I launched myself head first into a new adventure.
I made my very first soap.
From scratch using the evil lye solution.
I made what is known among soapers as “bastile” soap, which just means I didn’t make 100% olive oil soap.
And it was wonderful.
It was also horrible. My second batch turned to this horrible oily scum that I had to dump out. Bet my pipes are clean and sparkly now.
Now, soap making is a sketchy combination of science and art and turns such bad words as “fat” into a good thing. It is also far less difficult that one might imagine.
I’ve held off on soap making, other than the cheater pour and mold type, for one specific reason. Waiting 4-6 weeks to use my soap was just out of the question! I’m an immediate gratification kind of girl.
Then I learned one important fact: there are two methods of making soap, and one of them gives you immediate (24 hour) satisfaction.
Cold Process — Cold process soap making is a misnomer. This is the current popular method that you see all over the interwebs. Essentially, you mix it up, then pour it into molds. After a day or two, you pop it out, cut it up, and then it has to SIT ON A SHELF FOR 4-6 WEEKS BEFORE YOU CAN USE IT.
On the other hand, you can make ginormous batches of soap using this method. Frankly, I don’t find myself needing 10lbs of soap I have to wait 6 weeks for. (Though I’m going to give cold process a shot and give out the results for Christmas. Lucky you people!)
Hot Process — Hot process, on the other hand, gives you usable soap as soon as it cools down, at least overnight. You cook your soap either in a crock pot or on the stove and it goes through some acrobatics you need to monitor which are loads of fun. Then you glop it into a mold and let it sit.
Once it is fully cooled, you can unmold it, cut it, and use it immediately, because it’s fully saponified by the heat and doesn’t need to cure. Granted, some soaps will remain somewhat pliable (damn you bastile!) until they’ve had a bit of resting time, but two weeks still beats out 4-6 weeks.
You can use just about any recipe with either process, though do make sure you run any recipe through a lye calculator. If you get that wrong, bad things can happen… like caustic or oily soap.
You are limited in batch size. In my 6 quart crock pot, I can make about a 3 pound batch, but not much more than that. (That’s nine 5 ounce bars),
The Science — The science of soap making is actually pretty darn cool. All soap is made with lye, which is the same stuff plumbers use on really stubborn drains. The lye reacts with the fats (either animal or plant) you add it to, saponifying it and making soap.
Lye is required to make real soap. You can’t get around that. Soap making requires a 33% solution of NaOH. Lye is caustic, so this isn’t a kid friendly project, though honestly, it is less dangerous than cleaning your bathroom. Seriously, have you really looked at the safety precautions on your cleaning products? No, because you use vinegar and water!
The Tools — Technically, most of what you need to try your hand at soap making is already in your kitchen. Olive oil, some glass bowls, a wire whisk and a crock pot or non-aluminum pot. Heck, you can actually make a tiny batch in your microwave if you are feeling really confident. (If you want to make hot process, you don’t need a special crock pot, because by the time you are finished, it is soap and all the lye is used up.)
You will also need a scale that measures in ounces. Soap is measured by weight, always. Here is where you can see why complete with pretty pictures.
If you use plastic or wood tools, you will not be able to later use these items for food. Glass and stainless steel are non-porous, though, and can be completely de-lyed without issue. Big pyrex measuring cups are perfect for soap making.
Most tutorials show a stick mixer. The kind you use to mix up protein drinks, not the kind you use for cake batter. This isn’t necessary, but it does speed up the process and save your arm. You can manually mix with a wire whisk and have perfect soap.
Lye you probably don’t have, but you can find it in the plumbing section of some hardware stores (I got mine at Lowe’s, I’ve heard of someone getting hers at Dollar General.) Lye comes as a sort of salt texture (at least, mine did) which makes it easy to pour without an issue. You can go the gloves and goggles route, though I felt silly as hell all suited up for hazmat. Keep some vinegar handy for accidental splashes. AND ALWAYS ADD LYE TO WATER, not the other way around. Exothermic reactions can be exciting, but stick to playing with vinegar and baking soda to demonstrate them.
You will also need something to mold your soap in. You can use pretty much anything that will hold the amount of soap you are making. I used washed out half gallon milk containers and just peeled them off my finished blocks. Pringles cans are apparently fabulous for hot process though they are coated with aluminum and thus cannot be used as cold process molds without lining them fully first. Plastic storage bins, a shoebox lined with butcher paper, a length of 3 inch pvc pipe… you get the picture. Just make sure it’s something you will be able to get your soap out of again.
The Ingredients — The best part about soap making is that you can make whatever you want. You can go strictly vegan with nut and fruit oils. Or you can go kitchen savvy with lard, vegetable oil and shortening. Each oil and fat has it’s own properties which will change your final result.
The best part? I got 6 bars of soap for about $5 in olive oil. Bars of the same soap that cost $5 a piece. Yeah, that. If I had done a bit more work finding cheap oil, I could have brought that cost WAY down. And one 5 ounce bar will make 32 ounces of liquid castile soap. I’ll let you know how that experiment turns out.
If you keep essential oils around, those are perfect for soap making. (I used tea tree oil in my bastile soap for it’s antibacterial properties, which means I not only made castile soap, I made antibacterial soap!) Stay away from your kitchen extracts, though!
Powdered milk, ground up oatmeal, honey, rock salt, and any number of other things also make good additives.
It’s a fun and useful hobby, but really not a child safe one! Unless yours are like mine and love soap. The weird kid.
Tutorial and Recipe Links!
Small Notebook’s A Beginner’s Guide to Soap Making
Soap Queen’s Free Beginner’s Guide to Cold Process Soap Making This one has a fabulous vocabulary list as well as a simple recipe to get you going. There are also a whole slew of recipes and projects from soap to lotion to lip balm. Great blog for all things like that.
Ready Nutrition’s Soap Making: A Beginner’s Tutorial This one has a hot processing recipe.
Chickens In the Road Hot Process Soap in a Crock Pot A tutorial and recipe that is very kitchen friendly.
Hoegger Farmyard’s Simple Milk Soap Recipe This one calls for goat’s milk, but you could substitute cow’s milk or even cream if you can’t source goat’s milk.
The Ponet Vedre Soap Shop’s Recipes and Instructions Page A list of all sorts of bath and body recipes, including a shaving bar for the guys. (Mica is used as colorant in these recipes and can be left out.)
Fimby’s Holiday Spice Soap recipe This one will be ready just in time for Christmas! Just make sure you use the Imperial recipe for your ounces measurements. She has more recipes and a list of links here too.
There are a million and one recipes, and that’s just counting what is online. You can get books by the stack filled with recipes and how-tos. I was looking specifically for easy to source ingredient recipes, but there are all sorts of different soaps you can try. Have fun with it! And don’t be afraid of halve recipes, just make sure to run them through a soap calculator before making them.