Saturday, May 19, 2012

Basic Homemade Soap Recipe

When I was a kid I wanted to be a pioneer: I went to Pioneer camp in the summer and learned how to milk goats, press apples, churn butter and make candles. My best friend and I wore calico-print dresses, cotton bonnets, and petticoats throughout the summer months. Growing up in the country, we were able to stay outside for days. We'd pick berries, mash them on a tree stump with a rock and make “jam.” We built fires to cook our own food and built “cabins” out of branches to sleep in (which at the age of ten seemed almost as substantial as logs). For me, being an American pioneer in the 1800s was the ultimate dream (well except for all that Manifest destiny bull).

To this day my wardrobe is still a bit Little House in the Big Woods. I still prefer to make something myself rather than buy it. I love growing/cooking/baking/fermenting/canning my own food. And of course I love the woods, the bigger the trees the better. So in these little ways, I'm still striving for that idealized childhood version of what it means to be a pioneer. It feels good to know how to make stuff, whether it's sauerkraut, a nightgown, paper, soap or a loaf of bread.

But it feels even better to share knowledge and skills with others. The following recipe is long and detail-oriented, but it should provide you with the basic information to start making your own soap at home. There are some specific equipment and ingredients items you will need to acquire, but once you get this basic recipe under your belt you can really get creative. Homemade bars of natural soap are great because they are really high-quality and last much longer than most store-bought soaps (which are often not soaps, but detergents), gentle and nourishing for your skin, economic, easy to customize, and really fun to make!

These are the basic steps for cold process soap making. Don't get discouraged, it's really not difficult as long as you have the right equipment and ingredients and have a little patience with yourself while you learn the ropes. And if you want to you can pretend you're a pioneer...

Equipment and Supplies-
You can probably find most of the things you'll need to make soap at a thrift store or garage sale. You probably even have some of the things you'll need already, like a wooden spoon- but be sure to commit anything you're going to use for soapmaking to that purpose alone. Because of the caustic lye (Sodium Hydroxide), you don't want to use that spoon in your pot of chili after you've used it for soap!

Kitchen Scale One you can zero out is really great. Should measure up to five pounds.

Stainless Steel Pot Unchipped enamel pots work too, but I've never used one myself. Lye will corrode or interact negatively with other types of metals.

Two Plastic Containers Since these are for mixing the lye solution and can get up to 200 degrees F, get something that is “dishwasher safe” so that it doesn't melt. Glass containers have the potential to crack, since the change in temperature happens so quickly when the water and lye mix.

Two Kitchen Thermometers Again, use stainless steel as lye will destroy aluminum. Even worse, lye and aluminum produce explosive hydrogen gas!

Safety Goggles and Rubber or Plastic Gloves Safety first! Handling caustic lye is dangerous and can cause eye damage and severe burns. Learn all about lye safety precautions and first aid here:

Sharp Knife This will come in handy to cut down and trim your bars of soap before curing.

Large Container This will be your soap mold. You can use a traditional wooden box lined with wax paper or a large plastic container with a lid. I use the later because it is flexible and allows the soap to release in one big piece pretty easily with a little twisting (think ice cube tray). Of course you can also use decorative soap molds or reuse plastic tubs you might have around the house. I always keep an eye out for potential soap molds... like that funny plastic tray covering my friend's sushi or the little plastic tub of honey mustard accompanying my tater tots... This part is really fun to experiment with, but truly at the end of the day my favorite bar of soap is just a big chunky hand-cut rectangle.

Wooden or Plastic Spoons You'll need one for the lye solution and one for the melted oils. Over several uses, the lye will eat away at your spoon if it's wood but I still prefer to use wooden spoons over plastic.

Shall we make some soap, then?

Basic Soap Recipe
12 oz Palm or Coconut Oil
14 oz Olive Oil
27 oz Vegetable Shortening
7 ½ oz Lye
20 ½ oz Distilled Water (Back home I had well water and used that with excellent results. However, now that I live in a city with treated water I always use distilled water.)

You'll notice this recipe calls for quite a bit of vegetable shortening. I know it's not the fanciest ingredient, but this is a really simple recipe if you are just beginning. It's consistent and goes to trace easily (more on that later) and it takes additives well. I recommend starting here, you can always get decadent with your ingredients once you've got the basics down. Mountain Rose Herbs is a good place to get soap making ingredients. 

Step One
Assemble all your ingredients and equipment. Clear off a table and cover it with old newspapers for a work station. Read through this whole recipe so that you know what to expect because once you begin it's a bit time sensitive.

Step Two
Don your gloves and goggles then weigh out the lye into one container dedicated for this task. Remember to zero out your scale when you put the empty container on it so that you get a very accurate measurement of lye. Set the lye aside.

Step Three
Measure out the distilled water using the same method in a separate container.

Step Four
Carefully take both containers of lye and water to a well ventilated area (I usually go outside). Carefully pour the water into the lye container and stir until the lye is completely dissolved. You want to make sure there aren't any chunks of lye in the solution. Be very careful not to inhale lye fumes and remember that the lye and water become very hot! Set this aside in a safe place away from children, pets, neighbors, squirrels...

Step Five
Ok, good job the scary part is over. Now measure out the oils using the same method as before. Place them in your stainless steel soap pot and heat gently just until everything is melted then remove from heat.

Step Six
This step can take a while and requires a bit of patience. It is important that both the water/lye solution and the oils come down to 100 degrees F at the same time before they are mixed together. If it's a hot summer day this can take a while, if it's the middle of winter and your lye is outside, it will cool down much faster than your oils. If you notice your lye cooling down faster than the oils you can bring it inside, most of the fumes off gas when you first mix the lye and water.

To do this, use your thermometers (one for each you don't want to share one thermometer and accidentally introduce the lye to the oils too early) to test both mixtures. If you need to cool one down faster, make an ice water bath for it but keep a close eye on the temperature. Likewise, if you need to heat up your lye solution you can dunk it in a hot water bath. (If your oils get too cold just put 'em back on the stove for a minute) When both solutions reach 100 degrees, double check then move quickly on to the next step.

Step Seven
Put your gloves and goggles back on and carefully and slowly pour the lye/water solution into the pot of melted oils while stirring. It is very important to stir while you do this to allow the lye to absorb into the fats. (In this picture below, my water/lye solution looks brown because I added some mineral pigment to it. Without any additives, the water/lye solution will be clear if not a just a little cloudy)

Step Eight
Hopefully you have a nice long record playing or maybe you're listening to an episode of Radio Lab because you will be stirring for a little while. Continue to stir the mixture gently. Keep stirring. The mixture will begin to thicken and turn opaque. What you are looking for are trailings which means that the soap has gone to trace. To test for this, use your stirring spoon to drizzle some of the soap across the surface. If it forms a distinct trail on top of the soap, it's ready. Sometimes trailings can be quite faint especially in low light. The kinds of oils you are using determine longer or shorter stirring times, ranging from 15 minutes to one hour. If you've been diligently stirring for a full hour and still can't identify any trailings, assume they are there and move on.

Step Nine
Once you see that your soap mixture has trailings you can add your essential oils (about 4 or 5 teaspoons for this recipe is good) or other additives (poppy seeds, dried lavender, calendula blossoms, ground oatmeal, aloe vera gel, kelp, honey, lanolin, sage, tea tree oil...).

Step Ten
Gently pour the soap into your soap mold(s) making sure to scrape out as much soap from the pot as possible. Place a lid on your container and cover in old towels or blankets to allow the soap to cool down slowly. Keep this bundled up soap in a warm place for 48 hours until it hardens and sets up.

Step Eleven
After 48 hours unwrap the soap mold and inspect the soap. It should be solid, but if you press it with your gloved finger (the lye can still be active at this point so be sure to wear gloves) it should leave an impression. Remove the soap from the mold and let sit for a few days until it hardens to about the consistency of Swiss cheese.

Step Twelve
Cut the block of soap into desired size of rectangles (unless of course you used individual decorative molds) and allow the bars to cure in open air for 3 to 4 weeks. Curing the soap creates a harder bar of soap and makes it last longer.  

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