Soap got its name when the Romans at ‘Mount Sapo’, a popular location for animal sacrifices, discovered it. Rain mixed the animal fat residue (tallow from cattle) with the burned wood on clay and a chemical reaction occurred. Women living on the banks of the Tiber river discovered that clothes which they washed using this substance were much cleaner and cleaned with much less effort.
When making soap, there are some substances that are necessary for this process. Let’s take a look at them.
Fats – fats are oils from animals or vegetables. Animal fats are fats from beef tallow (of course this is less animal friendly and less commonly used these days). Vegetable oils that are most commonly used for soap making are olive, coconut, cocoa, and palm oils.
Lye - (Sodium Hydroxide) or another common name, caustic soda. Lye needs to be dissolved in water in order to actively react with.
Water – The best water to use for soap making is distilled water. Hard water contains minerals and salts that may interfere with this chemical reaction. It is always recommended to follow a given recipe and measure the water and the lye. Not having enough water may result in hard, dry soap, and too much water may yield too soft of a soap.
Essential oils and herbs - essential oils add fragrance to soap. In some cases skin-sensitive people use soap with no fragrance. When herbs are added to soap they add color, change the texture and contribute their qualities for relaxing and healing skin. Some herbs work as exfoliates.
Tools – Stainless steel pot (never aluminum!), 2 wooden spoons, wide mouthed glass jar (at least 2 quarts), thermometer that reads between 80’F – 110’F, shoe box or cardboard box about this size, plastic wrap, safety glasses, and rubber gloves. Avoid using these tools for eating; dedicate them only for soap making. Also clean them separately from your kitchen utensils. First step – Making the lye solution This step requires the most precaution. Wearing safety glasses and rubber gloves is a must. To prevent inhaling the lye fumes, it is best to do this outdoors. Start by adding lye gently to distilled cold water while stirring carefully. You shoul not use hot water to begin with, since lye heats up on it’s own in reaction to contact with the cold water and it’s undesirable for this solution to boil. Also, do not do the opposite of adding water to lye as this may cause explosion. If you see a thin layer of white crust at the bottom of the jar, keep stirring gently until all the lye is dissolved in the water.
Second Step - Melting the Fats Melt the oils (fats) in a stainless steel pot and only when melted, begin adding olive oil while stirring well.
Third Step – Mixing the Lye Solution with the Fats Using the safety glasses and rubber gloves, measure the temperature of lye solution and that of the oils. If the oils’ temperature is high, you can immerse this pot into a sink of cool water to slightly cool the temperature. Some soap makers suggest that the temperature of both substances should be between 100’F – 110’F. We recommend measuring between 95’F – 98’F. When both substances reach the same temperature, slowly pour the lye solution into the oils. Patiently stir until the substances are fully mixed (This may take some time. Patience is critical at this stage).
Fourth Step – Adding Fragrances, colorants and Herbs This is when fragrances, colorants or herbs are added to the mixture. Simply follow the amounts in you recipe. There’s no exact amount of time for how long to stir, it can vary from five to forty minutes. Stir until you see ‘trace’. Trace means when you pick up the spoon and are able to draw on the surface by dripping from the spoon. A successful trace should enable you to see the drops for few seconds before they disappear back into the mixture. The mixture should be as thick as pudding.
Fifth Step – Saponification Pour the mixture into a plastic wrap lined box or a shoebox. Cover the box with its lid and then cover the lid with a blanket. It is very important to not disturb the mixture until saponification is done. At this stage the substance is turns from a mixture into solid soap. It has to sit for 18-48 hours while it releases heat.
Sixth Step – Remodeling the Soap After saponification, remove the lid and the blanket, and set it aside for another 12 hours. The fresh and fragrant soap is now ready to be removed from the mold. If you see a thin layer of oil and a white crust that looks like chalk, it indicates that you succeeded in making a good batch. If you see a layer, which is grossly separated, wrap it and throw it away as this batch has failed. Using rubber gloves, cut the soap into bars, or shape it like clay. You can also mold it with cookie cutters or stamp it. Set the soap aside again to cure for two to three weeks. The soap is ready to use then.
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