I grew up with homemade soap. When was preparing for this post, I borrowed my mother’s book – the one she always pulled out when it came time to make soap. This is a survival preparedness book from 1975. What is interesting about this book, when it comes to soap making, is that the author is able to get two recipes on most of the pages. Her instructions are merely a paragraph. Most of her items are measured by volume. And the one big reason I don’t use it now is that they call for a can of lye. I have no idea how much lye came in a can in 1975 and worry that they have gotten smaller. Then add to that, you can’t buy lye drain cleaner in a can anymore. I just happen to have bought a case the last time I found some which I am still using.
The recipe I am sharing with you today came with my handmade soap mold. I don’t know where it originated. It works for me. I haven’t had a bar fail. I will tell you that modern soap making bothers me. There was a time when soap was all about saving your drippings and pouring in some lye, it was a common and simple practice. Now it’s treated as if you need a hazmat suit and a degree in chemistry.
Soap can fail. It is all about chemical reaction but it’s fixable. In the 20 years I have been making soap, I haven’t had a batch fail. I’ve had a batch or two with a little more bite but that’s solved with time or I grate it into laundry soap. Bite means that it makes the skin tingle when you use it indicating that the lye hasn’t fully incorporated. More often than not, it’s because you want to use the soap too early. Be patient, waiting makes the soap better.
To start with, get out your ingredients. You will need solid fat, liquid fat, lye, water and whatever additives you want. I made two batches – lavender oatmeal and honey orange clove. The ratio of solid to liquid fat I use is 1 part liquid, 3 parts solid (4 cups equals 1 cup liquid, 3 cups solid). You can use all solid fat especially if you have a softer solid. The hardness of the fat at room temperature will approximately be the hardness of your soap. It’s not quite but close enough. Soft solid fats make a softer soap which dissolves faster. If you let it remain in the air long enough, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem (more on that in a few).
I get forgetful – you will need some items as well. I have a pot that is only used for soap making along with a plastic spatula, wooden spoon and candy thermometer (these items never come in contact with food). For melting the fats, I use a large stock pot. For mixing the soap, I use a glass bowl. I do use those for food but they are nonporous and I wash them thoroughly.
Melt your solid fats. You see that my solid fats are a combination of drippings (yellow bag) and old shortening. I threw in a bit of old coconut oil that my husband had microwaved and burnt. The fats are a bit on the yellow side. The color will lighten but I never care about the color of the soap. If you do – you can add coloring. I have never added color to lye soap so I can’t comment on it.
Add your lye to your water. I use the bottom of my crafting double boiler but you can use a bowl. It has to be glass or metal – never plastic. The water should be cold or cool (room temp is okay). The lye reacts with the water and gets very hot and fumy. If you can, set it outside while it cools. My first batch cooled faster than I expected because it was very cold outside. So check the temperature about every 15 minutes. You want it to cool to 80-95 degrees. You’ll want your fat to be about that same temperature as well.
While waiting prepare your mold. This is a 2 pound wood mold that I bought. It has to be sealed before every batch with something like Vaseline. I use stale salve.
Because I knew I wanted to make it an oatmeal soap and get a little fancy, I sprinkled about 4 tablespoons of oatmeal along the bottom of the mold.
If you don’t have a mold, not a problem. My mother has never owned an official mold. All you need is a flat box, we get them from the grocery store either from canned vegetable cases or beer/soda cases, and a plastic bag.
Wrap the box in the bag (watch for print on the bags, I didn’t pay attention and, well you’ll see).
Back to the soap. Once the fat and lye are in that 80 – 95 degree area, pour the lye into the fat (slowly to avoid splatters). Here you can sort of see the two layers as the fat is heavier than the lye water.
Stir until starting to thicken. The technique offered in the booklet from my mold is to stir for 10 minutes then rest for 10 minutes. My mom has always just stirred the entire time. I think I like the stir/rest technique because it’s less tiring.
Add your additives but not your fragrance or your color. This is a time to add oatmeal, honey, milk powder, coffee grounds, fruit, etc.
I hope you can see in this picture the lines on top of the soap. When the spoon leaves lines from stirring, this is called tracing. Or you can pull the spoon up and let the drips fall on the top. The drips will be visible and then sink fairly quickly (getting this picture was fun, I tell you). It’s at this point you add your fragrances. I use essential oils but you can use perfume oils or soap fragrances. This is when you would add coloring as well but, as I said before, I don’t do that.
Stir and the soap should begin tracking which means that if you put drops on the surface, they will sit there.
Pour into the molds. Smooth with the spoon. I use a plastic spatula for two reasons – it lets me get all the soap out of the bowl and it looks a bit nicer.
For, at least, 24 hours your soap needs to be kept away from drafts. The best way to do this is to wrap it in a blanket. Because we have a very drafty apartment and a nosy cat, I took this a step further and set my molds, wrapped in plastic bags first and towels second, in a tote that I could close.
I started my soap making in the evening and didn’t plan my time well so when I finished my second batch, I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. I didn’t get my mold laying flat so my soap shifted (one side is thicker than the other). I, also, didn’t notice the black writing on the plastic bag or I would have made sure it didn’t come in contact with my soap. As you can see in the picture, my soap has a plastic bag warning across it. It doesn’t hurt the soap and will go away the first time I use it. It’s just irritating.
After your 24 hours (mine was almost 48 because I didn’t have time the next evening), remove the soap from the molds and cut. If there is liquid, the soap will need to be reclaimed (I don’t have a tutorial on that – sorry). The soap will be damp, what you are looking for are puddles. The soap might have a bit of a bite, you can choose to wear gloves while handling it but I find it doesn’t bother me (but wash your hands right after). If the soap is too soft to pick up, let it sit for another day or two.
At this point, the soap needs to cure. I use a cardboard box that I have taped cheap cookie racks in. You can use cookie racks or on paper/parchment. If the bottoms of the soap don’t get air flow, they will need to be turned on a daily basis. Let cure for at least 3 weeks. The longer it cures, the harder it becomes. Really hard soap lasts longer. We store our finished soap in a plastic basket so it always gets air (away from humidity).
Some soaps develop an ash on top – just cut it away. You can use that part for laundry additives if desired.
2 pounds of soap (wooden mold) – 3 cups fat, 3 oz lye (volume), 1 cup water, 1/2 oz fragrance, up to 3/4 cup additives (total)
3 pounds soap (cardboard box) – 4 cups fat, 1/2 cup lye, 1 1/2 cup water, 3/4 oz fragrance, up to 1 cup additives
5 pounds soap (beer box – didn’t make this one this time) – 7 cups fat, 3/4 cup + 2 TB lye, 2 3/4 cup water, 1 1/4 oz fragrance, up to 2 cups additives