Soap Love


While I didn’t have true New Year’s Resolutions this year, I came up with a list of four skills I want to try and maybe gain some proficiency in during 2013. The list included basic woodworking (so I can make this headboard), pie-making, soap-making, and charcuterie.

I’ve made soap once before, from a kit. And, freaked out by having seen Fight Club, I drafted a friend with a Ph.D. in Biology, who wasn’t as afraid of lye as me, to co-make the soap. Jenny did about everything that directly involved lye, and I cheered her from the sidelines. When I realized it was actually pretty simple, and the chances of blinding yourself fairly remote if you just take a few precautions, I bought soap supplies and planned to make all our soap.

This was two years ago, and I had since talked myself back into thinking it was a dangerous hobby.

And then, inspired by my friend Sharon, who has turned into a one-woman soap factory, I got up the courage one day and, well, I made soap. I’ve now made four batches in the last month or so, and spend a lot of time daydreaming about what kind I’ll make next. Saturday night, after I got Sylvia to bed, I asked Phil to take a few pictures to show the process. (This is not a soap-making tutorial; just a document of what I did. Definitely find a good resource if you’re wanting to make soap.)


First, I have learned to measure everything that isn’t caustic early on. I think the measuring and laying out of supplies, as well as cleanup, is about the most time-consuming piece. Actual hands-on soapmaking takes about 20 minutes. So I measure the water that the lye will be added to, as well as all the oils. If I’m adding fragrance, I measure that out and put out any other additives. Pretty much when I actually get down to soapmaking, all I have to measure is the lye.


Then I melt down the hard oils. The recipe I used Saturday night uses vegetable shortening (Crisco), coconut oil, and olive oil. I measure the olive oil into the pot that I’ll make the soap in. I measure the Crisco and coconut oil into a microwave-safe container and heat them in the microwave until they melt.


Now comes the scary part, or at least the part that frightened me away from soap making for years. Measuring the lye. You can’t see it, but I’m wearing eye protection as well as gloves. A lot of soap makers get cavalier after doing this for a while, but I’m always going to go the route of Safety First. The first time I measured lye without my Ph.D. soap-making buddy, my gloved hands were shaking as I opened the bottle. Fortunately, lye comes in crystals, so it’s fairly easy to work with and measure; I thought it would be a powder that could puff up and disfigure my face for life. In reality, you’d have to work fairly hard to burn yourself, especially if you’re wearing gloves and nerdy eye protection.

Once you measure the lye, you slowly add it to the pre-measured lye water, stirring until it’s completely dissolved. I was making this soap with a relative in mind who has a sensitivity to fragrance, so I wasn’t adding essential oils. Instead, I experimented with using green tea for the lye water; I’ve also done this with chamomile tea. Because I’m so new to this and every batch is an experiment, I was intrigued to find that the green tea turned dark brown when the lye was added to it. Who knew?


One word of caution that every soap resource will scream out: You always add lye to water, not water to lye. Going in the opposite direction could cause a literal explosion, in which case burning yourself with lye would be a more realistic possibility.

Anyhoo, once the lye is added to the water, the lye water gets really hot and slight fumes can come off; I mix it in the sink in front of a window, and keep the window open a little to get some ventilation. You want the lye water to cool down to somewhere between 90 and 110 degrees. You can wait this out, or you can do like I do and add cold water and ice to a pan that the lye water container sits in; this will cool it down in about five minutes.


Once the lye water is between 90 and 110 degrees, you add the melted solid oils to the liquid oil (making sure they’re also between 90 and 110 degrees), and then slowly pour in the lye water, so that it doesn’t splash.


Now you get to blend the whole mixture with an immersion blender. This is a fun step because the soap transforms from this sort of liquidy clear stuff to a creamier mixture. You’ve hit what soap-makers call “trace” when lifting the blender (with it turned off!) leaves a sort of trail on the surface of the soap.


At this point, I add in any fragrance oils and additives. While I wasn’t adding fragrance oils to this batch, I did put in some calendula petals–which, sadly, pretty much disappeared in the brown soap. Live and learn.


Then I poured the soap into the lined soap mold, cleaned up, and waited until the next day to unmold the soap and cut it into bars. The bars have to dry for three or four weeks before they’re used; this eliminates some of the moisture and makes a harder, longer-lasting bar.


A couple of resources I’ve loved as I’ve gotten started:

  • The book Smart Soapmaking is a tiny, self-published book of soap wisdom. This finally got me over my lye fear. Also, she is the first person to say that the lye water and oils need to both be in a range (90 to 110 degrees), but not the exact temperature. Almost every soap resource I’d read to this point claimed that those two things must be the exact same temperature, which can cause some real anxiety. I only have two hands.
  • I used this simple recipe for the soap I make here, with two changes. I upped the coconut oil by one ounce and decreased the olive oil by one ounce, as I found the original recipe made a fairly soft bar. Also, I doubled the recipe, as my cool new soap mold holds four pounds, and this recipe is for two pounds.

And now I’m off to do a little wood-working, pie-making, and charcuterie.