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Beeswax food wraps step by step

Everywhere you look these days, people are making, buying, and using beeswax food wraps. If the concept is new to you, a beeswax food wrap is a piece of beeswax-infused cotton fabric that is meant to be used in place of plastic or aluminum food wrap.

Since they are reusable, beeswax wraps are thought to be a sustainable alternative to all the single-use wraps that go into the landfill or the oceans. Like many other environmentally aware folks, I would love to reduce my plastic footprint. And since I have plenty of beeswax lying around with nothing to do, I decided to give it a try.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 160 No 3, March 2020, pp. 309-312.

A long way from perfect

After using my beeswax wraps for a short while, I’ve concluded that they are much more than just a food covering. Instead, they are a lifestyle choice. Owning a beeswax wrap is like raising a child; you must be prepared for sticky fingers, smears, odd odors, and a whole lot of maintenance. They are hard to clean — hot water is out of the question — and they don’t work for everything. In fact, nearly every time I go to cover something, the wraps don’t seem like the right choice.

I made a chocolate cream pie for Christmas, light and ethereal, piled high with whipped cream. A heavy cotton wrap would have squished it into a s’more. A plate of holiday cookies loses its appeal under a dark wrap that hides the festive appearance. And in the fridge, you can’t see what’s in all those bowls and pans. I was opening and reopening so often I thought of not covering them at all.

Still, the environment is important to me so I’m happy with using the wraps now and then for some things. If you think of them as an occasional use item instead of a daily staple, you will be happier. I think.

The journey to learn

I started my quest by reading dozens of recipes. In nearly all cases, the ingredient list was the same as the list on the commercially-available wraps. The recipes varied slightly in proportions, but the directions on how to make the wraps ranged from very easy to exceedingly complex. I tried to take the best ideas from each set of instructions, considered alternatives, and feared the process would take forever.

I hate cleaning up messes, so by tweaking all the potentially messy steps, I finally came up with a system that is drop-dead easy with little aftermath. Once my tools and ingredients were assembled, I was able to make three medium-sized wraps in about ten minutes and clean-up was a breeze.

Understanding the Ingredients

The first thing I had to decipher was the ingredients list. Okay, I understand 100% cotton fabric and I understand beeswax, but when it came to pine rosin and jojoba oil, I had questions. What is pine rosin and do I really want to wrap food in it? Why jojoba oil and not some other kind of oil? Why did I even need oil?

Right from the git-go, I learned that other people have asked the same questions, and quite a few decided to just leave those ingredients out. But by leaving something out, you quickly learn why you should leave it in. Like oil in your crankcase, it’s best to have it there.

Rosin vs Resin

The first thing I noticed was some recipes called for pine resin and others pine rosin. The difference, I discovered, is that rosin is the solid form of resin that comes from pine trees and some other conifers. To make rosin, liquid resin is heated to drive off the volatile compounds, the compounds that are not good for humans to consume or inhale. So remember, its rosin you want, not resin.

I checked the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for pine rosin and it looks innocuous, although it can cause an allergic reaction in some people. The MSDS lists no exposure limits, and rosin is not marked as a carcinogen, not even in California. To me, it smells faintly woody with no hint of turpentine.

Most commonly, rosin is crushed into powder and used as an anti-slip agent. It is used by ballet dancers, gymnasts, bowlers, weight lifters, rock climbers, bull riders, baseball players, drag racers, and pole dancers. It can be used anywhere you want to get a good non-slip grip on something.

In your beeswax wraps, the rosin is what makes the fabric cling onto bowls, plates, and itself. It’s the ingredient that makes it stick. If you omit the rosin, the wraps may come loose from the containers, allowing air to enter and water to leave — not what you want for food storage.

I ended up ordering a one-pound bag of pine rosin from Amazon. It comes as a bag of little rocks that look like amber, which is essentially what it is. A pound is a lot. Since I used only 0.7 ounces to make three wraps, one bag will probably last me a lifetime, unless I take up pole dancing.

Pine rosin chunks: Pine rosin comes in dust-covered chunks. You can crush them in a mortar and pestle to speed melting — or just be patient.
Pine rosin chunks: Pine rosin comes in dust-covered chunks. You can crush them in a mortar and pestle to speed melting — or just be patient. All photos by Rusty Burlew

Jojoba Oil

Jojoba oil is pressed from the seeds of Simmondsia chinensis, a shrub native to the southern parts of California and Arizona. Apparently, jojoba is preferred because it has a long shelf life compared to similar vegetable oils and it has natural antibiotic properties. The runner-up in popularity was coconut oil, so either would work.

I purchased a four-ounce bottle of organic jojoba oil and used one tablespoon in my recipe. Vegetable oil keeps the wraps pliable so they don’t crack when you fold them over a container. My sample has a slightly oily scent, similar to other vegetable-derived oils.

Beeswax

The beeswax you use should be clean and filtered, free of bee parts and hive debris. You can use either white wax or yellow. Darker wax can interfere with fabric designs, but since any beeswax may darken when heated, it doesn’t make much difference. For quicker melting, you can shave or chop the wax in advance, but for the amount you need, it’s not necessary.

Cotton Fabric

Some people like to use organic, non-printed fabric while other folks like to use colorful prints with a down-homey look. In either case, the fabric should be 100% cotton, and the fabric needs to be pre-washed to remove the sizing.

Sizing is a material added to the threads during the manufacturing of cloth. It makes weaving easier and makes the resultant fabric easier to cut and handle. The sizing added to cotton fabric washes out easily, but you want to make sure it’s gone before you make the wraps. If left in place, sizing can keep the beeswax mixture from properly soaking into the cotton.

Machine washing is okay, but not necessary. I just washed the squares in a dishpan of soapy water and rinsed well. Once dry, you’ll want to iron them so they lay flat on your sheet pan or cookie sheet.

Choosing the Dimensions

Before you cut the cotton, you need to decide on the sizes of wraps you need. After checking through dozens of retail sites, I found the most common sizes, in inches, were small (7×8, 7×9, or 8×8), medium (10×11, 11×11, or 10×13), and large (13×13, 13×14, or 14×14).

So far, I haven’t had a use for the small one. Some people say the small ones are good for wrapping a partial onion or avocado. But here’s the thing. Many people who wrapped an onion said they couldn’t remove the smell from the wrap. Ever. The avocado people were divided into two camps: One half said they never had an avocado store as well and oxidize less than when they used a beeswax wrap. The other half said they never had an avocado come out worse — and disgusting. So, you might want to consider that before deciding on sizes.

I simply measured some of my favorite food storage containers and added four inches to each dimension, which yields two inches of overhang on each side. The limiting factor, I discovered, was the largest size didn’t lay flat on my sheet pan. So consider that, too, or get a bigger pan. Another option is making circular ones to fit a bowl or container, adding maybe four inches to the diameter.

Cutting the Cotton

It’s easier to cut the cotton before you wash out the sizing, but you can do it either way. Many people suggest using pinking shears to reduce frayed edges. I thought about it but decided that the wax coating would prevent fraying. As soon as the wraps dry and harden, you can cut away any loose threads.

Cutting fabric: Cut the fabric to a convenient size for your food containers. Using pinking shears helps to reduce fraying.
Cutting fabric: Cut the fabric to a convenient size for your food containers. Using pinking shears helps to reduce fraying.

Other equipment

Before you begin, you will need to assemble some equipment, all of which you probably have around the house. Most beekeepers have worked with beeswax enough to know how messy it can be, so be sure to use dedicated utensils and thoroughly protect your kitchen from the wax.

  • Grater (for beeswax) optional
  • Mortar and pestle (for rosin) optional
  • Measuring spoons
  • Kitchen scale
  • Double boiler (or a dedicated wax container in a pan of hot water)
  • A half-sheet cake pan or cookie sheet
  • Aluminum foil or parchment
  • Chip brush or another cheap paintbrush (steal from your partner, don’t tell)
  • Stir stick (a wide craft stick works well)

The Recipe

This is exactly how I made my first batch of wraps, after having prepared and cut the cotton.

Step 1: Line your sheet pan or cookie sheet with aluminum foil. I thought this was ironic, seeing as how the purpose of these wraps it to limit the use of such products. Still, if you don’t want to ruin your pan, you need to line it with something.

Prepare the pan: If you are not using a dedicated pan, cover the pan with foil or parchment to protect it from beeswax.
Prepare the pan: If you are not using a dedicated pan, cover the pan with foil or parchment to protect it from beeswax.

Step 2: Preheat your oven to 200 F.

Step 3: Mix together and place in a double boiler the following ingredients:

  • 3.5 ounces of clean beeswax (chopped, if desired)
  • 0.7 ounces pine rosin (pulverized, if desired)

Stir occasionally. After the first two are completely melted add:

  • 1 tablespoon jojoba oil, stir to combine

Note that I didn’t use a double boiler but put the ingredients in a small mason jar and set the jar in a pan of gently boiling water. There’s a chance of breaking the jar using this method, especially on an electric stove, so a double boiler would be safer. Also, I didn’t chop or pulverize, but the ingredients melted quickly just the same.

Warming the mixture: Warm the ingredients in a double boiler or in a pan of hot water, stirring to combine the ingredients.
Warming the mixture: Warm the ingredients in a double boiler or in a pan of hot water, stirring to combine.

Step 4: Place your first fabric piece on the lined pan, smoothing it out. Using oven mitts, carefully remove the jar from the boiling water, and gently pour a small stream of mixture onto the fabric. I went back and forth in a snakelike pattern, using about a quarter of the mixture. Don’t use too much because you don’t want a thick layer, just a thin one. Return the jar to the hot water.

Pouring the mixture: It is easy to pour the melted mixture directly onto the fabric in a snake-like pattern. You can also brush it on, but it hardens quickly.
Pouring the mixture: It is easy to pour the melted mixture directly onto the fabric in a snake-like pattern. You can also brush it on, but it hardens quickly.

The wax will harden instantly, way before you can spread it out with the stolen brush. That’s okay. Just put the pan in the oven for about five minutes. When you take it out, most of the wax will have dispersed into the fabric. If some areas are still dry, just take the brush and swish the hot wax around until the entire cloth is covered. Check the back, too. If any areas need more, just add a bit from the jar.

Ready for the oven: Slide the pan with the partially-hardened wax into a 200-degree oven.
Ready for the oven: Slide the pan with the partially-hardened wax into a 200-degree oven.
Brush after melting: After a few minutes, you can brush the melted mixture to the edges of the fabric. The fabric will look dry where there is no wax.
Brush after melting: After a few minutes, you can brush the melted mixture to the edges of the fabric. The fabric will look dry where there is no wax.
Check the back: Peek underneath the wrap to assure the wax has soaked through to the back.
Check the back: Peek underneath the wrap to assure the wax has soaked through to the back.

Step 5: As soon as all the areas are covered, remove the wrap from the pan and wave it around for a minute or so. “Waving around” was something I was advised to do, but I didn’t understand. It’s correct, though. Once I waved it, it cooled and hardened in a flash.

Wave it around: Once all parts of the wrap are saturated with wax, remove it from the oven and wave it around until it hardens, about a minute.
Wave it around: Once all parts of the wrap are saturated with wax, remove it from the oven and wave it around until it hardens, about a minute.

Step 6: Repeat as necessary, one fabric piece at a time. Although the first wrap takes about five minutes, once the pan is hot, successive wraps take only about two minutes each. It would be easy to pre-heat the pan but hardly worth it.

When you’re done, you can simply put a lid on your mason jar and save the remaining mix for next time. I saved the aluminum foil and the stolen brush, as well. Finally, any beeswax splatters can be removed with alcohol. I know this is a lot of words, but the entire process was very easy. Scout’s honor.

Using your new wraps

To use your new wraps, lay them over the container you wish to cover and use your hands to warm the wraps slightly. With a little heat, the wraps will soften and grip the sides of your container. It takes some practice, but soon you will get them to adhere in a tight, form-fitting way.

You can use the wraps to cover bowls, cups, plates, and serving dishes. Some folks use them to save sandwiches or snack foods, or you can give that avocado thing a try. They should not be used for meat because they are difficult to clean. When not in use, you can store them folded or rolled in a drawer or cabinet.

Remember, the wraps must not be exposed to heat. That means no hot water, no microwave, and no washing machine. It’s best to run them under cool water, wipe with a soapy cloth, rinse, and hang to dry. The wraps do have a slight odor — beeswax mostly — but I haven’t detected any transfer to the food.

According to regular users, beeswax food wraps will last a year with minimal care. However, if they begin to lose their flexibility or stickiness, you can use your tray and pop them in the oven to melt and redistribute the wax or, if necessary, you can add a bit more mixture. Nothing to it . . . and that’s a wrap!

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Pizza dough rising: This pizza dough is rising under a beeswax wrap. Holding your hands against the wrap-covered container for a few moments will help make a tight seal.
Pizza dough rising: This pizza dough is rising under a beeswax wrap. Holding your hands against the wrap-covered container for a few moments will help make a tight seal.

Comments

Linda
Reply

Pole dancing. I noted the first use of the term, laughed, then completely died at your second reference! I have gained more than I even know from years of reading your generous writing, and your wit slays me. Thank you!

Archie McLellan
Reply

I had no idea rosin had all these other uses. For me, it is the little block you draw back and fore over the bow hairs so that they stick or drag on the strings of your violin, cello etc.

Enjoyed this post very much. I won’t be making wraps for myself because I have a friend who keeps me supplied. And she too has very little to say on how to clean them!

Granny Roberta, finally back to 4 colonies in CT, even the 2nd or 3rd chance split is up and running today
Reply

Great article. I don’t think it COULD be explained more clearly and simply. But we’ll stick to tupperwares and various commercial bread bags. We don’t use much foil or plastic wrap.

Just out of curiosity, you said “thoroughly protect your kitchen from the wax”. How’s that working out for all of us here? My beeswax (completely unfairly I’m sure) gets blamed for every sticky spot on the kitchen stove or floor. Except during honey harvest, but at least the honey washes off after you stick to it.

Debbie in Ohio
Reply

Too much work! ha ha.

Ken Kizer
Reply

Could wax paper be used instead of aluminum foil? My wife has Alzheimer’s. Aluminum has been proven to be bad for Alzheimer’s patients.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

Use anything you like. It’s just to protect the pan.

vicki
Reply

If these are less than stellar as food wraps consider making them large enough to wrap a sandwich, for a walk away lunch.

Anne Marie
Reply

Another great article. Your research and instruction detail is faultless. You are correct about rosin for stickiness. I have made wraps without it and they don’t seal well. Thank you for sharing.

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