post.

It's gotten to the end of the tomato season in my Pacific Northwest garden. The vines are getting dark and the tomatoes are slow to ripen and spotty. I've brought many inside the garage to finish ripening, but I don't completely trust their condition, as some of them grow mold inside, so I cut them open before using to make sure they're okay. Not really great tomatoes for canning whole, but perfect for making tomato paste.

Photo of a bowl of frozen cubes of tomato paste that had been frozen in ice cube trays.
Frozen tomato paste cubes

Because I wanted to can the tomato paste, I used a recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but you can certainly freeze tomato paste. In fact, most of the time I only need a tablespoon or so of tomato paste, not a whole can or jar, and freeze the leftover paste in ice cube trays and store the frozen cubes in jars in my freezer. You can do the same with marinara sauce, pesto, guacamole, etc. If you want to just simply freeze your paste, follow the directions up until the point of canning, then put the paste into freezer-safe jars or ice cube trays and freeze.

Photo of a pot of cut up tomatoes to be made into tomato paste.
Cut up tomatoes for paste

The first step is to cut up washed tomatoes and simmer them into a sauce. You don't even have to peel them, which makes prep fast and easy! No water is necessary as the tomatoes will release their own liquid as they cook. Just stir often at the beginning so they don't stick to the bottom of the pan and burn. Once they've come to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, put the lid on, and let them cook down an hour.

I used mostly paste tomatoes, which don't have a lot of excess liquid in them to cook off. There were some unknown non-paste heirlooms in there that I got as freebies from a market vendor.

Photo of pot of cooked down tomatoes to be pressed into juice.
Cooked down tomatoes

Your tomatoes will look like this after they've cooked down.

See how juicy and soft they got? You want them really cooked down so you can get all the pulpy and juicy goodness out of the skins.

Note, I prefer to use stainless steel or lined pots when cooking down tomatoes. The acid in the tomatoes will react with aluminum or cast iron and give the finished product a metallic taste and often discolors it. I use a Le Creuset enameled cast iron pot for making tomato paste.

Photo of tomato skins and seeds leftover from pressing through a cone sieve.
Pressing through cone sieve

Now you'll run the cooked tomatoes through a food mill or press them through a sieve to separate the skins and seeds from the juice and pulp.

You can add the leftover skins and seeds to other vegetable scraps to make vegetable stock. There will be a lot of tomato essence still left. Or you can cool and give to composting worms! At the very least, add them to your compost pile or municipal compost collection bin.

Photo tomato juice obtained by pressing cooked tomatoes through cone sieve.
Resulting tomato juice

The juice is returned to the pot and simmered until it reduces by more than half and becomes a paste. It took about an hour for me, but I was doing a half recipe with paste tomatoes, so time will vary based upon the amount of tomatoes and type of tomatoes you use.

You can add bay leaf and garlic at this point, if you'd like, and also add citric acid. You'll need citric acid if you are canning your paste so the mixture is acidified enough for safe canning. If you are not canning, just freezing, you can omit the citric acid.

Run your ventilation fan while this is cooking down to help pull off the moisture and help it cook down.

The paste will get thicker and denser little by little as the liquid cooks off:

Three photos of the progression of tomato juice cooking into paste.
From juice (left) to sauce (middle) to paste (right)

You want to cook it down until it is reduced into a thick paste and holds its own. Here's a little video of what it looks like when you run a spatula through it (I have my vent fan turned all the way up, so its a little loud!). See how slow it is to fill the space back in? This is where you want to take the paste to:

Now you can remove the garlic and bay leaf, if you used, and fill into hot half-pint or quarter-pint jars. I use quarter-pint (4-ounce jars) because I don't use a lot of tomato paste at a time.

Photo of 8 4-oz. jars of tomato paste on a granite countertop.
8 4-oz. jars of tomato paste
This is the amount of paste I got from 7 pounds of tomatoes. It is really concentrated tomato, each little jar is the flavor of about 1 pound of tomatoes! A lot of folks won't find it worth it to make tomato paste, but I think it tastes better in glass than an aluminum can and I know it's not lined with BPA or BPS plastic. Furthermore, it's way easier to store after opening. I can scoop out what I want, replace the lid, and either refrigerate if I'm using again soon, or pop in the freezer.

Process these in a boiling water bath for 45 minutes for half- or quarter-pint jars, if at sea level. Check the recipe for other altitudes.

Photo of 8 4-oz. jars of canned tomato paste out of the water bath canner, cooling on a towel.
Canned jars of tomato paste cooling from water canner


There are some great resources available for home canning. Internet resources are fantastic as they are generally most up to date. There are some standby books, but remember to get new ones every few years to be current with updated guidelines.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Junk Mail

Photo of two catalogs, a post card, and two envelopes of junk mail.

Junk mail...argh...bane of my existence! We work so hard to move toward zero waste in our house and then we go to the mailbox, and WHAMO! there's a bolus of junk!

New York University Law School posted some statistics they gathered on junk mail in the United States:

  • 5.6 million tons of catalogs and direct mailings end up in US landfills every year
  • 44% of junk mail is tossed unopened!
  • Only 22% of junk mail is recycled
  • The average US household receives 848 pieces of junk mail a year!
  • Junk mail destroys 150 million trees per yearthe equivalent of deforesting the entire Rocky Mountain National Park every four months!
I think that's just disgusting! And of those statistics, I believe that the recycling rate of junk mail is actually lower than that, due to the China National Sword policy, which has left much of the US without a source to send paper to for recycling. Learn more about the impacts of the China National Sword policy in your state by going to the WasteDive webpage on What Chinese Import Policies Mean for All 50 States

We've been working hard to eliminate junk mail at our house. It takes work. I probably spend 30 minutes a week dealing with junk mail right now. I'm hoping that decreases as time goes on and I make an impact on our mailing address.

What I Do to Decrease Junk Mail

Free Services
  1. Catalog Choice sends opt-out requests to catalog and other merchants on your behalf
  2. OptOutPrescreen.Com Service by the major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, Experian, and Innovus) to be removed from lists used to send credit and insurance offers
  3. National Do Not Mail List from, a national direct mailing company
  4. National Yellow Pages Consumer Choice & Opt-Out Site will stop delivery of phone books (yellow and white pages) for your area
  5. Sign up for electronic billing from services you use
  6. Contact businesses directly. I call and/or email businesses that send us junk mail to be removed from their mailing list. Unfortunately, a lot of times they have purchased a mailing list from places like, so it won't remove you from the master list, but it should prevent you from getting mail from this individual business again. Here's the saved email message I use:
Subject: Removal from Mailing List
We recently received an unsolicited mailing from you. We are a zero waste household and are working to eliminate unnecessary paper waste. Would you please remove us from your mailing list: 
 Name on mailing
Address on mailing
Thank you
Check the junk mail to get the email address or phone number for opting out. Many don't have contact information on them, so I do a web search for the information. Most companies have a Privacy Policy section at the bottom of the web page where you can find contact information:

Screenshot of a privacy policy link on the UnTuckIt website.
Privacy Policy Link on the UnTuckIt Website

I have been pleased to see many catalogs now coming with opt-out web addresses printed on them. This makes me happy, because I don't have to search websites and privacy policies for opt-out procedures:

Photo of OptOut web address from back of the Lumens catalog.
OptOut Web Address from Lumens Catalog

Photo of OptOut web address from back of the Smith and Noble catalog.
OptOut Web Address from Smith and Noble Catalog

Services for a Fee
  1. Paper Karma a smartphone app that allows you to submit photos to remove yourself from mailing lists for a subscription fee of $1.99 a month
  2. DMA Choice charges $2 fee for a 10 year period of opting out of junk mail lists.

The frustrating thing is that most catalogs and bulk mailings are printed months in advance. Before I retired from the fire service, one of the major businesses in my fire management area was a major printing company that printed phone books and catalogs, and they had warehouses with printed mailings strapped on pallets ready to go out in the mailit was shocking! You will probably get a few more catalogs or mailings over the next couple of months due to pre-printed material prior to your opt-out request.

Check with your county for services in your local area for opting out of junk mail. King County, Washington has a site devoted to reducing junk mail.

I've been working on this for the past several months and believe it is making an impact. 

There are a lot of folks that have great creative ways to use the junk mail they receive to make crafty items. Check out YouTube to find some awesome junk mail projects!

We tear out the clear plastic window of the envelopes and put them in the garbage and then shred the paper envelope and contents to use in our compost. Unfortunately, glossy or shiny paper, which most catalogs are comprised of, are not good for your compost, so those need to be put in the recycling bin or used for crafts. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Vegan Protein

One of the biggest sources of confusion for many of my clients is in regards to protein. Folks worry that they won't get enough protein eating whole food, plant-based (WFPB) vegan, and they've usually been warned by friends and family about this. It turns out, though, that there's a lot of misconceptions about protein, how much we really need, and what our bodies use protein for.

What is Protein and Why is it Important?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients our bodies need, along with carbohydrates and fat. Made up of long chains of amino acids, proteins are held together by peptide bonds into different structures. There are only 20 different amino acids which combine in different combinations to make up over 100,000 different proteins in our bodies. Of the 20 amino acids, there are nine that we only get from foodthese are called essential amino acids; the other 11 can be made by the body.

Once we consume proteins, the body works to break the peptide bonds holding the amino acids together so they can be absorbed and utilized to make new proteins your body needs. Note, if you eat collagen, you will not be necessarily depositing that collagen as collagen in your bodyyour body breaks down the collagen into its individual amino acids and then uses them to build whatever proteins your body needs, which may or may not be collagen! Thinking we need to eat a specific protein to deposit that exact protein in our body would be like eating an eyeball expecting to grow a new eyeballit just doesn't work that way.

Energy comes from carbohydrates and fats, not protein. The optimal diet, according to the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM), is made up of high carbohydrate, low fat, and adequate protein.

How Much is Adequate Protein?

The formula for how much protein we need is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight). So a 150 pound person requires 54 gram of protein a day. The USDA's recommended daily allowance (optimal amount, not minimum) of protein is 56 grams for men and 46 gram for women, calculated right from this formula. Those populations with the highest longevity subsist on a diet made up of only 10% protein.

What if we Get Too Much Protein?

According to the PCRM, from evidence-based medical studies on humans, chronic overconsumption of protein contributes to osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function, heart disease, and obesity.

Is Protein Deficiency an Issue?

Protein deficiency is extremely rare in the United States. The bigger issue is too much protein. If you are eating enough calories, you are getting the protein your body requires.

What about the Difference Between Animal- and Plant-based Protein?

Animal sources contain exceedingly high amounts of protein, more than our bodies need. For example, a small, 6-ounce steak has 70 grams of proteinimmediately exceeding the recommended daily allowance of protein for an adult. The Standard American Diet is far exceeding the amount of protein required in the daily diet. But beyond the high amounts of protein, animal products are laden with cholesterol and saturated fats we don't want, and completely lacking in antioxidants and fiber, dietary components necessary for human health.

Plants are full of proteins! Surprised? Where do you think plant-eating animals get their protein? Herbivores get their protein from the plants (grass, grains, etc.) they eat. The largest mammals, elephants, gorillas, cows, are all herbivores and do not suffer from protein deficiency. You will probably be surprised at the amount of protein in common plant foods:

Even apples and bananas contain protein! Apples have nearly 0.5 gram of protein for a cup of sliced apple, and there are 2.45 grams per cup of mashed banana. You can see how protein can quickly add up with plant foods. You can look up protein content of any food at the USDA Food Composition Database.

Not only do plants contain proteins, they are full of carbohydrates, our bodies' preferred energy source, along with antioxidants and fiber missing from meat, dairy, and eggs.

Complete Proteins Vs. Incomplete Proteins

Years ago when scientists were first studying protein, they observed that most plants do not contain all nine essential amino acids (soy, quinoa, chia seeds, buckwheat, hemp, and flax seed are all plant foods classified as complete proteins with all nine essential amino acids). However, this should not be a deterrent to eating a plant-based diet, as remember, a WFPB diet includes a variety of plant products. All plants contain a varying amount of essential amino acids. While one may be lacking in one essential protein, another will be bursting with it, therefore you are getting a diet rich in complete essential proteins by including a variety of plant foods in your meals.

Resources on Protein

There are a lot of great resources about protein available out there:

T. Collin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine Fact Sheets

Vegetarian Resource Group, Protein in the Vegan Diet

Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, Protein in Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Mayo Clinic, High-Protein Diets: Are They Safe?

Harvard School of Public Health, Protein

The Exam Room Podcast, The Protein Myth

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Pumpkin Butter

Photo of a plate of pancakes slathered with pumpkin butter and maple syrup. Served with a cup of coffee.

#VeganMoFo18 Day 30 - Pumpkin Butter

It's the final day of September and thus, the final day of Vegan Month of Food 2018. At the beginning, I worried that I wouldn't have enough things to blog about for every day of the month, but turns out I had plenty, and even more on my list for future posts! It's been a lot of work, but also a joy! I've really enjoyed the feedback from everyone and hope you get a chance to try some of the things out. 

Being that we're headed into October, the month of jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin spice lattes, it seems appropriate to write about Pumpkin Butter! Pumpkin butter is sweet, spicy, thick, and satisfyingwe love it! The grandkids really love to put it on pancakes (and so do we, I freely admit!). 

Unlike apple butter, pumpkin butter cannot be water bath or pressure canned. Pumpkin butter, and even mashed or pureed pumpkin, is just too dense and you cannot guarantee that heat from the canning process will penetrate all the way into the contents in the middle of the jar. Therefore, you have to refrigerate or freeze your jars of pumpkin butter. Cubed pumpkin and other winter squash can be pressure canned, however, and you can learn more from the National Center for Home Food Preservation

I use the Spice Pumpkin Butter recipe from the Ball® Fresh Preserving recipe database. There are lots of other recipes out there for making pumpkin butter, including a bunch that use a crock pot, which would probably cut down on the splatter when making it!

Photo of a kuri squash.
Kuri Squash
While you can use canned pumpkin, I prefer to use pureed roasted squash. We grow a lot of different winter squashes in our garden, and then roast and freeze the pump every year. My favorite is the kabocha and kuri squashes, which are meaty, sweet, and dense. To roast the squash, cut the squash in half, lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and put cut-side down on a baking sheet covered with a silicone baking sheet, parchment paper, or foil. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and then bake until soft, about 45 minutes. Make sure you use a baking sheet with a lip, as the squash will release some liquid while it's baking. Let it cool on the sheet and then scoop all the cooked out of the shell. You can use the pulp right away or put into containers and freeze.

Photo of a large pot on the stove with a splatter guard on top.
Splatter Guard on Pot
To make pumpkin butter, puree the cooked pulp in a food processor and then combine in a large saucepot with apple cider, maple syrup, brown sugar (or granulated sugar with a bit of molasses), lemon juice, seeds scraped from a vanilla bean, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. If you are using canned pumpkin, you don't need to process in a food processor, it's ready to go. Bring this to a boil and stir it frequently because it will stick and burn. Reduce the heat to low and cover with a splatter guard because it will throw up big splatters of boiling hot squash which will burn and mess up your whole kitchen! Simmer this for 20-30 minutes until it is thick and mounds on a spoon (see making apple butter). Spoon the hot pumpkin butter into hot jars with 1/2-inch headspace. Let them cool before refrigerating or freezing. They freeze up to a year.

I hope VeganMoFo18 was as fun for you as it was for me! It was great to put a zero waste spin perspective on whole food, planted-based vegan cooking. If you are just considering or starting your zero waste journey, don't be discouraged or overwhelmed. Moving toward zero waste is a gradual transition, you're not going to get there overnight. The things we have done, and are still doing, have occurred slowly, a step at a time. Trying new things, like making pumpkin butter, something that doesn't even require hot water or pressure canning, is a fun way to start!


There are some great resources available for home canning. Internet resources are fantastic as they are generally most up to date. There are some standby books, but remember to get new ones every few years to be current with updated guidelines.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Apple Cider Vinegar

Photo of a quart bottle of homemade apple cider vinegar with assorted apples and apple cores next to a fall flower arrangement.

#VeganMoFo18 Day 29 - Apple Cider Vinegar

Photo of assorted red, yellow, and green apples in a bowl.
Assorted Apples Used for Making Vinegar
Earlier this month I made applesauce and apple butter and wound up with a lot of scraps from the peels and cores. Normally I would not think much about it and put the peels and cores into the compost or worm bin, but I started to wonder if I could make something out of them. It turns out, you can make your own apple cider vinegar from apple scraps!

We use apple cider vinegar all the time, and I like to buy the raw, unfiltered with the mother, or goo at the bottom. The mother is simply cellulose and acetobacter, a fermenting bacteria culture that develops during the fermentation of alcohol and converts ethanol into acetic acid. Acetic acid is what makes vinegar sour. The bacteria in unpasturized, unfiltered apple cider vinegar are not probiotics, but the pectin in them from the apples is a prebiotic, which supports beneficial bacteria in our gut.

Besides the prebiotic benefits, apple cider vinegar has been shown in studies to have positive effects on weight loss and blood sugar control. Suggested health benefits from vinegar aren't new, however. My mom recalls in the 1960s when she was working to stay slim in the months prior to her wedding, a physician friend advised her to down a shot of vinegar every day. Vinegar was also used as a folk remedy for diabetes control prior to the advent of diabetic medications. In his analysis of peer-reviewed studies of the effects of vinegar, including apple cider vinegar, Michael Greger, MD, of found that vinegar can reduce visceral fat, the fat surrounding our internal organs and is dangerous to our health when it accumulates. Additionally, Dr. Greger reports that studies have shown that vinegar decreases triglycerides and blood sugar, while decreasing spikes insulin levels. Here are two videos describing his findings:

Supplies for making apple cider drink, including unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, chia seeds, infused water, and maple syrup. Pictured with two pint wide-mouthed mason jars with lids and straws full of the drink.
Apple Cider Drink and Supplies

So after learning about Dr. Greger's conclusions, we enjoy a morning beverage of two tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar in a pint of water every day. I like to add two tablespoons of chia seeds and a tablespoon of pure maple syrup to it the night before, making it like a bubble tea when the chia seeds swell in the water by the next morning. Using infused water makes this concoction even tastier. Alan doesn't care for the chia and likes more maple syrup in his morning cider drink. Our dentist suggests swishing our mouths with water after eating or drinking acid foods and waiting 30 minutes before brushing our teeth afterward, to protect our tooth enamel.

But back to making apple cider vinegar! I did some research and found a couple of resources with guides I liked. The Wellness Mama blog has a great tutorial on their website and Sandor Ellix Katz's book, The Art of Fermentation: An In-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, does a great job explaining the science behind vinegar production and how to make it at home.

Photo of 1/2 gallon wide-mouth mason jars with apple scraps inside for making vinegar.
Jars with Apple Scraps for Making Vinegar
I started with all of the peels and cores from the apples I used when making the applesauce and apple butter. There were a lot of scraps, nearly 2 gallons of them, the jars on the left are each 1/2 gallon jars! 

You can freeze these scraps if you aren't ready to make vinegar immediately. I froze these and put the defrosted scraps into 1 gallon jars when I was ready.

Add your scraps to a clean, wide-mouthed, non-metallic vessel, filling them 1/2 to 3/4 full. 

Photo of two 1-gallon jars with apple scraps in sugar solution, weighed down with pint jars of water to be fermented into apple cider vinegar.
Apple Scraps Weighed Down in Sugar Solution
Make a sugar solution with a ratio of 1/3 cup of sugar to 1 quart of water and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar. Make enough for the amount of scraps you have prepared. Pour the sugar solution over the scraps, no need to cool the mixture, to completely cover the scraps, but don't fill the jar, you'll need the room for solution displaced when you add weight to hold down the scraps.

The scraps need to be submerged completely in the solution. Scraps exposed to the air will get moldyyou can remove any random pieces that escape and get moldy during the process, it doesn't hurt the batch, you just don't want the whole thing to float up and mold.

You can use a fermentation weight or make something to weigh down the scraps in the solution. I used five clean wide-mouth lids to cover the surface of the scraps and then pushed a lidded-pint jar full of water onto them to submerge the scraps. The solution will fill the jar as you push down. Add more solution or water if you have space left in your jar.

Photo of jars of apple scraps in solution fermenting in a tray in the pantry.
Fermenting Apple Scraps in Pantry
Cover the top of the vessel with cheesecloth or a coffee filter and use a rubberband to hold it in place. The cloth or filter will presumably keep out fruit flies, but I still got some that worked their way into the jar. No biggie, a lot of them got drunk and drowned, but it doesn't spoil your vinegar. 

Put your jars in a dark, room temperature location, in something to catch any liquid that might overflow out during the fermentation process. I put mine in my pantry and covered with a towel to keep out the light.

Check your jars every couple of days, making sure scraps are staying under the solution. Pull out any moldy scraps on the surface and gently push on the weights to circulate the solution. 

Photo of straining liquid from apple scraps into a bowl (left) and Strained solution in measuring cups next to an empty gallon jar with a funnel in top (right).
Straining Scraps and Solution (left). Strained Solution (right)

Continue this for 3 weeks to let it ferment and then strain your mixture. 

Compost your scraps, they are perfect for making soil! I don't add these to the worm bin, just in case there's too much acid for the worms.

Pour the solution into a clean, non-metallic jar (I simply cleaned what I'd used to ferment the scraps in). Your solution is an alcohol solution right now. Go ahead and taste it and note that it is not sour, but tastes like alcohol.

Photo of jars of alcohol cider solution in tray in pantry during conversion into acetic acid. Shows formation of mother on top of the solution.
Formation of Mother-of-Vinegar
Put cheesecloth or coffee filter back on top, secure with a rubberband, and return to the spot you were fermenting in. Stir every few days and notice that the mother will start to form as the bacteria work to convert the alcohol to acetic acid. 

It will take another 3-4 weeks for the mixture to turn into vinegar. Smell and taste the solution to determine when it's the tartness you want and that no alcohol remains. Or you can buy a test kit to check itI just use my sense of smell and taste.

Once it's to your liking, transfer to a smaller, narrow neck bottle (I use old glass vinegar bottles I've amassed) and seal tightly. This keeps it from oxidizing, which would cause the acetobacter to continue to break down the acetic acid into water and carbon dioxide and ruining your vinegar.

Photo of a quart bottle of homemade apple cider vinegar with assorted apples and apple cores next to a fall flower arrangement.
Final Product with Samples of Apples and Cores Started From
Katz does outline the process for pasteurizing your vinegar at this point, prior to bottling, if you desire. To do this, simply heat the vinegar above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but less than 160 degrees to prevent evaporation of the acetic acid. Then bottle. Note, this will kill the acetobacter and the mother of vinegar, but make it more stable, should you prefer. 

Some people like to age their vinegar for another six months after bottling for more complex flavor, but you can use your vinegar right away.

Once you have a mother-of-vinegar, you can add this to your next batches of scraps and sugar solution to speed up the process of making vinegar. You can also add it to wine, beer, or rice alcohols in wide-mouthed vessels to make wine, malt, or rice vinegars! I think I'll try those next.

I've started keeping jars of apple scraps and cores in my freezer in order to have supplies to make more apple cider vinegar as it runs low. It's a great zero-waste vegan project!

Friday, September 28, 2018

Vermicomposting Food Scraps

Photo of author's hand with a red wriggler worm in some bedding.

#VeganMoFo18 Day 28 - Vermicomposting Food Scraps

Vermicomposting food scrapssay what? Vermicomposting is a fancy what of saying composting with worms! Cool, right? Heck yeah!

The last post talked about composting your food waste in compost piles, bins, or tumblers. Today we're going to talk about composting them in worm bins. As I eluded to last time, we use both systems for dealing with our food waste.

Photo of a delivery box on front steps that says "Live Worms," in which red wriggler worms were shipped.
Box of Worms in the Mail!
Vermicomposting uses a particular type of worm, called red wriggler or red wiggler, depending on what source you read, sometimes called tiger worms due to their tiger stripe-like banding. Their scientific name are Eisenia fetida. These worms are not the earthworms or nightcrawlers you find when you dig in your yard or garden, nor are they worms you buy at a bait shop, they are the worms you find in piles of wet leaves on the sidewalk, small red worms that break down organic material. While you could search around and find some red wriggler worms among your leaves, it is easiest and most productive to buy them from a composting worm distributor. We got wonderful red wrigglers from NW Redworms, who shipped them to us from Camas, Washington. 

Composting worms can process a surprisingly large amount of material. A red worm can process half of their weight of food scraps a day! So this gives you a number to go by to determine how many worms you need for processing your food scraps. If you estimate you produce about one pound of food scraps a day, you'll want two pounds of red worms. But since the worms will reproduce, start with one pound of worms and let them build up the colony. One pound of red worms will equate to approximately 1,000 breeding worms, so you'll have a lot of worms with just a pound!

Worms eat your scraps and the bedding, and then poop. This poop is called worm castings and is composted food and newspaper scraps! It's really that simple.

Photo of a large wood worm bin outside.
Large Wood Worm Bin Outside
To house your worms, you need an appropriately-sized bin. The rule of thumb is 1 square foot of surface for each pound of worms. There are a multitude of choices for worm bins, whether you build your own from wood or repurpose a plastic storage container, or buy a commercially-made option. Tilth Alliance has instructions for building bins on their website. We started with the Off-the-Shelf worm bin, but had more food waste than that could handle, so we built a large wooden bin to better accommodate our situation. I use the off-the-shelf bin to transport worms to tabling events for Tilth Alliance as part of my Soil and Water Steward outreach activities.

We used strips of newspaper as bedding in our worm bin, for both of the bins. We wet the strips down after separating them and filled the bin about 3/4 full. Like your compost bin, you want the bedding to be damp as a wrung-out sponge, not dripping wet. Worms don't like it if it gets too wet or too dry and will try to escape your bin in search of better conditions.

Photo of a worm bin 3/4 full of strips of damp newspaper bedding with pile of new red worms added on top.
Newspaper Strip Bedding with Pile of New Worms On Top

Where to keep your Worm Bin

Worms like similar temperatures as humans, preferring a climate between 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Most resources will tell you to keep them inside your house or garage, protecting them from high heat and freezing temperatures. Lots of people keep them in their closets and basements. The bins don't smell, the worms consume the food so it doesn't rot, so that isn't an issue at all for folks.

We keep our worm bin outside. Alan did not want it inside at all, and, I wasn't too excited about that either. We had the small bin in our garage, but the big bin is just too big, so it lives outside. Even when it was really hot out, the bedding inside stayed cool and damp. In cooler temperatures, worms move into the center of the bin and huddle together to create their own heat. However, they do not withstand freezing temps. This later this fall, before winter, we will move the bin into our greenhouse to keep it from freezing. However, if it does freeze, the adult worms may die, but worm eggs will survive and hatch in the spring.

Feeding your Worms

To feed them, we simply bring out our food scraps, lift up the bedding and place the food on the bottom, making sure to cover the scraps completely. We put food in different spots each time.

Photo of vegetable food scraps (green bean trimmings) in among bedding in worm bin.
Adding Food Scraps to Worm Bin (Corn on the Cob and Green Bean Trimmings) to be Buried with Bedding

If you fail to cover your scraps, you can get fruit flies, which happened to us. To deal with that, remove the food, cover the bedding with additional new bedding, close the bin and don't open it again for about 3 weeks. Your worms will be fine, they'll eat bedding, but the fruit flies won't have enough food, causing them to not reproduce, and by three weeks, they will have met the end of their life cycle and perished. Then you can start feeding your worms again, making sure to bury the food.

The other thing we do to help keep fruit flies out is to put a single layer of cardboard across the entire top surface. This has been a huge help, we think. It also keeps moisture in and helps maintain a constant temperature.

Photo of a layer of cardboard on top of worm bin bedding.
Protective Layer of Cardboard on top of Bedding

Feed your worms:
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Bread
  • Grains
  • Coffee grounds (some sources say these are too acidic, but they've been fine in ours)
  • Tea
  • Cooked fruit and vegetable scraps, especially from making veggie stock or apple sauce or plate scrapings
Don't feed your worms:
  • Human or animal feces
  • Oil
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Fish
Some sources say not to give worms high acid. particularly citrus, or spicy foods, as it could burn the worm's skin. Others say it's ok to add bits of that at a time, but not a huge load of it at once. We simply just put citrus and hot pepper scraps in our compost bin instead.

Other Things that Live in your Worm Bin

You're going to get other things living in your worm bin other than worms, and that's good and normal, most of the time. As I mentioned earlier, you can get fruit flies. They don't harm anything, they're just annoying and I hate breeding them with the chance that they can get inside the house. Other things you can get in your bin:

Good Critters - won't hurt the worms and actually help with decomposition
  • Earwigs
  • White or pot worms
  • Springtails
  • Pill bugs
  • Millipedes
  • Mites
  • Black soldier flies and their larvae
  • Spiders - they kill the flies! We have a big spider who lives in the corner of the lid. We let it be. Sometimes we surprise it and find it on top of the bedding, we're just careful not to bury it. 

Bad Critters
  • Centipedes - can kill worms
  • Earthworm mites - show up if your bin is too wet. Your worms will stop eating if there are too many of these present
  • Ants
  • Roaches - rare, means your bedding is too dry

Harvesting the Worm Castings (Compost)

After four to six months, the bedding starts to turn dark and crumbly, but there's worms mixed in with this compost. Simply move all of the old bedding and castings to one side of the bin and add new bedding to the empty space. Feed the worms ONLY under this new bedding and after a month, most of the worms will have migrated to the new area for food and to get out of their poop (they don't like to live in their castings), and you can harvest mostly-worm-free compost.

Photo of a handful of worm castings with red worms in it.
Castings with Red Wriggler Worms in it

Alan wasn't too excited about the worms at first, but now he is our household worm wrangler! He loves to feed them so he can check on his brood. Any visitor to our house is quickly escorted out to get a personalized introduction to the worms, before they can even answer the question, "You wanna see my worm bin?"  The grandkids are encouraged to explore them as well! 

It's been a great way to keep up with our supply of food scraps. Without the worm bin, we would probably have too much nitrogen-rich material for our compost tumblers, so this helps spread the load. 

Resources about Vermicomposting

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Composting Food Scraps

Photo of a compost bin with vegetable food scraps.

#VeganMoFo18 Day 27 - Composting Food Scraps

One of the awesome things about being a whole food, plant-based, no oil vegan, and there are many, is that ALL of our food scraps are compostable! You don't have to live on a farm or a big piece of property to compost, either. There are options for composting whether you live in an apartment or on an acre. Composting comprises the final R (Rot) in the 5 R's of Zero Waste:

Image illustrating the 5 R's of Zero Waste. Upside down triangle broken into descending order: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
5 R's of Zero Waste

Photo of a garbage truck dumping garbage into a dump. Garbage dump.
Photo by S. Ross Morris on Unsplash
Why should we compost our food scraps? First and foremost, to reduce the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in our environment. Most people think that food waste decomposes in landfills after we've thrown it in the trash, but this is not true. As we will learn, organic matter requires oxygen in order to decompose, and in landfills, food waste gets smothered in all other types of waste, depriving it of oxygen, so it sits in that debris and creates methane gas instead. According to King County, nearly 35% of the waste in dumps is comprised of food scraps and food-soiled paper. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that landfills are the third largest human-made source of methane in our environment, accounting for 16% of overall methane production in 2016. Methane is 25 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and therefore is a major contributor to global climate change. While the EPA is working to promote collection of as much landfill methane as possible through their Landfill Methane Outreach Program, it is a voluntary program, and it would be best just not to produce it in the first place.

Photo of commercially farmed lettuce.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Second, we need the nutrients back in our soil. Plants pull nutrients out of the soil to grow and produce the fruits and vegetables we eat. By putting food waste in our landfill, those nutrients never get back into regenerating the soil. We are losing topsoil, where plants get their nutrients to grow, at a remarkable rate, through farming practices and erosion, faster than the planet can regenerate it. During the Tilth Alliance Soil and Water Stewardship program, I learned that a major cause of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s United States was the annihilation of the buffalo, whose migration across the plains normally contributed to the rich topsoil in that area, which was lost when the herds were destroyed. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization warns we could lose all of our global topsoil in the next 60 years, as were are overtaking natural processes that replenishes soil at a little over an inch per yer. Turning food waste into compost can help restore critical topsoil.

What is Composting? 

Composting is simply decomposing organic material into nutrient-rich soil. It seems like a complicated, mysterious, labor-intensive process, but it isn't. Our environment will naturally decompose organic materials left to the elements, whether its a pile of leaves, cut wood, or a cotton rag. But we can help this process along by providing the optimum environment for decomposition to occur through the work of organisms such as bacteria, fungi, insects, and worms, the makers of compost!

Home Composting or Commercial Composting?

Many municipal garbage companies now offer yard and food waste debris collection. Not only does this decrease methane accumulation in dumps, it is a resource for building compost. In King County, Washington, food waste recycling is available to 99% of all single family residences. Food waste recycling can be a bit hit-or-miss in multi-family residences, like apartments or condos; residents are asked to encourage property managers to work with the County to establish recycling programs in their complexes.

Yard and food scrap waste in King County is shipped to commercial composting facilities, like Cedar Grove. Cedar Grove turns the organic waste into compost, which can be purchased to amend the soil. Unlike home composting, industrial compost facilities can be capable of breaking down compostable plastic service ware and utensils. However, not all composting facilities can do this, so you'll need to contact your facility to see what items they accept.

OK to put in your Commercial Compost/Yard Debris Bin (Waste Management, King County, WA) but NOT in your home compost:
  • Parchment, waxed, freezer, or butcher paper (includes cough drop wrappers)
  • Compostable utensils
  • Seedy weeds
  • Diseased plants
  • Rose clippings
  • Black Walnut shells
So we do still use our yard debris container for these items.

The video below outlines the industrial composting process at Cedar Grove in Everett, Washington. It is worth viewing for a better understanding of composting in general, besides just learning about commercial composting.

Check with your local garbage/recycling provider to see what services they provide and what items can be sent off in your yard and food waste debris container. Acceptable items vary from site to site.

Home Composting

Photo of materials mixed inside a compost bin.
Inside my compost bin
You don't necessarily need to send your yard and food debris off to an industrial composting facilityyou can do it at home! And the great thing is, you know EXACTLY what's in your compost, because you control what goes in it. I like knowing that there are no herbicides, pesticides, or plastics in the compost that goes on my vegetable garden. As a note, Cedar Grove does test their end-product, as do other industrial facilities, to make sure their compost is safe to use on food gardensI'm just really picky.

In order to encourage decomposition of organic materials into compost, we have to ensure the right environment for the microorganisms that break all that stuff down. To work best, compost piles need a balanced diet of nitrogen and carbon, oxygen, moisture, the right temperature, and the right size of materials, all the same things they talked about in the Cedar Grove video above. 

Feeding Your Compost Pile

This is where a lot of folks get confused and derailed about home composting. Microorganisms like a steady diet of carbon and nitrogen, but in a specific ratio. This ratio is:

2 Parts Carbon to 1 Part Nitrogen

which can be easily remembered as:

2 Parts Brown to 1 Part Green


2 Parts Dry to 1 Part Wet

What this means is, if you add a quart jar of vegetable scraps from your kitchen, add two quarts of dried leaves or shredded paper at the same time. 

Nitrogen (Green or Wet) Materials 

Photo of a compost bin with vegetable food scraps.
A bin full of vegetable scraps
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Fresh leaves and flowers (Here's a great blog covering noxious and toxic plant parts)
  • Coffee grounds, including the filter
  • Okara and whey from making soy milk and tofu
  • Hair from your hairbrush!
  • Finger- and toenail clippings (yes, we decompose too!)
  • Bedding and manure from herbivores, such as hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, pet birds, chickens, etc.

Carbon (Brown or Dry) Materials

Photo of cardboard shreds in the hopper of a paper shredder.
Shredded Cardboard in a Paper Shredder
  • Dry (brown) leaves
  • Small twigs
  • Straw
  • Dried out, brown lawn clippings
  • Nutshells (except black walnuts, these are toxic to compost piles)
  • Corncobs
  • Food-soiled paper towels and napkins
  • Shredded newspaper, paper, cardboard boxes, cardboard paper towel and toilet paper tubes (no wax, parchment, freezer, or butcher paper nor glossy inserts in the newspaper)
  • Stale herbs
  • Floor sweepings from your dustpan
  • Shavings and dust from untreated wood
  • Cotton, linen, denim fabric
  • Wood ash, small amounts
  • Lint from your clothes dryer
If your ratio is off, your compost pile won't perform optimally. Too much nitrogen (greens or wet) causes the formation of ammonia, causing the pile to stink and stalls the process. Too much carbon (brown or dry) and the pile won't heat up, stalling the process.

There are a few things that you shouldn't put in your home compost. Don't put in:
  • Human, dog, or cat waste (Don't put in Commercial Compost, either)
  • Charcoal ashes
  • Invasive weeds
  • Diseased plants
  • Black Walnut shells
  • Any plants treated with herbicides, including clopyralid, aminopyralid, and aminocyclopyrachlor
  • Parchment, waxed, freezer, or butcher paper
  • Plastic, including those clear plastic windows in mailing envelopes, those go in the trash.
  • Compostable plastic service ware and utensils, they don't break down in home compost systems and behave just like other plastic materials in your compost bin.

Letting your Pile Breathe

The microorganisms of composting breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide just like we do. Your compost system will need to have ventilation. Vent holes in the sides suffice, but more importantly, keeping the moisture content in the optimum range has a huge impact on air exchange.


Your compost pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge, damp, but not dripping. These microbes require damp conditions. Green materials, especially kitchen scraps, add moisture to the mix, but if you're adding large amounts of paper or cardboard, you might need to lightly spritz them with a little bit of water before putting them in. If your pile is too dry, microorganisms don't have conditions they need to thrive. Too much moisture can make the mix swampy and keep oxygen from penetrating, killing off the microorganisms and leading to anaerobic conditions. Keep your eye on your compost pile during the changing seasons, adding water in hot weather, if needed, and covering in the rainy season so it doesn't drown.

If your pile is too wet, add more carbon/brown/dry materials. If it's too dry, add a spritz of water or more nitrogen/green/wet material.

Particle Size

Photo of scraps of colorful cotton fabric on the counter in front of a compost bucket.
Cut up fabric scraps
Surface area has a big impact on the rate of decomposition. A chunk of firewood will decompose much slower than a pile of sawdust made from that same chunk of wood, because microorganisms have millions of more surfaces to act upon simultaneously with the sawdust. Chopping your browns and greens before putting them into your bin will rapidly increase the speed at which you get finished compost. 

Ways to increase surface area:
Photo of cardboard feeding into paper shredder.
Shredding cardboard in a paper shredder
  • Run paper and even cardboard through a paper shredder. Yes! You can shred cardboard in your home shredder designed to shred 12-15 sheets of paper at a time!
  • Run your lawnmower over the piles of leaves you've raked
  • Chop kitchen scraps into small pieces
  • Buzz kitchen scraps in a blender into a slurry
  • Freeze and then thaw kitchen scraps before adding to the pile so cell walls are broken
  • Cut yard debris into small pieces with shears


Composting is often classified as hot or cold. Hot composting has a pile that quickly reaches 120-180 degrees Fahrenheit and can create compost in as little as six weeks. These piles are usually assembled in 1-3 days. Cold composting occurs at lower temperatures (50-130 degrees) and produces compost within a year, sometimes in as little as eight weeks. In this process, organic material is added continuously. Neither process is superior, they just vary on temperature and speed of decomposition.

In order for all of the materials in a compost pile to be exposed to heat, water, and oxygen, the pile should have the optimum ratio of 2:1 Carbon to Nitrogen and be well mixed. Compost should be turned every few days to achieve this. And it gives you a chance to check the moisture level and add materials or water to adjust.

Ok, Enough Already with the Learning, How do you Actually Do This?!?

I've done compost piles on the ground and in tumblers. Both work great.

The first compost system I ever used was a 3 bin system I built using the instructions from Tilth Alliance. This system rocks! It has three separate compartments so you can fill one section and then move one to the next and let the first one cook. The sides and back are wire mesh, so lots of ventilation, and it has a solid top to keep rain out. The front is made of slats that you can remove for easier access for turning the pile or removing finished material. 

Photo of a three bin compost system built by the author.
Three bin compost system

I did change the top from Tilth Alliance's instructions so that each section had it's own independent roof instead of one going all the way across. It was lighter this way.

Photo of on section of a three bin compost system built by the author.
One section of the compost system

Now we are using compost tumblers and worm bins. I'm going to go over the compost tumblers in this post and worm bins in the next one.

Photo of an Envirocycle compost tumbler.
Envirocycle Compost Tumbler
We got our first tumbler after a recommendation from a gardening friendshe swore by them. We wanted to get to composting right after moving into this house and didn't really have time to develop a spot or build the three bin system, so this was a way to get going with composting sooner. We got an Envirocycle compost tumbler and started putting stuff into it. And then we forgot about it for a year...Neither of us were really shot in the head with it, until we opened it up this summer, figuring we needed to empty it out and start over and lo! and behold, it was full of the most beautiful compost we'd ever seen!

Photo of a Lifetime compost tumbler.
Lifetime Compost Tumbler
I got our second tumbler, a Lifetime, free on the side of the road! Seriously! I don't know why they were getting rid of it, but there it was. They probably had the same feelings we had at first about our first tumbler and decided to get rid of it.

The problem we originally had with our compost tumbler was that it smelled. In retrospect, we just put too much nitrogen-rich material (all food scraps, little carbon) in it. We were used to having a compost system on the ground, so any extra water or leachate (water that leaches off the compost while it is cooking) went into the soil, so it was a bit more forgiving when being overloaded with food scraps. At one point, one of us threw a bunch of dried leaves or shredded paper in the nitrogen-rich tumbler and walked awayit was enough to get things started again. However, you can let the leachate drain out of the Envirocycle into the base it sit onit has a spigot you can pull the liquid off and then dilute into compost tea to water your plants with.

We really like these tumblers now! First, they're easy to turn the material, you just spin the tumbler to mix it all together. We spin it whenever we add new material to it, and our grandkids love to spin these! It's so easy a 9-year-old can do it!

Second, we don't get animals into the compost tumbler looking for food scraps. The doors are latched tight and there aren't any holes big enough for critters (other than worms, beetles, flies, etc.) to get through. I used to get an occasional rat or raccoon in my open bin system, and now that we live in bear country, it's important that we are not attracting wildlife to our compost bin. 
Photo of a compost pail with shredded paper in the bottom.
Colleen Patrick-Goodreau, of Joyful Vegan, gave a great tip recently on one of her Food for Thought podcasts for an easy way to maintain your ratios of greens and browns in your compost bins. She suggests using the container you use to transport your food scraps to your compost bin as a measuring guide. When your container is empty, grab a couple of handfuls of shredded paper from your paper shredder and put it in the bottom. Then layer on your food scraps intended for the compost bin, but don't fill it to the top. Before you head out to dump it, grab a couple more handfuls of shredded paper and, voila! you have your 2:1 ratio to add to your compost bin! We think this idea is brilliant! Not only does it help us get the ratio right, it makes it easier to dump the contents as the food scraps don't stick to the bottom of the container.

I know this was a lot of information and it probably looks like a lot of work. But it's not! Here's the reality of composting at our house:

  • We make food scraps because we're eating and cooking
  • We make dust (and hair and fingernails, eww, I know) because we're living
  • We have cardboard and paper, which we're working to reduce, but still have
So we:
  • Cook some veggie scraps into vegetable broth
  • Turn some scraps into vinegar (post coming)
  • Take these and other produce scraps and put them either in our compost tumbler (or worm bin, post tomorrow) with twice as much paper shredding by volume
Sometimes we have things we can't put in our home compost, like parchment paper, rose bush trimmings, or seedy weeds, so we:
  • Send it off in our commercial compost bin
Daily we:
  • Put scraps and paper in the compost tumbler and spin it
Occasionally we:
  • Put yard debris in the compost tumbler and spin it
Once the tumbler is full
  • We let it do it's thing, spinning it occasionally and peeking in to see how it's going
And then we have compost! The great thing about the Envirocycle is that we can roll it off the stand right to where we want to put the compost. With the Lifetime tumbler, we put the wheelbarrow under it and rotate the tumbler to pour compost in it.

The next post will cover worm bins, or vermiculture, which is another way to deal with plant-based food waste. We use both methods as ways to deal with our produce scraps and make compost for our yard and garden.