Of all the down-home projects we do around here, soap-making was one that none of us had ever taken on. Luckily we have Garimo Pape in the neighborhood to show us the ropes. His Real Soap shop in Felton is a welcoming space, redolent of fragrant oils and finished bars of soap; you can join him there, as we did, for the small classes he teaches by appointment. Or join us here, and follow along as we make soap with Garimo. The basic recipe is the same, but we added different clays, essential oils, and other ingredients to each of our 3 batches, to make an assortment of bars for different occasions.
Soap making is a science and an art- it can absolutely be done safely in a home kitchen, but attention must be paid to timing and the treatment of volatile ingredients in order to so responsibly and with the desired results.
While soap can be made using many different oils and combinations, Garimo uses a blend that he formulated for all his soaps that include Olive, Coconut, Soy, and Palm Oils. While Palm Oil is rarely produced sustainably, Garimo has found a source that is responsibly produced by a collective of farmers in Brazil, who purchase degraded land and restore most of it to native habitat, while converting a percentage of land to palm oil production. The palm oil that Garimo uses comes from the Agropalma collective but is generally available only in 50-gallon drums. Rather than purchase palm oil that contributes to deforestation and habitat loss, you can purchase Garimo’s specially formulated oil blend from him directly, and avoid contributing to the problem. While concerned soapmakers have attempted to formulate blends that work without using palm oil, the fact is that palm oil is one of the best soap making ingredients, producing a hard soap that does not dissolve in damp conditions. If you want to make soap using this recipe, we strongly recommend that you obtain this oil blend from Garimo, and make a responsible environmental choice. The orangutans and the forests of the world will thank you.
A note on some of the other ingredients that are used in this recipe: The olive oil is one of the closest oils to our natural skin oils, making a moisturizing bar that does not produce much lather. Coconut oil is added for a good lather of bubbly suds, as well as being very cleaning. Soy oil is cheaper than these other oils, as well as being a mild moisturizing oil with good lathering properties, so it is added to the blend to reduce cost and improve the moisturizing and lathering properties of the soap.
Lye is what tends to give people pause about making their own soap, because it is a caustic powdered chemical that can cause skin burns if not properly handled. The word “lye’ actually comes from the word alkali; and refers to both sodium hydroxide (which we use for bar soap) and potassium hydroxide, which is used for liquid soaps.) However, lye in this powdered form can be handled safely in a home kitchen, using the proper precautions. These include having adequate ventilation, avoiding direct contact with the skin, and most importantly, never adding the water to the lye; the lye must be added to the water to prevent a violent chemical reaction boiling over. When the lye is added to water, it begins a chemical reaction that heats the water instantly. When the lye-water mixture is added to oils, a process called saponification takes place. The fats in the oils react with the strongly alkaline lye, changing the structure of the ingredients to produce soap. If lye gets on your skin, it will begin to saponify the naturally occurring oils on your skin. However, it can be quickly rinsed off with water with no ill effects. If lye gets on your skin, simply wash well under running water. Be sure to keep lye away from the face and eyes.
Other ingredients will include essential oils (never synthetic fragrances, which can travel down the drain and wind up (in our case) in the Monterey Bay, where they travel up the food chain from mussels, into sea otters, as well as humans. The colorants used here are composed of herbs, clay, and minerals, which can be bought online or at local stores such as the Herb Room. And finally, the water that is used in this recipe should be distilled water; many municipalities put different additives into their water, or have a wide range of mineral accumulation, which may affect the soap making process in ways that can be difficult to predict.
Garimo uses an online saponification calculator when formulating a new batch of soap. If you would like to adjust the type or amount of oils or other ingredients being used, a calculator such as this one (www.thesage.com/calcs/lyecalc2.php) can be an invaluable tool. Each oil has a different saponification rate, so tinkering with the oils can change the outcome drastically if the amounts of lye and water are not adjusted accordingly. We have already chosen a combination of oils that Garimo has formulated to use for our soap, which we entered into the online calculator.
Using this online calculator (or the handy recipe we have prepared here for you), will give you a range of how much water and lye to use with your particular combination of oils. Keep in mind that it is a range; for the size batch we are making, the range of water is 8-13 ounces. We call for 11 ounces of water, right in the middle of the range, but a bit over or under is perfectly all right, too.
The calculator also specifies the amount of lye to use with the water; the result is a chart that details the percentage of excess fat that will be left behind after the saponification process is complete. The percentage translates roughly into how soft or hard the finished soap will be; a larger amount of lye that resulted in very little unsaponified fat would make a soap hard and crumbly, while too little lye (resulting in a 9 or 10% excess fat range) would make a mushy, soft soap that would not hold together. We are aiming for about a 5% excess fat range, so we will use 4.75 ounces of lye for the batch.
Phew! Now that we have all this out of the way, it’s time to make soap.
Place a quart jar, or other heat resistant container, on a digital scale and tare it, so that the scale reads zero when the jar is empty on it. Pour in distilled water until the scale reads 11 ounces, or close to it. (Remember, the range is from 8-13 ounces, so anywhere in there is fine.) Remove the jar of water from the scale.
Place a wide-mouth container, such as an old yogurt or sour cream container, onto the scale and zero it out again, so that the scale reads zero when the container is empty on it. Carefully scoop the lye into the container, so that it reads 4.75 ounces.
In a well-ventilated area, using a funnel, pour the lye into the water (NEVER the other way around!) A chemical reaction will immediately take place, and the water will begin to bubble and heat up to around 200°F. This is the part that you want really good ventilation for; turn on your stove fan, or take the container outside before adding the lye to water. The reaction taking place can cause fumes that are harmful to breathe.
The water-lye mixture will heat up and then slowly cool down. While it is undergoing the reaction, it is time to prepare the mold. Soap molds are available online, but any sturdy box, even a cardboard box, can be used as a soap mold. Garimo has made lovely wooden molds that come apart easily at the seams, and are held together with bolts and wing nuts. Cut freezer paper to line the mold. First, cut pieces that will line the narrow end of the mold, creased sharply where the sides meet the floor of the mold. Tape these in place. Next, cut a wider piece of paper that will line the floor of the mold, as well as the long sides. Use the edge of the table to create sharp creases at each edge, and tape this piece of paper to the mold on the outside edge. Cut another strip of paper that will cover the surface of the soap when it has been poured into the mold.
If you are using clays to color the soap, measure the clay into a wide-mouthed container. Add a small amount of water to make the powdered clay into a liquid that can be poured smoothly into the oil mixture later. Measure the essential oils into a glass container, and set aside.
Next, prepare the oils. Measure the oils into a saucepan, and bring the temperature to 100°F.-110°F. Stir the solid oils until they are completely dissolved. Keep the mixture at this temperature until the lye has cooled to the desired temperature.
Monitor the temperature of the lye using a metal thermometer. When the lye has cooled to about 110°F.-115°F, it is time to add it to the oils, which should be at the same temperature.
Pour the water lye mixture into the warm oils, and blend steadily, using the immersion blender set at a slow or medium speed.
Ladle a small amount of soap into the container with the clay. Blend this mixture well, and then add the mixture back into the soap pot.
Continue stirring until “reaching trace.”
To test for trace, stop mixing and hold the dripping end of the blender over the soap mix. As it drips into the soap mixture, look carefully at the surface of the soap pot. If the drips that fall leave an impression on the surface, like a kind of dimple or depression on the surface that take a while to rejoin the mixture, then you have reached trace. This term, reaching trace, represents the point in the soap making process when all the ingredients, oils, lye, and water, have saponified, and are not going to separate.
Congratulations! You got to trace. Now, it is time to add the essential oils. This may dilute the mixture enough that it loses trace; mix with the immersion blender again until the essential oils have been incorporated and you are back at trace.
If you are using any solids in your soap, such as mint leaves, wheatgrass, poppy seeds, or lavender buds, now is the time to add them. Do not use the immersion blender to mix these things in, as the blender would puree them. Instead, use a rubber or silicone spatula to gently fold the ingredients into the mixture.
Pour the liquid soap into the mold, filling it as close to the top as possible.
If you want to make a rim of flower petals, oatmeal, or other decorative edgings, sprinkle them onto the surface, and press them gently into the soap so that they do not fall off once the soap is hardened.
Cover the surface with freezer paper.
Then, wrap the soap mold in several layers of old towels. There are still chemical processes taking place at this point, and the layers of towels help keep the soap warm and aid in the final saponification that will take place as the soap cures. If not covered, a light ashy bloom will cover the surface of soap that is exposed to the air. This does not affect the quality of the soap but it is an aesthetic consideration.
Wait 48 hours, and then unwrap the mold from the towels.
Wait 24 hours (or longer) and then cut the soap into bars. Here, we are using a mold that has a 1” guide to help the bars come out even and straight. We are using a sheetrock knife, which is oriented vertically so that it can be pressed down and cut the soap without sawing back and forth and leaving marks.
The soap at this stage is still considered raw. It must now dry and cure for 3-4 weeks, standing on end without touching each other, to allow for maximum air flow.
When dry, the bars can be wrapped in paper for storage.
It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make your own homemade, healthy home products more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old-fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.