I learned how to make soap for the mission trip I took to Kenya in 2005, and I’ve made it a few times since – but not in a long while. We never finalized the workshop list for my currently-postponed trip to Liberia, but Debra had mentioned soapmaking as a possibility, and so I’d been meaning to refresh my skills.
Then, a week or two ago, my father asked me if I’d made any soap lately, saying that he liked my homemade soap and was now out.
If I’d been on top of things, I’d have made soap a month ago, so that I could have given it out to everyone at Christmas this week – the soap has to cure for a month, and if something turns out wrong and you have to rebatch it takes even longer.
But Dad’s comment got me to thinking. I bought the cheapest little digital kitchen scale I could find a few days ago, while doing some Christmas shopping. I think the last good one I had was intentionally left with the church on one of my foreign trips. I had a little spring scale, but I didn’t trust it – and soapmaking, as I’ll tell you, is an exact science.
What I do, and what I’ve taught on two or three trips, is cold process soapmaking, which is slightly different from the method your great-great-grandmother might have used. The fats are heated up, partially to melt solid fats like lard or coconut oil but also so that the fats will be the same temperature as the lye solution when the two are combined. Lye is added to water, and it heats up on its own, due to a chemical process. The two liquids are therefore pretty warm when they’re combined, but no further heat is added. Your great-great-grandmother would have made hot process soap, a slightly different method in which the soap mixture is cooked to accelerate the chemical reaction.
The cold process mixture is stirred, by hand or with a stick blender, until enough soap has formed to thicken and emulsify the mixture and keep the oil and water from separating. This thickened stage is called “trace,” and the marker for it is that if you pick up the spoon and drizzle a little bit of the soap onto itself, you can see the line. If you’re stirring only by hand, as with my students in Kenya, this can take 45 minutes to an hour – and you have to stir constantly for the first 30 minutes. If you have a stick blender, it happens a lot more quickly.
Once the soap has traced, you can try adding coloring or fragrances. I say “try” because most coloring agents or scents added at this stage won’t actually take. The soap is still quite alkaline, and will be for weeks, until every last bit of lye has reacted with fat to produce soap. That alkalinity tends to kill off anything you add.
Most homemade soap that has colors or fragrances is “hand-milled” soap. The soap is made without any additives and then allowed to cure completely. Then it’s ground up, or “milled,” and melted down with a little water so that color or fragrance can be added. Hand-milling is a tricky process, and one I have not mastered. I end up with something that looks more like cottage cheese than soap, or else I add too much water and end up with a soupy mess.
By the way, there’s a different hobby called “melt and pour soapmaking” which is an easier version of this. It starts with a special soap base, available at any hobby shop, which has been formulated to melt easily and smoothly (think of it as the Velveeta of soap). You melt it down, then add whatever you like – color, fragrance, exfoliants, what have you – and pour it into molds.
Essential oils have the best chance of surviving when added to newly-made soap, but I had not thought to buy any. I added a little bit of peppermint extract to tonight’s batch, but I don’t expect it to actually survive. I think this will turn out to be fragrance-free, off-white soap.
Once the soap traced and I stirred in the peppermint, I poured it into molds – not the real soap molds you buy at Hobby Lobby, but little Gladware lunch containers that happen to be about the same general shape as a bar of soap.
It will take a couple of days for the soap to harden enough to be taken out of the molds, and then I will have to wrap the bars up in paper and let them cure for a month, on the off chance that there are any little crystals of lye which haven’t yet saponified.
It was fun to make a batch, although I’m always a little nervous when working with the lye. As recommended, I wore safety goggles and gloves. Fortunately, I still had some Red Devil lye left over from my older soap-making days. You used to be able to buy Red Devil, which was 100 percent pure lye and perfect for amateur soapmaking, in any store – it was sold as a drain-opener. But Red Devil stopped selling the product. That may have a liability concern, been because lye can be used in meth production, although the company never said for sure. Now, one has to order lye online by mail.
I have a spray bottle filled with vinegar standing by in case of any stray splashes of lye water or young soap. I also soak all the utensils in vinegar before washing them.
Soapmaking is a fun hobby. Part of the fun is searching for the holy grail of soap recipes. Some oils make a hard bar of soap, others provide more lather, and still others are great for conditioning. The website http://soapcalc.net has a wonderful calculator that you can use to work out a recipe, and it will give you some idea of the resulting soap’s qualities.
Recipes must be followed carefully. You must have at least enough fat to react with all of the lye, but you can adjust the recipe to add just a little bit more, called “superfatting,” in order to give a moisturizing richness to the final product. If you try to add too much, however, your soap bar will be squishy and greasy.
I would like to have used palm oil as part of the mix today, but that, too, has to be ordered online, and I didn’t have any. Tonight’s batch included the cheapest light olive oil I could find (no sense wasting money on extra virgin!), a little coconut oil for lather, and some good old fashioned lard, all from the supermarket. When you first start soapmaking, you’re advised to begin with lard. It’s cheap, always a benefit when you’re learning something for the first time, and it makes a basic, well-rounded bar of soap. Its main drawback is a little bit of pork smell, some of which can even survive the alkalinity of the lye solution.
Some day, I want to try making goat’s milk soap. The goat’s milk is used in place of the water, and it’s supposed to give the soap beneficial qualities.
Another fun recipe to try is gardener’s soap – in which you use brewed coffee in place of the water and add some of the grounds to the recipe as a scrubbing agent.
One thing that all homemade soap has in common is that it’s rich in glycerine, a skin conditioner. Glycerine is a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process – but it’s used in so many other products, from hand lotion to toothpaste, that the big commercial soapmakers chemically extract some of the glycerine from their soap so that they can use it in other products. Homemade soap has all of its glycerine intact.
I hope this batch comes out well. It has continued to thicken after being poured into molds. When I take it out of the molds in a few days I should at least be able to tell if all my measurements and ratios were right. If I had too much lye, the soap will be powdery and crumbly. Too much fat, and it won’t harden up properly and will be soft and squishy. We’ll have to wait and see, and no one in the family will be getting any in their Christmas stocking.