Thursday, January 26, 2012


I have been waiting to write this post since August, when the whole project got started. The problem was, these were Christmas presents I was making, and my family and friends read this blog. So I had to wait, and now, finally, all the Christmas presents have been delivered and received - all except the package for my friends Jean and Jim, who are just going to have to act surprised when I finally see them on Saturday.

Soap, I'm talking soap! Yes, I now can grow vegetables, bake a loaf of bread and make soap.

I knew I wanted to make all-vegetable soap - there's something not so appealing to me about washing my body with animal fat. So I started with instructions from the Down to Earth blog and made my first batch with olive oil, organic coconut oil, rice bran oil and lye - simple, basic soap. And it was easy! So easy and so satisfying that more batches followed quickly, one with just olive and coconut oils, and then one where I started experimenting with adding essential oils. Soon the dining room table was covered with curing bars of soap and my sweetheart was starting to politely wonder about a possible new addiction.

She may have had a point, because even after all the Christmas presents were distributed, we're still left with what is probably a lifetime supply. But I'm not complaining. And I'm already itching for an excuse to start up all over again.

The basic procedure for cold processed soap is to mix lye and water, which then becomes very hot and gives off fumes. While you're waiting for it to cool down you gently heat the oils you want to use on the stove. When the cooling lye reaches the temperature of the heating oils (about 100 degrees) they are combined, then mixed until they reach "trace", which means it's about the consistency of pudding. Then any botanical ingredients or essential oils are added, the soap is poured into a mold, swaddled in towels and left to cool for 24 hours. Then it's removed from the mold, cut into bars and left to cure on a rack for about 6 weeks.

I think I made about ten batches in all, which hardly makes me an expert. But here are a few tips for you, in case you'd like to give it a try yourself.

Tip #1: Don't fool yourself that you're only going to make one batch. Take the time to source out bulk supplies, otherwise you'll end up spending more money than you need to.

Tip #2: Be sensible but don't be afraid. Some soap-making instructions I read would have had me dress up in hazmat gear because the lye is so caustic. I took reasonable precautions, like mixing the water and lye outside because of the fumes, covering countertops with old towels and making sure the animals were not underfoot, and I had no problems.

Tip #3: You don't need separate equipment for soap-making. Again, some instructions I read directed me to have pots, bowls, spoons and mixers devoted solely to soap making. I don't think this is necessary, provided you wash everything thoroughly when you're done. My only exception was the candy thermometer I used, which was constructed in such a way that I couldn't clean out the nicks and crannies as well as I would have liked. So it won't get used for regular cooking anymore.

Tip #4: Invest in a hand blender. It can take a lot of painful mixing to reach trace, if you're doing it by hand. With a hand blender the whole process is not only easier, it's much quicker. I used an old plastic hand blender that had been deformed by being immersed in hot soups. Otherwise, I would have looked for a used one at a thrift store or garage sale.

Tip #5: Don't spend money on molds unless you're thinking of going into commercial production. I spent some time on soap making supply websites, and it would have been really easy to rack up a big bill buying molds. But things you have around the house will work just as well. I used empty milk cartons for a few batches, silicon muffin tins for another, and then I picked up some 2-inch high drawer organizer trays at the dollar store that I used for the rest. Whatever you use has to be stiff enough to keep its shape when you pour in the soap, leak proof, and able to withstand fairly high temperatures.

Tip #6: Whatever you use for a mold, grease it well! Enough said.

Tip #7: If you start looking on the internet for recipes using essential oils to add a scent to your soap, you won't believe how much you're supposed to use, but it's true. I think it must be because the high heat that is generated by the saponification process breaks down the essential oil so it becomes far less potent.

Tip #8: Cover the exposed surface of freshly made soap with plastic. I learned this when my first batch developed a thin layer of white powder on the exposed surface. It's called "ash" and it doesn't affect the performance of the soap, just the look. You can shave it off with a vegetable peeler, or try to prevent it by using plastic.

Tip #9: Get started early. Soap needs at least 6 weeks of curing time, during which the saponification process continues and the soap hardens. If you try to use your soap too early it will not only not last as long, it could still be caustic.

Tip #10: Save the scrap ends and bits and pieces. I have a baggie full, and plan to use the grated soap in this hand scrub, to keep me looking presentable through the gardening season.

I'm trying really hard not to get too carried away, but now I'm really curious about making my own lye from wood ash, instead of buying it in pellets at the hardware store. After all, that's what Laura would do...


Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

Well, dear Laura... I think this is really exciting. Your list of tips is one of the best, most thoughtful and helpful, I've ever read. You anticipated my questions, and made me feel more confident. Not sure I'll be making soap anytime soon, but I suddenly feel like it is possible. So, do you have a favorite fragrance?

Flartus said...

So, you say you have an uncontrollable urge to make soap which you don't really need? Let me help you out by giving you my mailing address! :)

Lindsey said...

This is So Exciting!
I started making soap, too, in the CP way and I am now hooked.
My first batch was a vanilla oatmeal soap that smells like heaven.
I use natural colorants like cocoa and annatto seed and berries and the soap comes out looking fantastic.
I agree about the utensils - just wash them really well and I did buy a stick blender b/c it makes getting to trace SO much easier.
I buy mine from different sources - where have you found the best prices for oils and butters?
Yay Soap!!

jeanives said...

Lucky me on Saturday! I get to see you and I get soap!!! Thanks in advance. And speaking of Laura, there is a Laura here in the city who makes fab soap and has for years. AND, if you really get hooked on making soap maybe you can retail it at the Soap Exchange on Hillside?

Miriam said...

Natalie, I think my favourite soap was the one I made with red palm oil (as well as olive and coconut oils), which coloured the soap a lovely orange colour, to which I added sweet orange and eucalyptus essential oils. Very refreshing!

Flartus, I think you should stay tuned for my next post...

Lindsey, this is a case of "do what I say, not what I do" because I bought all my oils from a local health food store. Expensive! I kept telling myself "This is my LAST batch", and of course it never was... Especially because you're in the USA and don't have to worry about import duties, I would go online and check out bulk oil purchases from soap making supply websites - I know there are a few of them!

Jean, remember - act surprised! I don't think I'll ever sell the soap I make for the same reason I won't sell the vegetables I grow - because they're not PERFECT!

Julie A. Berner said...

these are great tips! it makes me feel like this is an adventure I want to pursue now! I found you via Natalie at chickenblog... glad I did!

Paula said...

Great post Miriam! I've been wanting to try making soap for awhile, but haven't bellied up to the bar with it.

I have to admit thought, that one of my favorite guilty pleasures is bathing with fancy soap, the more fragrant the better I like it.

And now I think I'll go take my shower....

Holly House said...

Sooo cool! My soap didn't turn out as pretty but it works great! Hsve you thought of using recycled cooking oil? There's a fantastic and super simple soap recipe in the blog Quarter Amish that only requires olive oil, but I just used all my saved cooking oil. I also made friends with a woman who runs a chicken take out place and she gives me her used cooking oil for soap! We should be soap penpals!

Nicole Hitchcock said...

I'm so excited to see someone making soap with LYE!! I have wanted to forever, bought some and never worked up the bravery because I didn't know anyone who was doing it. This is great news! Thanks for the encouragement.

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