How to Make (Real) Soap

I’ve had many people tell me that if they were stranded on a deserted island, I would be their first choice of a partner. It’s not because of my charm. It’s because… there’s a bit of MacGyver in me. I was the kid who dismantled broken clocks, watches, appliances… and as an adult was able to put some of them back together, without any many parts left over. Just ask Wendy, my old roommate. 🙂 I’m always learning how things are made, and usually try to make them myself. Just because.

I made soap for the first time about 20 years ago. Of course, I had to buy beef fat to render into tallow — no wimpy bottled oils for my soap! It was fun and successful enough for me to repeat the process. But then life got busy and I left soap making for my future.

Which came about last year, when I challenged myself to make, from scratch and with safe and natural ingredients, as many household and personal products as I could. I found a really nice bath/body bar soap recipe and love the gentle, moisturizing soap so much that I’ve stuck with that same recipe ever since. This recipe happens to be mostly vegetarian (depending on how you view beeswax) and I use all organic, food-grade ingredients. Well, except for the lye. Lye is… lye.

Making soap is EASY and will be successful if you follow the directions. The most important thing to remember is that there is chemistry behind the “turning fat into soap” process ( Saponification ) and so the ingredients must be measured accurately. Lye can also seem scary to people, but if you are careful and smart about handling lye it is not a problem. Get careless and you could burn a hole through your flooring, counter top, clothes, skin… you get the idea.

So here’s the process. You can skip directly to the recipe if you’re experienced in soap making.

WEIGHING IN

All ingredients must be weighed, even water! Measuring cup is being used only as a container.

You will need: A large (dutch oven size) stainless steel pot. Some Pyrex or other heat-resistant glass containers. Stainless steel spoon. A silicon spatula. A plastic shoebox. Wax paper and tape. A baggie. An accurate scale (digital preferred). An accurate thermometer (digital preferred). A submersible blender (my first choice) or other hand blender or mixer. Some sort of knife.

Steps:

ingredients

Basic recipe ingredients.

1. Gather all the ingredients. You will be putting the fats together in the large pot, the liquids (water, coconut milk) in a Pyrex bowl or different pot, the lye will be separate, the essential oils even more separate.

2. Find a plastic shoebox that hopefully has straight sides. Line the shoebox with wax paper, tape the top edges in place.

3. Measure all of the fats (and wax), individually, WITH A SCALE and put them in a large stainless steel pot. Let me stress that a little more: MEASURE WITH A SCALE. ALL MEASUREMENTS ARE BY WEIGHT. You can now put the pot on the stove, on a low temperature, to slowly melt. Stir occasionally. These do not need to boil, only melt. You can take the pot off the heat even if there are trace particles of unmelted (usually beeswax) substances. They will melt from the ambient temperature.

weighing lye

Be accurate in your measurements.

4. Measure the liquids (water and coconut milk, or just water if you’re going that route) ON THE SCALE, lol. Put them in a separate stainless steel pot or Pyrex or other glass container.

5. Put a clean baggie ON THE SCALE and fill with lye to the correct weight.

6. Weigh the essential oils (not as important) and set aside for much later.

lye in liquids

Lye added to water/coconut milk. Note color change.

7. It’s time to add the lye to the liquids. I recommend you do this outdoors, because it does throw off fumes and there is also better “damage control” if you get sloppy. IMPORTANT: Slowly pour the lye into the liquids. Doing it the opposite way (I won’t say it, I don’t want to plant a subliminal suggestion) could cause splash back. No, no, no! NO splash back, splash back is BAD. Pour the lye into the liquids, gently stir, and you’ll be fine. The liquid/lye combination will get very hot (around 200° F). Bring the container back indoors after the fumes clear.

Lye mixed in with fats, before blending.

Lye mixed in with fats, before blending.

8. Take a temperature reading on the melted fats and the lye/liquids. You need to get them to about 100° F, at the same time, before they can be combined. This can take as much as an hour, depending on conditions. This may also take a little finagling, as they will cool at different rates. Most recently I needed to put the fats in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes to keep up with the faster cooling of the liquids. Once they are both below 125° you’ll need to take temp readings more frequently.

trace

Trace

9. When both mixes are as close to 100° F as you can get, pour the lye/liquids into the fats. This may cause the color of the fats to change from white to gold. Mix with a spoon, and then use the mixer for a few minutes, mix with the spoon, use the mixer, until the mixture thickens to “trace.” Trace means than when you can see the mixture is thick enough to hold a shape. Don’t overdo it.

10. NOW you can stir in the essential oils or other ingredients. In this batch, I added ground cloves and tangerine/clove essential oils.

Soap-to-be in the mold.

Soap-to-be in the mold.

11. Pour the mixture into the shoebox (I use a silicone spatula here), removing any air pockets and smoothing the top. You could even throw some extra ingredients on top, such as ground cloves, lavender, etc. Put the cover on, wrap the shoe box in towels and keep in a temperate place for 24 hours to cure.

Cutting the soap. I'm using a vegetable cutter here.

Cutting the soap. I’m using a vegetable cutter here.

12. After 24 hours, pop the block of soap out of the shoe box and slice into bars.

13. Put the bars on a drying rack of some sort (I use these elevated cookie racks that I bought at a flea market) and let them harden for about 6 weeks. This MUST be done, as the lye is still active and will burn you if you don’t wait for the soap to age.

Drying rack.

Drying rack.

14. Enjoy!

 

Moisturizing Soap
Print Recipe
This is a gentle, foamy moisturizing soap that you will love! It's easy to customize with fragrances, textures (ground cloves, herbs, etc). My favorite oil is tea tree because it's so skin-friendly, but I also love lavender, frankincense, clove with citrus... NOTE: ALL MEASUREMENTS ARE BY WEIGHT, not by measuring cup.
Servings Prep Time
2 pounds (about 12 bars) 1 hour
Cook Time Passive Time
1 hour 6 weeks
Servings Prep Time
2 pounds (about 12 bars) 1 hour
Cook Time Passive Time
1 hour 6 weeks
Moisturizing Soap
Print Recipe
This is a gentle, foamy moisturizing soap that you will love! It's easy to customize with fragrances, textures (ground cloves, herbs, etc). My favorite oil is tea tree because it's so skin-friendly, but I also love lavender, frankincense, clove with citrus... NOTE: ALL MEASUREMENTS ARE BY WEIGHT, not by measuring cup.
Servings Prep Time
2 pounds (about 12 bars) 1 hour
Cook Time Passive Time
1 hour 6 weeks
Servings Prep Time
2 pounds (about 12 bars) 1 hour
Cook Time Passive Time
1 hour 6 weeks
Ingredients
Servings: pounds (about 12 bars)
Instructions
  1. Prepare your mold (plastic shoebox lined with wax paper).
  2. WEIGH your fats/beeswax and place in a large stainless pot. Melt on low temperature. When melted, set aside to cool to 100° F.
  3. WEIGH lye in a baggie, slowly pour into container of WEIGHED liquids (water or water/milk combo) (see main instructions for precautions). Set aside to cool to 100° F.
  4. Weigh essential oils and set aside for later.
  5. When melted fats and lye water are both as close to 100° as possible, pour the lye water into the fats and alternate using a mixer and stirring by hand until mixture begins to trace.
  6. Stir in essential oils and other ingredients you like (ground cloves, herbs, cinnamon, etc.)
  7. Pour into the mold, wrap in towels and let sit in a temperate place for 24 hours.
  8. Remove soap from mold and cut into bars. If you make the bars about 1" x 2" x 3", you'll get 12 or so.
  9. Place bars on a rack with good air circulation and let it harden for 6 weeks. Don't use the soap before 6 weeks, as the lye can still be active.
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2 thoughts on “How to Make (Real) Soap

    1. Farmer Deb Post author

      The only way you can make soap is to use lye. Pure lye will burn skin (and anything else) on contact. But when you make soap you there is a chemical reaction between the lye and the fats/oils, which turn them into soap. That takes time, which is why the soap needs to “cure” for several weeks and why you need to be exact when measuring ingredients. After a few weeks the lye and fat are no long lye + fat, they become something new: soap. Here’s a good article about lye: https://www.diynatural.com/sodium-hydroxide-lye/ If anything, please read the “Questions & Misconceptions About Lye.”

      Reply

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