About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Soap - first attempt

I was quite scared of soap making, to be honest. It's not particularly difficult, but it involves caustic soda, and if you get the quantities wrong you can end up with caustic soda in the soap, which is really not something you want to be washing with. However, I'd decided to give it a go, so after much procrastination I pulled myself together, gathered up my ingredients, donned safety goggles and rubber gloves, and started measuring things.

Ian found the goggles and gloves highly amusing, so he took a picture

Part of the procrastination was lack of internet, which slowed down the research. I'd seen some information - and there's plenty out there - but hadn't settled on a recipe. Being me, I didn't just choose a recipe then set about following it, because most of them include some fairly exotic ingredients, like coconut oil. I'd read some general introductions and learnt that basically, you mix alkali (or lye - either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) with oil or fat in the right quantities and you get soap. Too little lye and you get a sloppy mess; too much and you get something that will eat through your skin. Unsurprisingly, most recipes build in a margin of error in the direction of the sloppy mess.

The decisions to be made were which oils and fats to use and what quantities of the various ingredients to include. I found excellent websites that told me what kind of soap to expect with various ingredients, calculators for what quantity of lye to use, and one that even adjusted the quantities to suit the dimensions of my mould.

I had thought to use just oils, but with research got worried that the soap might not be hard enough, so chickened out and included some lard (I did attempt to render this myself from leftover bacon fat, but didn't keep an eye on it and ended up with brown, smoky smelling lard. Not so good for soap). I also had some hemp oil, which apparently makes luxurious soap, so that went in. I ignored the bit about it having a short shelf life - seemed fine to me. I'd bought peanut oil for moisturiser, but what little information I could find suggested this was quite similar to olive oil, which I had in much larger quantities having restocked twice by mistake at some point. I also found someone eulogising about sunflower oil, which appears to be much less available in the US (rarity value possibly contributing to the eulogy), whereas this is my main cooking oil, so I was pleased to be able to include some of that.

The recipe I finally used went like this:
Lard: 7 1/4 oz
Hemp oil: 3 3/4 oz
Olive oil: 8 1/4 oz
Sunflower oil: 3 3/4 oz
Caustic soda: 3 oz
Water: 7 1/2 oz

I'd played with the recipe resizer to get a nice round number for the lye (how deep you fill the mould is somewhat flexible) and rounded the other ingredients (mostly up) to the nearest quarter ounce, because that's the smallest weight I have with my scales. There was also a minor adjustment due to adding-up failure; the original version had less olive and more sunflower oil.

So to work.

Step 1: Mix the lye with the water. Yes, it does get hot. Yes, it would have been a good idea to do this in a well ventilated area.
Step 2: Melt the lard then mix with the oils in a bowl.
Step 3: Wait for them all to cool down to about 110 deg. farenheit. This is boring. Also, I didn't have a thermometer that I was willing to put into caustic soda, so I had to guess. 110 is a bit above body temperature, so should be fairly easy to judge, though the rubber gloves did make it a bit harder.
Step 4: Add the lye and water to the oils and stir. The usual advice is to use a stick blender for this, alternating blending with stirring. I don't have a stick blender and thought I might use an electic whisk instead, but one site helpfully explained why this isn't a good idea - air bubbles don't make for a nice soap texture. I started with a tiny manual whisk that I could keep completely submerged, so whisk without drawing in air. This proved difficult in rubber gloves, and before long my hands got tired, so I gave in and used the electric whisk. I should point out that the stirring took a VERY long time. At one point, I took a break and went to off to consult John Seymour's self sufficiency book. He gives very sparse instructions (no warning about how long it might take, for example), but advises adding the lye slowly, otherwise it won't mix, which I hadn't seen elsewhere. No mention of a stick blender here, either, just 'stir gently'. I wondered if the blending was necessary to compensate for the too-fast addition of lye at the beginning. Too late to do anything about that now.

Eventually, after about an hour and a half, I saw the first signs of 'trace', which is what I was waiting for. This means that the spoon leaves a trace in the surface of the mixture as it moves through it. It came on gradually - at first only visible when I flipped drops across the surface. Bubbles from the blender became more evident, so I stopped using it at that point and just used the spoon to mix. It also started to smell less like oil and more like soap, which was encouraging. Even better, it smelled like Grandma's soap, and she only ever bought the best.

Once I was sure I could see the trace, I added some fragrance (but not too much - I didn't want to lose the Grandma's soap smell). I'd bought two bottles - just cheap stuff for scenting rooms - so had a choice of white musk or rose. I had chosen white musk, but the mixture was a soft peach colour, which I thought suited the rose better. I had plenty of time to think about it! (Actually, it finally set to an ivory colour, which would have suited either - I'll know next time).

I have to say, I was very excited to see the mixture finally turn into soap - all that time stirring it must have built up the tension!

Step 4: Pour into mould, cover and leave for 24-48 hours to set. Within 24 hours it was hard enough to remove from the mould, so I cut it up and, as instructed, wrapped it in a towel and...

Step 5: Leave to cure. The amount of time for this varies a lot between recipes. For some it's as much as six weeks. A bit of research told me that the time required varies according to the choice of oils, and that olive oil takes as long as any. Oops - these are supposed to be for Christmas presents and I don't have six weeks until Christmas. Doh! I'd really like to test a piece before giving it to people, but I guess I'll just have to give it with instructions not to use it for a few weeks. Oh well.

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