DIY Tea Blends

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I’m not, by nature, someone who loves winter (resignation just about sums up my attitude). But even I can admit there are redeeming factors: less to do outside allows for more time cozy inside, dark nights mean lighting candles while cooking dinner, and a craving for homemade polenta or pizza warms the apartment pleasantly, instead of turning it into a nuclear furnace like it would have in the summer. And, of course, there are the many, many cups of tea, which help too.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

This winter, my partner experimented with making his own tea blends, some for holiday gifts and some to keep at home for us to use. It was a genius idea, and I wanted to share some of the ingredients we now keep on hand, and how to think through blending them.

It’s good to start with a couple of the plain loose-leaf teas you like best, perhaps purchased in jars in your local bulk foods aisle. If you always have a cup of black tea, that might serve as your base. I prefer herbal teas, so we bought rooibos (my favorite), chamomile, hibiscus leaves, and dried lavender.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

To the store-bought teas, you can then add your own flavors. We dried lemon peels, orange peels, and ginger as additions, but other foods would be work too: sage or mint from indoor herb plants, turmeric shavings from a leftover root wilting in your crisper, or lemongrass cuttings from the recipe that didn’t quite use it all. Drying the peels and ginger proved to be much easier than I’d imagined: for the peels, simply remove the pith from organic citrus peels, chop them into thin squares or strips, and dry them, stirring occasionally, in a low oven (275 degrees). For ginger, same thing: to make it easier to shave into strips, we froze whole roots, allowed them to thaw slightly, and then used a peeler to peel them into wide, thin pieces that we slid into the same low oven.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Once you have a few different ingredients at the ready, blend away. We chose combinations like rooibos + ginger + lemon or lavender + chamomile + ginger. You could make a homemade chai, a blend for mornings and a different blend for evenings, a soothing recipe for a friend in need of comfort, or simply a homemade version of your favorite blend that you usually purchase pre-made. I find myself reaching for a pinch of dried ginger for tea most mornings, and it’s nice to have it on hand in a jar that’s easy to grab, rather than tucked deep in the freezer where using it is more laborious.

So far I’ve only made blends based on taste and common sense, but there are more formulaic and scientific ways to think through tea blends, too. Friends of mine who had the same idea last holiday season introduced me to this chart, which explains how to choose a base and several top notes that work well together.

I noted recently on Instagram that DIY projects are not necessarily more sustainable than their ready-made counterparts, but that they do give us the opportunity to choose materials carefully and thoughtfully, with an eye toward the sustainability of each. With this project, I think, that’s very much true. Making my own teas from separate components allows me to choose a base that’s bulk and fair trade and to cut down on food waste by throwing extra food into the oven and then a tea blend. It turns citrus peels from scraps to food, extra ginger or herbs from a nuisance to a delight, one jar of plain rooibos tea into ten different possibilities. 

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Have you ever made your own tea? Or other blend suggestions to share, or things to dry?

(Photos of me by Liliana Coehlo for Litterless).

Five-Minute Dried Herbs in Late Summer

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

I can’t force summer to stick around, but come late August, I always try. Evenings that are dark this early are never long enough for all of the walks and bike rides and outdoor dinners I want to cram in, but cram I do, regardless.

August is also a time to take in the bounty of late summer. We only have a small balcony garden, but nightly walks past our nearest community garden remind me of the riches that plants offer up this time of year. And so, a balance: preserving what food we can while also preserving precious evening hours for time spent outdoors, activities more enjoyable than spending an hour indoors stringing up herbs to dry for the winter.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

Enter my new favorite method: lazy herb drying. It’s as easy as washing what you pick, laying the sprigs out to dry on a towel, and then setting the towel – or moving them to a bowl – somewhere they can rest for a couple of days. I turn the leaves every day or so to make sure each surface has a chance to dry, and then I transfer them to a glass jar when they seem as dry and brittle as they're going to get (this seems to only take about a few days to a week).

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

No stringing things up, tying bundles, being fussy. Better yet, it keeps drying herbs from feeling like a capital-P Project and more like a five-minute task you can slot in between dinner and a bike ride. Though the time saved may only be ten minutes, getting over the need to find ten extra minutes sometimes means the difference between a project done and a project wished-for.

In my experience, this works best with herbs that are structured enough to hold themselves up a bit. Place a handful of basil leaves in a bowl, and they’ll slowly meld together into a wilty mass. Do the same with thyme or rosemary, though, and their sturdier stems will hold them in place well enough to allow air to circulate between the leaves.

Currently drying at our place, some lavender buds on a towel and some thyme in a bowl. Before we head out of town this weekend, I also want to snip and start some of the oregano and mint currently outgrowing their pots on the porch.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

More involved herb drying, here and here. (Writing about this appears to have become somewhat of a late summer tradition).

What are you preserving this time of year?

(Our bowl is a gift from East Fork.)

Indigo Dyeing Clothing

How to indigo dye clothing | Litterless

The busiest part of moving to a new city might be apartment hunting, or job hunting, or packing, or cleaning, or decluttering, or unpacking, or cleaning again. Or it might be running around your old city in the final few weeks before moving, trying to see as many friends as possible and do everything you talked about wanting to do sometime. Picnic in the park? Squeeze it in. Ducking into your favorite taco place one last time? Necessary. Need one last coffee networking date with your newest pal? Indubitably.

Thus, my last Friday in Chicago I took the train up to a friend's house to finally do our long-awaited dyeing project. We'd both been wanting to try out indigo dyeing, so we pulled together an assortment of white fabrics and a few hours on a rainy Friday afternoon to do the project together in her basement.

Dyeing the fabric is a good way to give old life to things faded or stained. I wanted to refresh some white shirts that had sported various stains for too long, a handkerchief whose green color I'd never liked, and some white fabric I had lying around. My friend Ann dyed a blue rug from her kitchen that had long been faded, some fabric and some clothing, and a handkerchief of her own that she, too, had long disliked.

Indigo dyeing clothing, zero waste style | Litterless

We put together a dye bath and slowly dipped each item over the course of several hours, watching the blue color slowly deepen with each dip. After we finished dyeing each piece to our satisfaction, we washed the fabric with a cup of white vinegar to help set the dye. I washed each piece several more times over the next week or so to make sure the dye wouldn't rub off on light-colored fabrics or furniture.

I'm not an expert on indigo dyeing, but in case it's helpful, I've included some better resources below. What I do know is that stained or faded items are unlikely to be purchased if donated to a secondhand store, so dyeing them in an effort to keep them in circulation in my home and closet made a good low-waste project on a rainy day.

Indigo dye resources:

-A dye kit from A Verb for Keeping Warm (and their book, on my wishlist).
-A recent indigo dye project from Jenny Gordy.
-Refashioning old clothing with indigo on Fairdare.

More low-waste DIY ideas, here.

Homemade Vinegar Cleaning Sprays

DIY zero waste cleaning vinegar scented with lemon, grapefruit, orange, eucalyptus, or pine | Litterless

When I last wrote about making a simple cleaning spray from vinegar, I had only tried scenting it with citrus peels, but ruminated on what other types of good-smelling things might also be interesting to experiment with. So today, in partnership with Intelligent Lids, I'm sharing a bunch of variations on the theme: pine, eucalyptus, grapefruit. If you love a good project and to have your fingers smelling like lemon peel, this might be right up your alley.

DIY zero waste cleaning vinegar scented with lemon, grapefruit, orange, eucalyptus, or pine | Litterless

Step one: Gather your supplies.

For this batch, I wanted to test out a bunch of my favorite scents, rather than sticking with my standard go-to of lemon-peel-infused vinegar. In addition to the white vinegar base, I chose fresh eucalyptus (purchased without a plastic wrapping at a local florist), a few sprigs of pine needles (plucked from a tree in my neighborhood), and imperfect lemons, oranges, and grapefruits.

I also rinsed and dried five glass jars and five jar lids from Intelligent Lids, a Seattle-based businesses that makes lids for standard and wide-mouth jars from recycled plastic that is food-safe and BPA-free. Though most of the jars in my pantry are topped with the more-typical metal lids sold with jars, those metal lids often rust if they're in a moist environment (fridge, bathroom) or if the jar is holding something corrosive (like vinegar). Having a stack of plastic lids is, for me, an essential back-up, and means I can store vinegar in a glass jar without worrying about using it up quickly before the lid rusts. Their lids are also recyclable, though they're intended to be so long-lasting that the hope is you'll have them for years and years.

DIY zero waste cleaning vinegar scented with lemon, grapefruit, orange, eucalyptus, or pine | Litterless

Step two: Fill jars with your ingredients.

After washing and drying everything thoroughly, I added the citrus and greens to the glass jars. For the pine needles and eucalyptus, all I needed to do was snip them down to size and pop the springs in the jars. For the citrus, I used a peeler to remove just the outer rind, taking care not to get much of the white pith. The fruits are still edible after this, of course, but will go bad more quickly without their peels, so store them in the fridge and try to eat them within a day or two. Or, do this project when you already have some citrus fruits on hand and want to use the peels again prior to composting them.

DIY zero waste cleaning vinegar scented with lemon, grapefruit, orange, eucalyptus, or pine | Litterless

Step 3: Fill the jars with white vinegar. 

White vinegar - the cheap, harsh stuff used for cleaning or canning and not for salads - isn't sold near me in bulk anywhere, so I vacillate between buying it in a huge plastic jug or a smaller glass jar, never knowing which is the more eco-friendly choice. (Right now, I'm leaning toward the plastic jug since it's so much larger and lighter. Thoughts?). Anyway: fill those jars almost to the tippy-top, and gently agitate to get out any air bubbles at the bottom.

Step 4: Seal the jars, and wait a week (or longer).

Pop on your lids of choice (mine are these), and set the jars aside somewhere out of the sun to steep for at least a week, or maybe longer if you have the patience. The vinegar inside should start to take on some of the tint of its contents, especially in the case of the citrus. Once your patience has elapsed (or you run out of your current stash of cleaning supplies), use a strainer or tongs to remove all the bits and pieces until only the vinegar remains; the rest can be composted.

For the cleaning spray itself, decant the vinegar into a spray bottle (here's how you can make your own). I sometimes dilute it with a little water, and sometimes I leave it full strength. If you have countertops or surfaces that are a little more precious, make sure to double check that you can use this on them before going full steam ahead. Otherwise, I spray this on my stovetop, in the sink, in the bathtub, everywhere.

DIY zero waste cleaning vinegar scented with lemon, grapefruit, orange, eucalyptus, or pine | Litterless

And the verdict, scent-wise: I liked all of the results except for the pine needles, which turned a yellow-green shade reminiscent of dill pickles. And though eucalyptus is one of my favorite scents, it didn't impart its smell to the vinegar strongly enough to make it worth the while, I think. For now, I'll be sticking with citrus peels, but even those I'm curious about mixing and matching to get new scents.

Other things you add to cleaning vinegar? Questions I can answer about this DIY?

This post is sponsored by Intelligent Lids, creators of Made-in-the-USA recycled and recyclable mason jar lids. Thank you so much for supporting Litterless.

Zero Waste Body Butters to Make or Buy

Zero waste body butters and lotions in compostable, reusable, or recyclable containers | Litterless

May is a time to remember that I do, in fact, have skin under all those layers of winter clothing. That feet will not always be shod in socks, and that short-sleeve shirts will allow elbows to once again move freely. In short, it's a time to dig up some thick salves and body butters, if only as a way to remember that during all those months when it was 99% covered for 99% of the day I did, still, have a body.

Sometimes I make my own balms and butters, but more often lately I've been buying some from companies who package theirs in compostable or recyclable containers, like tins or cardboard tubes. Below, some notes on both ends of the make/buy spectrum:

Make

-My favorite homemade body butter is still this one, which is a concoction of a few different solid ingredients whipped together into a light-as-air cream. It leaves a bit of a greasy feeling on your skin for a while, so it's best to use a very small amount or to have a set of pajamas to put on afterwards that you don't mind getting slightly, ah, ruined. It's also good for feet under a pair of thick socks.

-I've also been known to love an oil-and-beeswax based homemade salve, which is something I usually just wing, combining half olive oil and half beeswax in a double boiler with a few drops of essential oils until I like the consistency. If you've never made one before, this famed recipe from Mountain Rose Herbs is easy to adapt and a good place to start.

-Either of the above can be poured into whatever clean, empty container you'd like to reuse: perhaps a saved lip balm tin, a glass jar, or something bought especially for the purpose. They're satisfying recipes for refilling an empty balm container bought elsewhere after the original runs out. I poured a recent small batch of mine into the tiny unlabeled glass jar pictured second from right, which was one I saved from something-or-other that ran out earlier this year.

Zero waste body butters and lotions in compostable, reusable, or recyclable containers | Litterless

Buy

Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

-S.W. Basics: I've been a fan of S.W. Basics since learning about founder Adina Grigore's approach to natural beauty when I first read her book a few years ago. Their products all have a super-short, super-clean ingredients list and come in glass or metal containers; their reputation for being the cleanest beauty brand out there is well-deserved. They make a three-ingredient unscented cream that I really love (you can test out the $10 mini version to make sure you love it, too). It comes in a glass jar, which I'll re-use or donate once I run out. I also like their geranium-scented four-ingredient salve, which comes in a metal tin that's similarly reusable.

-Bestowed Essentials: Callee, the one-woman powerhouse behind Bestowed Essentials sent me a tin of her flora body balm, handmade in small batches in her traveling studio van (truly!). I would say that I haven't been able to stop smelling it if that didn't sound like such a cliche - it smells deeply botanical and spring-like. (Plus, it clocks in at an affordable $7).

-Dulse and Rugosa: The mother-daughter duo behind Dulse & Rugosa turns botanical ingredients into bath and beauty products made by hand at their studio in Maine. I wrote about their vegan body butter in this post last month, but as a quick recap: it's flower-strewn and luscious. I love it.

-Fillaree: Fillaree products are handmade in North Carolina with zero waste in mind While their main offering is a line of refillable home cleaning products, they also make a few beauty products, like their body butter. I haven't tried it myself, but when the owner Alyssa told me that she takes the jars back by mail for reuse (though you'll need to supply your own mailer), I was sold.

-Meow Meow Tweet: These guys make all-natural, cheerfully printed bath and beauty products in the United States (I was excited to learn recently that the cardboard tubes that some of their products come in are made right here in Chicago). Their repair balm comes in a compostable tube, uses candelilla wax in lieu of beeswax so is a great choice for strict vegan folks, and smells just the right level of medicinal.

-Seed Phytonutrients: These guys make a callus balm that's think and rich and perfect for putting on feet under socks. Plus, the metal tin is easy to throw in a bag or suitcase, and can be reused for a homemade balm or salve down the line.

Favorite balms? Favorite containers for balms? Favorite recipes? Thoughts on any of the above? I'd love to hear.

Make or Buy is a series that acknowledges that sometimes we want to make things ourselves, and sometimes we want to buy them in compostable or recyclable containers. Other zero waste gear to make or buy, here. A few of the balms shown here were sent to me to review for this post.

Homemade Wood Conditioner

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

Winter feels like it’s coming to a close in Chicago these days. The sky as I write this is that shade of bright blue that would have seemed miraculous in January, but now seems normal. Evenings are longer, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of snowdrops in someone’s yard the other day, and everyone’s mood is a little brighter. Midway through March, a good place to be.

Towards the end of winter, I always seem to use up the last of my spoon butter and need to make another small pot to last me through the following winter. Spoon butter, sometimes called wood conditioner, is a simple beeswax-and-oil salve meant to lock in moisture on dried-out wooden kitchen implements. After months of stirring up stews and soups, my wooden spoons take on a decidedly dry aspect and need some care to keep them from remaining that way permanently.

Enter homemade spoon butter: a simple and satisfying DIY project that you can whip up in about ten minutes. Here’s how:

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Gather your materials.

You’ll need beeswax (I prefer the pellets, which melt more quickly, but you can generally also find blocks of beeswax unpackaged at your farmers’ market), coconut oil, and a small amount of a liquid oil (I used grapeseed oil here, but walnut oil is particularly good, if pricey). Some recipes recommend mineral oil, which I avoid because it’s made from petroleum (ick).

You’ll also need an old tea towel that you don’t mind getting a little oily, some cotton rags you’re willing to compost, a double boiler for melting the ingredients (it should be one set aside specifically for projects like this, because once you melt beeswax in it the residue will stay fairly stuck; I got mine secondhand so that I don’t mind it getting waxy), and one or more jars for holding the finished product.

If you aren't sure where to buy these ingredients in bulk, there's a little note at the end about where I got mine in reusable glass packaging. Note: a few of those links are affiliate links.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Combine the ingredients for the butter in your double boiler.

Like most projects, I tend to eyeball this one, going for two parts coconut oil to one part beeswax, and a small splash of the liquid oil I’m using. The beeswax is what makes the salve firm enough to lock in the moisture from the coconut oil, and the liquid oil helps make the salve a little more malleable. A mixture of just coconut oil and beeswax can be too firm to scoop, especially in the winter when the coconut oil hardens.

If you want an exact recipe to follow, try one-third cup beeswax pellets, two-thirds cup coconut oil, and two tablespoons of your liquid oil. (You’ll probably need a jar slightly bigger than mine). You can scale that up or down to make as much or as little as you’d like, but I try to make enough to last me about one year – which equates to about the amount shown in these photographs – so that I can make a fresh batch often enough to ensure the oil stays in good condition.

-Slowly melt the ingredients over low-to-medium heat.

Place the double boiler over a pot of gently simmering water, and stir slowly and intermittently to combine the ingredients. The coconut oil will melt first, and you’ll need to keep stirring until the beeswax is melted, too. I like to stir the mixture with a wooden spoon, which saves me the trouble of onerously scraping the beeswax off my spoon; instead, I just rub it right into the spoon when I’m finished.

Take care not to let the mixture boil; it shouldn’t be able to in a double boiler, but it bears saying anyway. You want it all to melt slowly together until it’s a uniform bright, clear gold with no visible beeswax particles.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Pour the melted mixture into your jar.

You’ll need to work carefully and quickly once you remove the double boiler from the pan of water underneath, since beeswax starts to harden as soon as it cools in the slightest. Turn off the stove, and use hot pads or over mitts to pick up just the top part of the double boiler, leaving the water bath where it is. Use a tea towel to wipe any condensed water off the bottom of the double boiler; you don’t want it to drip into your mixture when you pour it. Then, tip the double boiler over your jar or container to decant the mixture.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

Let the jar cool completely; it will turn from clear to opaque over the course of several hours.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Once cool, rub it into your wooden spoons, cutting boards, and more.

I use my hands to coat each piece with a thin layer of the spoon butter, then I lay each piece out on a ratty old tea towel for a few hours or overnight. After some time has passed, I use a very small cotton rag cut from an old t-shirt to buff the butter deeper into the grain and to smooth off the extra butter so the pieces no longer feel sticky or tacky. I compost the rag when I’m finished with it, since it’s oily enough that I don’t want to wash it. Repeat this process as often as you remember, especially during the winter when you notice your cutting boards or spoons look dry.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

As for where to find the beeswax, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil in bulk, it varies based on where you live, of course. You can check out the guide to bulk groceries in the U.S. and Canada here to see if these are sold somewhere near you. Or, you can buy them online in sustainable packaging.

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased).

My friend Brit from Refill Revolution sent me the beeswax, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil shown here, in glass jars that I plan to reuse down the line once they’re empty. Though coconut oil and grapeseed oil can be bought in glass jars at most groceries, I appreciate that the containers Brit uses are ones that are more likely to remain useful in my home. (If you’d like, you can use the code LITTERLESS to save 10% off your order at Refill Revolution).

Previously in DIY: A simple make-up remover, and a deep-winter body butter.

Make Your Own Vegetable Broth

DIY vegetable stock from food scraps for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Hi, home cooks. You probably already know about making your own vegetable broth or stock, in which case you might think this post has nothing new to tell you. Maybe so. This is less of a post about how to make your own broth and more a post in defense of doing so, weekly, whether you've got soup on the meal plan or even a meal plan in sight.

Here's why: broth is so easy to make and so easy to use. Not making soup? Beans and grains are even better when cooked in broth instead of water. Sauces get a little added flavor when you stir in a third of a cup of broth instead of reaching for the faucet. I've tried making polenta with water and it's got nothing on polenta with that little bit of deep vegetable flavor that comes from stock instead. Once you have broth sitting in your fridge, you'll probably use it, and your meals will be better for it. Or at least, mine are.

This is easy enough to do because broth made from food scraps is essentially free. If you cook at home (which, if you don't, you don't need broth anyway), you likely already end up with vegetable scraps each week. Thyme stems, celery leaves, onion tops, carrot odds and ends, parsley stems, fennel fronds, rosemary bits, shallot skins, kale stems, lettuce cores: these can go in your compost, of course, but better yet if they can get used up in a pot first.

Make your own vegetable broth from kitchen scraps | Litterless

So, if you can make a habit to set those aside in a separate container in the fridge or freezer and then to upend said container into a pot of water each week, you'll have everything you need to make a simple vegetable broth. What should be saved: all herb bits, carrot and celery and onion bits, cruciferous and green bits, tomato cores, leek tops, mushroom stems. I don't add starchy things like potato or squash ends, though you might as well experiment with them if you get curious or are planning a squash risotto. I also don't save really strongly flavored things like radishes because that doesn't sound appealing; your intuition will tell you whether something is good for the soup pot or not.

Vegetable scraps should also be in fairly good condition when they go into the pot: remember, you're eating this. So, clean and scrubbed free of dirt, maybe a little yellow around the edges but not too yellowing, nothing that seems to be already gone bad. Just take your nice clean, fresh scraps, put them in a pot and bring it to a boil, and let simmer for no more than 45 minutes (otherwise it might go slightly bitter). Let it cool and strain it, then pour it into containers for the fridge or freezer. If you're planning to freeze it, take care to do so in straight-sided jars or containers; if the liquid is in a rounded Mason jar and tries to expand past the curved part, the jar will crack.

How to make your own homemade vegetable broth from food scraps | Litterless

There are also times when you find yourself with more vegetables than you can use in the allotted time: maybe you're headed on vacation, maybe you have a bumper crop from the garden or a sale at the farmers' market. In that case, you can get more specific and follow a recipe, one that calls for this amount of onions or that amount of celery, to make a well-balanced and chef-approved version. But I bet that if you make broth each week or even each month, you'll slowly learn a recipe of your own: what you like and what you don't.

Broth / stock tips for the rest of us? Meat eaters, want to chime in with your tips for chicken and fish stock?

Previously in Food & Drink: A balm for winter blues, and a plastic-free jar opener.