I had the neatest experience last Friday! I went over to my friend Enola Gay's and we made soap.
I've always wanted to try making soap, but I had it in my head it was this incredible complex and sophisticated process. And indeed it can be. Or...it can be very simple. And basic soapmaking was much much simpler than I thought.
Some basic precautions are necessary: latex gloves to keep the lye off skin (and keep vinegar on hand to neutralize any accidental splashes) and protection over the work surface, such as butcher paper over the table. (This in fact turned out to be critical because we spilled a jar of proto-soap and managed to scoop most of it back up, but the table would have been a mess otherwise.) Do NOT use aluminum pots or utensils (the lye reacts with aluminum). Wooden spoons should be dedicated to soapmaking only - Enola had marked hers with felt tip pens (SOAP and LYE).
The basic ingredients for soap are lye, fat, and water. Beyond this there are infinite variations on the theme: goat milk, scent, fancy oils, etc. I won't give the recipe because every recipe is different, and most libraries have books on soapmaking.
Here's our starting ingredients:
Mix lye and water. Here I'm measuring lye crystals:
Mixing the lye and water:
This is an exothermic reaction (for those who remember their chemistry classes) - it gets hot. Quickly. Place the lye/water mixture to cool in a spot where it won't be disturbed by pets or small children.
We all sat down for tea while the lye cooled.
Mix the fats (in this case we used tallow and coconut oil) and liquefy, either on the stove top or microwave. Here's the liquefied fats and we're testing the temp while still stirring the lye:
Greasing the soap molds with Vaseline. These molds are wood and easy to make for anyone with some basic woodworking tools:
Pouring the cooled lye/water mix into the fats:
One of the secrets to easy soapmaking, I'm told, is to use this nifty little mixer which whirs the soap ingredients up within minutes until the soap "traces." This, I am assured, beats the heck out of the two-hour stovetop stirring method. Enola said these mixers can be found at any store that carries kitchen stuff (Target or a hardware store or whatever).
On the right is my batch, already mixed. On the left, Enola is mixing her batch using the mixer:
Here the soap is starting to "trace" (thicken like pudding, where it holds its shape a bit):
Pouring the soap into the molds:
The soap batches were slightly different colors, in part because the ratio of ingredients were not identical, and in part because we added different essential oils (mine was a vanilla/peach, Tiffani's was peppermint).
A few days later, I went over and watched as Sir Knight (Enola's husband) cut the soap. Here's the dried soap with the mold sides removed:
The soap is placed in the cutting mold:
It's hard to see what Sir Knight is using, but he's pushing a frame with taut wires strung across it down through the soap:
Here's the soap, cut:
The individual bars, laid out on newspaper:
I took my bars home, where they will stay laid out flat on butcher paper (if they stayed on newspaper, they might pick up ink stains) to cure. I flip them every day or so. The lye will vent during this time. The earliest I could use the soap would be three weeks, but the longer it cures, the better the soap
Isn't this the coolest thing?