Saturday, June 30, 2012

Soap box

Don't worry - I'm not about to start proclaiming or declaiming or exclaiming. I just want to tell you about the soap mold Kim made for me.

After a post-Christmas hiatus on soap-making, I geared up production again last week and tried making milk soap with goat's milk. My first batch (made with a recipe from here) wasn't so hot - it took forever to harden (after two days I sliced it anyway, but it was still too soft), it's greasy to the touch, and each slice has a dark centre, all of which sent me back to the Internet on a quest to figure out what happened. And here's what I learned.

The Gel Phase: this is something you either want to happen or you don't want to happen. It all depends on preference. More specifically, many people who make milk soaps don't want it to happen because they believe it makes the end product darker, and apparently light-coloured milk soap is something to be desired. Other people believe the quality of the end product is better if the soap does go through the gel phase. Which leaves beginners like me scratching our heads.

But here's what I figured out. If you want the gel phase to happen, you insulate the soap really well during the first 24 hours, to keep in the heat. That means wrapping it in blankets or towels and not peeking. If you don't want the gel phase you do the opposite: as soon as the soap is poured into your mold it goes into the fridge, if not the freezer. Those were the instructions I blindly followed with my first batch of milk soap, but apparently it was not enough, because that dark circle in the middle of each slice is a sign of a partial gel. And if there's something gel-lers and non-gel-lers agree on, it's that you don't want a partial gel.

So in my second batch I went for the gel phase and got a much better product. Yes, it's a touch darker in colour, but still a lovely creamy tan.

Super-Fatting: even though this makes me think of my arthritis-is-flaring-and-I'm-too-sore-to-exercise physique, what I'm really referring to is a component of the calculations that go into a soap recipe. Most beginner soap makers follow someone else's recipe, but at some point you may want to experiment with a different combination of oils, or be forced to experiment because you run out of one oil or another. That's when a soap calculator comes in: you enter the amounts of each of the oils you are using and the calculator tells you how much lye and how much water you'll need. (You can find a reliable soap calculator here.)

But there's another input to the calculation, and it has to do with how much oil you want left in the soap not taken up by the lye in the saponification process. If you are making a nourishing facial soap you will want a higher superfat number (more oil left) than if you are making a laundry soap. When I got an unpleasantly greasy first batch of milk soap I wondered if the superfat percentage was off in the recipe because of the fat in the milk. It turns out that a standard superfat percentage for soap is 5%, but for milk soap it should be 3%. Sure enough, when I ran the recipe I had used through the calculator with a superfat of 3%, the calculator called for a greater amount of lye than I had used in the first batch. I adjusted it for the second batch and got a much better product.

But wait...wasn't this post supposed to be about a soap box?

Until last week I had been using assorted found objects as molds - milk cartons, plastic trays, silicon muffin cups - because I found the commercial molds available all over the Internet way, way too expensive. Many of them are fairly simple boxes made of wood. And who do I know who likes making things with wood? Kim, of course.

Here is my lovely soap box. It's made from scraps of cedar, with a top that helps insulate the soap as it hardens, but which lifts off easily.

With a lining of parchment paper...

...and a removable front, it's a breeze to slide out the hardened block of soap for cutting.

Kim constructed the box to my specifications, but I think I got the proportions a little wrong - the bars of soap are a bit too wide to fit comfortably in the hand. Luckily for me Kim's game to make me another one!


Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

Would you believe... Geoff is the most eager to go into goat's milk production... soap or cheese!?
Your learning process will be such a blessing to us, if we ever do go to the next *level!*
Kim's box looks lovely, and so do your soaps, even the partially gelled one... it looks like an artistic variation. I read everything, but I learn by observing and participating, so... well, we may show up at Mucky Farms, some day!
Happy weekend.

Paula said...

Very nice soap box. And I am learning from your mistakes. Some day when I try soap (and I will), I'm coming back here for tips.

jeanives said...

Your were losing me with the mathematics but I love the product. Presently using one of your citrus bars.

Lindsey at NW Backyard Veggies said...

Fantastic soap, lady.

And can I just say that you succinctly gave me more information about superfatting and gel phase than the two soap books I own and three websites? And it made sense. And I finally GET it now??

And I'm a soap maker!!

That box looks awesome. the box I use measures (on the inside) 13in Long x 3.5in Wide x 2.75in High making 13 one inch thick bars. If you make a 4 pound batch, your soap will be approximately 2.5 inches high. I bought it from soap making and his website is here for more info:


Miriam said...

And you make BEAUTIFUL soap, Lindsey! If anyone's looking for a nice treat for themselves or a friend, check out

Kris said...

Wow, how lucky you are to have such a handy person to make soap mols for you. I want one so bad, Like you, I use whatever I have on hand. My favorite is a long metal chicken feeder. It makes perfect bars.

And thank you for this post. I am learning slowly about goat milk added to lye to make soap. I was taught the French milled way, remelting the base and then adding milk and EO's and herbs and flowers. I did make some adding the milk to the lye about a month ago, not realizing I am not supposed to insulate it. I did and got lots of oil on the top. It is ok now but is a bit oily. Next batch will NOT be insulated and probably go in the freezer. Thanks again! Happy soaping.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Hello. Found your blog and may very well have to return. I too, soap and farm and garden so why must I also read about it as well? Who knows...but I like your pics

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