Bea Johnson lives waste-free with her family since 2008 and is the author of the bestseller Zero Waste Home (Zéro Déchet en francais)
"Since embarking on the Zero Waste lifestyle, our lives have changed for the better: We feel happier and lead more meaningful lives, based on experiences instead of stuff. My goal is to share its incredible health, financial and time saving benefits!"

Magic Butter

I made a discovery this week. It might not be one for you, but I thought I'd share it just in case.

No matter how much I try to control the kids at my brother's house, mishaps sometimes occur. The boys used a swivel chair, covered with shirts (his house is not quite as organized as mine), to get a view of the Eiffel Tower from a skylight window... Unfortunately, while taking the glimpse, a shirt sleeve got caught in the swivel mechanism and streaked it with black grease.

Stricken by guilt, I decided to repair the problem before my brother came home from work. I googled for a solution and found out that butter, of all things ;) would remove the stain magically. Not having anything to lose, I gave it a try.

I rubbed some butter into the streaks, and let it sit a few minutes. I then used some dish soap that I found next to the kitchen sink, water, elbow juice and another part of the shirt to rub the stain off. The results were amazing. After a quick rinse, the shirt looked like new.

I later shared my discovery with Scott. Unsurprised, he replied that when living in Santa Barbara, he would remove beach tar from his feet with baby oil.

"Oil removes oil" he said with assurance.

I had no idea that the phrase would come in so handy a day later...

Saturday evening, the day before my departure for the South of France (where my mom lives), my brother had his sitter of six years come over to watch our four kids, so we could go out for a nice dinner between adults. After giving her instructions to care and feed the kids, we took off. We were enjoying our meal tremendously when my sister-in-law checked her phone and found out with horror that she had 18 new voicemails. Somehow we had not heard it ring, and while we thought our kids were tightly tucked into their beds, the nanny had set the brand new kitchen on fire!

We rushed home to find the kids safe at the neighbor's, but my brother's kitchen looked like a war zone. The sitter had mistakenly turned on the oven, in which my brother stored a fryer (full of cooking oil). When the fryer caught on fire, she grabbed their fish bowl and threw it on the stove, water, pebbles and all (including the poor goldfish). Needless to say, it made things worse. When the firemen arrived, they extinguished the fire, but in the process, also tracked soot, burned oil, and pebbles all over the house and the new hardwood floors.

While my brother drove the sitter back home, I set out to clean the mess, which extended to the upper floors. I first tried a mixture of water and castile soap equivalent, but in vain. The black stuff was too thick and there was too much of it. It is only after 30 minutes of desperate scrubbing, and a call to my brother to recommend the hiring of a restoration expert, that I remembered Scott's words: "Oil removes oil". So I tiptoed into the sticky kitchen, grabbed the first cooking oil and sponge that I could reach and voila! Eight hours later, floors and white kitchen cabinets looked as new as before and the damages not as dramatic.

Considering that the kids and sitter were safe, and that only four cabinet doors and a stove need replacing, we were all lucky. And thanks to the simplicity and handiness of the oil cleaning remedy, my brother and sister-in-law were able to keep their sanity and stay upbeat in dealing with the aftermath of the ordeal. (I forgot to count how many times they said: "This oil trick is amazing! The damages are not that bad after-all.")

Interestingly enough, this fire was not the only one that we survived this summer, but since this is a blog and not a book, you'll have to wait to hear about the other story when the time comes ;).

Do you have a simple and magic pantry revelation to make?


  1. Oh Bea, you're such a great and entertaining writer. This post is hilarious, I just love the way you wrote it. I'm glad you guys are all ok, it's too bad it happened though.
    As for tips on laundry, I have none, but thanks for yours! I'm horrible and impatient at laundry. However I often dye shirts if they are stained and redeem them, or I make them into something else. Here's just a small example of turning a mens T-shirt into a cute boys shirt

  2. Sandra7/23/2010

    Great tip, Bea! I'll have to try it out on the thick, greasy stains that accumulate on the stovetop. One question, though. Once you removed the sooty/greasy mess from the kitchen with the cooking oil, how did you clean up the oil that remained?

    To continue with your theme of "like removes like", you can get rid of rust stains on metal by rubbing it with a piece of aluminum foil (gasp! a single-use disposable item, i know. but this is a great way to reuse it.) that you have wet with water. Rub lightly if it is a chrome surface, as the foil easily scratches chrome.

    A wet pumice stone works wonders on stained porcelain or enamel and doesn't scratch it.

    Found these and other remedies on Oregon's Metro site: , select "sustainable living" and "green cleaners" tabs.

    Glad to hear everyone was okay, and hope the rest of your vacation goes along smoothly!

  3. I like to use water to flood fresh stains in carpet. I "flood" the still-wet spill with water until there is a puddle. I then take a white rag to dab and absorb the water and as much of the color of the stain as I can. I repeat as many times as needed until the rag is no longer absorbing any color from the carpet. I don't recommend rubbing, but you may try it if you are desperate. The water seems to dillute the color.

  4. Lori in Illinois7/23/2010

    Glad everyone was OK and that you are posting again! I'm a faithful reader - posted my background a while ago. Read a story in Thursday's New York Times about wardrobes of 6 items or less and thought of your inspiring fashion posts. Still working on sorting through all my memoribilia, with your "what to take when you would have to evacuate the house" advice. Recently gave a childhood friend 25 (!) years of letters she wrote me (she was prolific and I am redeeming my packrat ways).

  5. Jennie7/23/2010

    How frightening! I'm glad that no one was hurt. The only tried and true stain remover I know is for red wine stains. Mix equal parts of baking soda and salt into a paste with a bit of water, and place on the stain. Lay the stained item over a large bowl and pour boiling water through the cloth with paste until all of the paste and stain are gone. Repeat as many times as necessary to remove the stain (for new stains once or twice is usually sufficient, got set in stains it takes a bit longer).

  6. Wow. What an experience. So glad the sitter and children are fine and hope the event did not delay your trip, though you must have been exhausted! And thanks for the oil-on-oil tip. It's news to me!

  7. I have had great success with using plain boiling water to remove berry stains. Just pour the hot water over the stain until it disappears. Like magic!

  8. Thanks for your comments and ideas.
    Lori: A friend sent me a link to the same NY article about the "Sixers" and I absolutely love the idea! I can't wait to join the club, but I'll have to wait to get home to commit to a month since the climate here is too different than home. I already know which pieces I'll pick!

  9. Since you did not mention it: the oil in a pan catching fire should be put out with a damp cloth thrown over it. Water, flour etc. can cause a blow-up of the fire instead.

  10. Sandra: Thanks for your question. I should have mentioned that I did use the castile soap equivalent + water to mop the floors and cabinets after the oil treatment (just as I used soap on my brother's shirt after butter).

  11. Glad everything turned out well...But oh those poor fish!

  12. Awesome! I just got a lot of grease on my dress while fixing a flat on my bike... I will have to try the butter trick.
    I just discovered your blog recently, but I'm loving it. Wish I could live as minimally as you do. You've inspired me to go through my closets. :)

  13. Hannah4/18/2011

    Just yesterday I was thinking of asking you about cleaning up oil, and here I find you posted about it some time ago! I was wondering how you clean up oil without paper towels. We don't fry a lot, but when we do it's often messy. We haven't bought paper towels for months, and I've learned to drain deep fried things without them. (I use my pizza pan over another pan), but haven't figured out how to wisely mop up/dispose of oil. I hate mopping it up with a cloth and then rinsing the cloth over the sink because of what the fat does to the pipes. Short of rinsing and dumping outside (very impractical in winter, for ex.), what do you do?

  14. I simply don't deep fry ;)

    I wipe grease splatters with microfiber (sometimes with just water, sometimes with castile soap, but once a week with the vinegar/water spray).

  15. Anonymous6/25/2011

    A neutral oil like olive or almond is the best way to clean a baby. I didn't use soap on one of my boys till he was crawling. Use your hands or a washcloth if it's really difficult, to gently rub oil on the creases of the skin where dead skin accumulates. Then sprinkle oat flour on the skin (which will absorb the oil) and gently rub and rinse with water or warm chamomile tea if your going for an A+ :) All of the ingredients are edible so no dangers there and chamomile tea is naturally antimicrobial. It's not necessary to oil up the whole baby, only those hard to clean spots. The tea and oat flour will be enough for the rest of the body. Only be careful: oil makes the baby slippery! Keeping a towel under the baby during the bath and even under your arm will help.

  16. I am so enjoying your blog! Though nowhere near zero waste, I am making baby steps with my family and your blog is always inspiring! I don't have a laundry tip, but THE best way to clean the soot off glass on a woodstove: ashes! Crumple a sheet of newspaper(or any scrap paper) and dip in water, then some ashes from the fireplace. Scrub with it in circular motions to loosen soot from glass. Wipe off with cloth. It works better than any cleaner I've tried.

  17. Throwing water on burning oil is extremely dangerous. The babysitter was lucky not to get injured.
    Thank you for sharing the story!

  18. Anonymous1/28/2013

    Bea! Just want to thank you for this entry! I read it a long time ago and never needed it until now. I have a Tony Little Gazelle for my exercise equipment and I love it because I get a very good workout without having to plug into the wall. My machine is over ten years old and today out of nowhere it leaked grease all over the carpet in our bedroom while I was exercising. Our carpet is old and as you said, you had nothing to loose, so I used butter on the carpet. The whole time I was thinking to myself, "I can't believe I am doing this!" But it worked!!!! I love how easy it was too. And so for everything you do and especially writing this entry, I want to say thank you!