There I was standing over a hot wood stove stirring a pot of the most stinky, simmering beef tallow. The little old lady standing next to me shouting out instructions - because she was pretty deaf - was a scrawny little 85-year-old firecracker named Lilly. I was 19 years old and I had gotten a bee in my bonnet about making my own soap. My mom found Lilly somewhere back on a farm near Iowa Falls, Iowa. Lilly was an expert and she flew around the kitchen and handled the whole thing like she’d been doing it her whole life... and she had! When we got done we had a giant tray of the most gorgeous old fashioned lye soap. I was hooked!
This was the beginning of my lifelong affair with soap in all shapes and forms. I got soap from Spain, England, France, Japan and India. Mom always used that old standby Ivory. When I got older and went into my “woods hippie” phase I wanted something better than Ivory. I thought Kirk’s Castile and Dr. Bronner’s were the bee’s knees. Then I got the inspiration to make my own soap from one of Eliot Wigginton’s Foxfire books. Lilly was the perfect teacher.
Now I’m older and my interest in making soap has revived. I recently made Castile soap with my friend Sarah. The finished soap is now sitting on my table and it’s two weeks into curing. I learned a lot about olive oil soap as we made it. Turn out it takes a very long time to cure! 4 to 6 months! I’m going to take the next 4 weeks and make 4 more soaps, each week a different soap.
Here’s how my test drive with Castile Soap turned out.
(Caption) Week 1 Olive Oil Castile looks layered. A small mistake.
We forgot to cover it with wax paper and a towel as it was drying so the top layer is lighter in color than the bottom. This is because the top layer dried faster than the bottom layer. It’s only cosmetic and won’t affect how it works. I’ll remember to cover the next batch.
This week I’m going to make Castile Soap again but add coconut oil to improve the lather and curing time. In week 2: Shea Butter Soap. In week 3: 100% Coconut Oil Soap. Week 4: Old Fashioned Lye Soap.
Coconut Castile Soap
- 227 g (8 oz) distilled water
- 108 g (3.8 oz) sodium hydroxide (lye)
- 142 g (5 oz) coconut oil
- 652 g (23 oz) olive oil
- 35 g (1.23 oz) lavender essential oil (opt)
I measure by grams for more precision.
- Long sleeve shirt
- Face protector (a weed wacker mask is awesome) at least have eye protectors
- Rubber gloves (regular dishwashing gloves work fine)
- Immersion blender (you can blend by hand where there’s more control over splashing but it takes longer to blend)
- Stainless steel pot (I use 3-with high sides that has a pour spout)
- Silicone molds enough to make 12 -1 inch x 2 inch x 3 inch bars
- Wax paper
- Tea towel
- 2 Measuring cups
- Candy thermometer
- Digital scale (important: I wouldn’t try making soap without it. In the old days of guess-and-gosh sometimes soap would have too much lye in it and was very hard on skin!)
1. Put on your protective gear. I wear painter’s overalls, rubber gloves and a weed wacker face protector.
2. Carefully sprinkle the lye into the distilled water. Stir with the end of the immersion blender NOT turned on. To facilitate dissolving. Set the lye water aside in a safe place to cool until the temperature drops to 100 – 110 degrees. Use the candy thermometer so you know.
Sidebar: The Chemistry of Soap
Soap is the result of a chemical reaction (called saponification just so ya know) that occurs when lye and fat or oil are mixed. Both substances are chemically transformed to create soap. Neither of the original ingredients exists anymore. All the lye is consumed in the reaction.
So, while soap is made with lye, the lye is all gone when the process is complete. Modern measuring scales allow soap-makers to use the proper and exact mixture of oils and lye, so all lye is consumed. This is why I use a digital scale. Not old fashioned but definitely better.
3. While the lye water is cooling melt the coconut oil and add it to the olive oil. Stir by hand a bit to blend.
4. Then mix the warm oils and lye water. Start stirring by hand to blend the lye solution and the oils. Those of you who have used immersion blenders know that they’re robust little tools. They’re like blender but smaller and they really blend! You might be taken aback at how much power they have so if you want to get used to it I suggest try sticking the “shootin’” end of the blender in water and see how it performs. Then there won’t be any surprises.
5. I start stirring with the end of the immersion blender while it’s not running until the mixture starts to look a little bit mixed and then I turn on the blender. If you need to, tip the pot a little to deepen the mixture. A shallow mixture where the blender is not fully immersed will splash up. We want to avoid splashing. Stir until soap reaches “trace”.
Trace looks like pudding.
Sidebar: What is “trace”?
Trace is when the mixture starts to “harden” but is not fully hardened yet. It will look like pudding and when you lift the blender (TURNED OFF PLEASE) from the mixture it will create light swirls.
6. At trace, this is where you blend in your essential oil quickly if you want it. Don’t over blend. Then pour the mixture into the molds. Don’t worry if they’re not perfectly filled. This is your first try and you will learn a lot from this try. If you over fill, take a knife and with the flat edge scrape off the extra and either discard it or put it back in the pot.
Soap in molds
The chemical transformation of the lye mixture will not be complete until after 24 hours so set the equipment aside. After 24 hours the pots will clean up nicely because, after all, it’s now soap!
7. Cover the soap with wax paper. Wax paper because it allows air in while plastic wrap does not. Wait until it’s hardened up a bit before you do. Maybe a couple hours otherwise the wax paper will stick to it. When it’s really starting to set up a few hours later then cover it with a soft towel for further protection. Then let it sit until it looks like it’s coming away from the edges of the mold. This might take 2 or 3 days. If you try to unmold it before it’s ready you run the risk of breaking it. Patience, my dears!
Week 1 - Olive oil Castile on left. Week 2 - Coconut Castile on right
8. Set on small edge on a coated rack to cure for 6 weeks if you want your soap to get really hard enough. Hard soap lasts longer. By the way, if you’re home schooling this makes a great science or chemistry lesson! The time to start is now to be ready for homemade Christmas gifts!