Ah, Fight Club. Can anyone make soap without thinking of it? Not I...
After months and months and MONTHS of procrastination, I finally got around to making a new batch of soap this past Monday. Soap-making (like cheese-making) is the epitome of "hurry up and wait." It's tedious, dangerous, finicky, and time-consuming. Do you wonder why I procrastinated for so long? That, and it's soooo much easier to make soap when the weather is warm (that way the soap doesn't "catch cold" while it's reacting). So, since we have had a stretch of UNPRECEDENTEDLY warm 80- & 90-degree days this April (this, by the way, makes me terrified for what summer is going to be like!!), I decided it was now time to make soap. In the words of Tyler Durden, to make soap, we must first render fat. Not having any liposuction clinics at my disposal, I instead use grass-fed, naturally raised beef suet. Now, a quick word on suet: many times (with inexperienced butchers, especially) you will go in and ask for beef SUET, and instead the butcher will give you beef FAT. This is not correct. While suet is technically fat, it is a special kind of fat found around the kidney area of the cow. Suet (once it is rendered into tallow) provides the nicest, firmest soap. Beef fat will give you a poorer quality, softer soap. So, now you know to be specific! Also, always ask them to grind the suet, as it will make rendering it go more quickly (and you will get more tallow).
Anywho, on Sunday morning, I filled my giant stockpot (I have two special stock pots for soap-making. One is specifically for rendering fat, the other for making soap. I NEVER use them for anything else!) with ground suet, then poured enough water into the pot to cover the suet. Then, I added a cup or two of salt. I set it on low heat, and stirred every few minutes. From past experience, I can tell you that it is NEVER a good idea to leave a batch of fat unattended! Cleaning up the kitchen after a pot of fat has boiled over is nooo fun! Anywho, you want to render the fat slowly at low heat. This might take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, but get used to it - making soap is a very time-consuming (albeit worthwhile) process. Once the fat has entirely melted down, and only the chunks of brown gristle are left, you pour the entire contents through a sieve into a large container. The sieve catches the gristle bits, and allows only the melted fat through. Put the container in the fridge to chill overnight. The next morning, you will see a solid off-white layer of tallow on top, and brownish-liquid on the bottom.
Over the sink, remove the tallow layer (it should pop out as one piece), and dispose of the brown liquid. Using a butter knife, scrape off the gunky layer at the bottom of the tallow. Then, you can either use the tallow to make soap that day, or, you can put it in a large ziplock baggie and store it in the freezer.
So, Day 2 is the actual soap-making extravaganza!
The first step of soap-making is to make sure that your working area (usually the kitchen) is spotlessly clean and organized. You'll want the sink clean and clear, just in case you need to do hot or cold water baths during coordinating temperatures of the lye and fat. I usually start by measuring the fats first, then measuring the lye. So, take your soap-making-only stock pot and set it on top of a kitchen scale. Zero out the scale (with the pot on it), and then proceed to measure out your different fats and oils. I HIGHLY recommend the book "Soap: Making It, Enjoying It" by Ann Bramson. I have gone through a great deal of books on the subject over the years (many with poor or even inaccurate directions!), and this is the ONLY book I keep on hand and still refer to! You can get a used copy off of Amazon.com for about 97 cents plus shipping. Ann's book has some great soap recipes in it. My favorite uses olive oil, tallow, and coconut oil. Different oils have different properties, and once you get experienced at soap-making, it's fun to try out different oils in your batches! Anywho, so you measure out your fats and oils, and then set the stockpot on the stove on low heat to begin melting the fats.
Next, it's time to measure the lye. ALWAYS WEAR GLOVES, SAFETY GOGGLES, & A RESPIRATOR WHEN DEALING WITH LYE! This is nasty, caustic stuff, and it's soooo much better to be safe than sorry! I always measure the lye outside, where I can get good ventilation. I use a plastic water pitcher for the lye and a plastic milk jug for the water. I set the kitchen scale on a level surface outside, and then I set the plastic water pitcher (sans top) onto the scale. I zero out the scale, then I VERY CAREFULLY measure/pour the lye flakes into the plastic pitcher. Once that is done, I remove the pitcher from the scale, and set the plastic milk jug onto the scale. Zero out the scale. Carefully pour enough water into the jug. Remove the plastic jug from the scale. Next, carefully pour the water into the lye (in the plastic pitcher), stirring with a wooden spoon. BE CAREFUL NOT TO SPLASH ANY LYE! Make sure all lye dissolves into the water, then set the top onto the pitcher, and leave the lye in a safe and out-of-the-way place for 1-2 hours. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, finish melting your fats on low heat, and then remove from the stove top to cool. If you are lucky, your fats will cool at the same rate as the lye. I am never this lucky, which is why I often use cold or warm water baths for the lye.
Make sure to stir your fat mixture every few minutes, so that it doesn't solidify on you in chunks while it cools. When the fat mixture gets to be around 100 degrees, it's time to check on the temperature of your lye.
A note on temperature reading: I always use two different digital thermometers (with metal bottoms) for the lye and the fat. This eliminates any worry of contamination.
If the lye is much warmer than the fat, fill the sink with cold water, and set the plastic pitcher of lye in the water. Gently stir with one hand while measuring the temperature with the digital thermometer with the other hand. You need both the fat and the lye to be between 95 and 98 degrees at the same time in order to mix them. NOTE: IT IS ALWAYS EASIER TO ADJUST THE TEMPERATURE OF THE LYE THAN IT IS THE FAT! I speak from experience on that.
When the temperatures of the lye and the fats are within the 95 to 98 degree range at the same time, you are ready to mix them! While gently stirring the fat mixture, carefully pour the lye into the fat mixture in a slow stream. Stir constantly. You should see an immediate color change, signifying that saponification is already taking place. Pour all the lye into the fat mixture. Now comes the really boring part. You need to stir until you see tracings. The time varies depending on the amount of fat(s) present in the soap batch, but is never less than 30 minutes of stirring or more than 1.5 hours. I generally find that one hour of stirring will provide me with acceptable tracings.
Now, what the heck are tracings? Well, as you stir and stir and stir, you will notice that your soap mixture is getting slightly thicker. You will be able to see it coating the insides of the pot, and leaving a trail behind your wooden spoon as you stir. Eventually (usually about an hour), you will notice that if you take your wooden spoon and dribble a bit of the soap mixture back into the pot, that the dribbles will sit on top of the mixture for a few seconds before disappearing. Tracing is difficult to describe until you've actually made soap and seen it for yourself, but a good picture depicting it can be found HERE.
Once you spot tracings, it's time to add in your scents (if you want the soap to be scented). Anywhere from 1/4 of an ounce to an ounce of essential oil works. Mix the scents in thoroughly. Then it is time to pour it into the mold. We use 5 quart plastic ice cream tubs. We nest these in between towels in a box, to prevent the soap from getting too cold as it finishes reacting. Once the soap is poured, we put the lid on the box, and leave it in a warm place for 2 days.
At the end of 2 days, we check the mold and voila! Soap!
The soap needs to finish curing for 2 weeks before it can be used. Until then it is still caustic (so try not to get it on your skin!). The soap must come out of the mold before it's a week old, and be cut into bars. As soap cures, it gets harder to cut (so you want to cut it into bars early). Also, cutting it down into smaller sizes helps it cure a little faster.
At the end of 2 weeks, you have many bars of useable, homemade soap! YAY!
**Please note that this blog entry was not meant to be a true tutorial. Rather, it is intended to show the amount of time and energy that goes into a single batch of soap.