All I Know About Cob Building I Learned in the Kitchen

Well, not really; I did have to go outside, too!  Seriously, though, I did learn a lot about cob because of the things I know about baking and following recipes.

Two of the most important steps to follow in a recipe are not usually included in the written instructions.  That sounds odd, but it is often assumed that people already know them and will follow them.  However, even if you know what to do, you don’t always do it, probably because you think it will be okay.  What are those steps?

  1. Read through recipe and make sure you understand each step.
  2. Assemble all ingredients and tools you will need before starting.

See?  Those sound like such perfectly normal things to do that obviously everyone would do them without needing a reminder.  Right?  No sirree, Bob!  I have been guilty on many occasions of reading the name of a recipe, or seeing a photo of the finished meal, and assuming I would be able to accomplish it.

Sometimes I won’t have an ingredient, and I’ve been forced to skip that one, substitute the best I can, or stop cooking until I can get it at the store or from the neighbors.  Other times I might have all the ingredients, but I don’t have the necessary (or suggested) utensil or pan.  Or I might even get stuck not understanding a step or run out of time to prepare it for the next meal.  Sometimes not following the rules leads to a happy surprise – “hey, I like this better with this substitute!” – and other times not so happy – “well, we can always feed it to the pigs…”

How does this apply to cob building, or any building project?  My advice is do not simply look at a photo or read a blurb about what you want to build.  Read through all the instructions, step-by-step, making sure you understand what needs to be done, and make sure you know how to do it, or know how to find someone who can.  Also, if you can assemble all your materials and tools in advance, the job will go much more smoothly.  Now, it’s true that you can build a shed, wall, dog house, or shelf by not following those two important rules, but it will undoubtedly take a lot longer than it should, and likely cost more as well, and you may not be as happy with the finished product.  On the other hand, you may come up with some happy surprises along the way, if it takes you longer and you are occasionally forced to forage for supplies or learn how to do something along the way.

My own part in the recent cob building project was played out in the kitchen, keeping the workers happily fed.  I didn’t get much hands-on learning out in the dirt, but I did learn another thing about cob that I could directly relate to baking.  I was outside for most of Dane’s lesson on mixing cob, and I observed the process a couple different times.

You need to know your recipe, get your proportions right for the mix of soil, sand, and clay (and that varies depending on your local soil and how much sand and clay are in it already), and make sure all your “dry ingredients” are thoroughly mixed before adding any water; straw gets worked in last.  If you blend it well, it will be a consistent texture throughout the batch, and will dry evenly and be solid.  If you fail to blend correctly, then you will have pockets of cob with too much of one ingredient, or missing something entirely, and your wall will not be stable, possibly shrinking in places as it dries.

How does this relate to baking?  It is very important to thoroughly mix all dry ingredients first.  The salt, baking soda, baking powder, yeast, sugar, etc. need to be evenly dispersed throughout the flour.  This can be hard to do, especially when most of those things are white! But it can be done.  Blend them all together with a smaller portion of the flour to start, using a wire whisk or a sifter really helps with this step.  Typically you will mix all your liquid ingredients together in a separate bowl, and then slowly combine the two, mixing slowly to ensure that it gets evenly blended.  Chocolate chips and nuts, like the straw in cob, get added last.

If you don’t have all your dry ingredients mixed well, or the wet and dry together, the end result might have pockets of a single ingredient.  Ever got a taste of baking powder while eating a slice of zucchini bread?  It is NOT pleasant!  Your baked item might not rise evenly, or at all, and while you can call it “rustic” a la Pioneer Woman, it might not be as pleasing to the eye.

Remember and follow these rules, if you want something that ends up perfect, or nearly so.  I imagine these are good points to remember for things other than building or baking.  However, don’t be afraid to try something new, to experiment, to leap off into the unknown occasionally.  You might end up with a happy surprise, or at least learn something in the process.

~Jill

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