I love making soap. Sure, it’s cheap to buy, but have you ever read the list of ingredients in store-bought soap?
I know what’s in mine: lye, oils, essential oils. Period.
Oh, lye, you think. That stuff is really harsh.
Yes, lye is harsh. So harsh, in fact, we use it to unclog drains. You’ll need to be very careful with it. When combined with water, it heats quickly and throws of a steam you do not want to breathe. It’s an alkali. Your skin is not. This explains why Grandma’s “lye soap” was so drying. (You’re going to have to forgive Grandma. She didn’t have a lye calculator or an electric scale. Still, she managed to make a pretty decent soap with nothing but lard and lye.)
In the old days, we made lye in barrels by combining water, wood ash, straw, and maybe a little lime. If you ever want to try it (I do! I do!), here’s a great site with instructions: https://www.countryfarm-lifestyles.com/make-lye.html
A lye-lard combo makes great soap, believe it or not, but I like to experiment with fancier oils. I collect bargains throughout the year and tuck them away for soaping day. My go-to recipe is a basic mixture of olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, castor oil, and shea butter.
This year, I was in the mood to try some flax oil, since my latest release, SCATTERED SEEDS, opens in Ireland with a flax failure.
You can play around with your oils, but in my experience, you will need at least 10% coconut oil in your recipe if you want good lather. Heavier oils like avocado and shea butter will make a decadent bar, but the soap will be a bit soft.
There’s a nifty lye calculator over at https://www.thesage.com/calcs/LyeCalc.html to help you perfect your recipe. You’ll find basic instructions there, too.
Get your molds ready, if you haven’t already. You will not have time to prepare them when it’s time to pour.
Once you have the lye mixed (I do mine outside whenever I can), and your oils melted, keep an eye on their temperatures. When both reach between 100-125 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s time to pour the lye into the melted fats. Be very careful. Spilled lye burns. Get the kids and pets out of the kitchen, and keep vinegar nearby just in case something splashes on your skin. Vinegar will neutralize the burn.
Mix your combined ingredients with a stick blender until it reaches what soapers call “trace.” Trace is that magical point when your mix looks like thick custard. If I’ve done everything correctly, I seem to hit trace in about 10-15 minutes.
Add your essential oils at this point. For this batch, I used lavender, patchouli, and just a touch of lemon. I never really measure, but for a batch this size, it’s probably about 16 oz. If you’re using fragrance instead of essential oils, you’ll need much less.
Pour the mix into your mold. I use a long loaf mold my husband made me. The sides are covered with plastic wrap, and they break away for easy removal of the set loaf.
Within a day or two, you can break away the sides to expose and slice your loaf.
The soap will be quite harsh at this point, so you’ll need to be careful. Slice it, and allow it to cure for at least eight weeks before use. You’ll notice a light dusting on the cured bars. This is just ash, a by-product of the chemical process that took place in your soap. It is only on the outside of the bar and washes away quickly.