Simple soap making method....
The first soap I made was a melt-and-pour kit from an online craft shop. It was a lavender scented soap with purple and transparent stripes, made in a loaf tin so somewhat triangular, and wrapped in cling film with raffia ribbon. I sold it at our local Christmas craft fair; my main products were Christmas decorations and the soap was something I’d tried on a whim. The bars were £2.50 each and I sold them all. I still have the price tag, and I still get a warm feeling of success when I see it.
Less clear in my memory is the first time I made cold process soap. Perhaps because every time I make a batch, I love doing it all over again. There are other ways of making soap that I haven’t tried, like hot process, re-batching or CPOP. They all have their adherents online and, like everything, pros and cons. ‘Cold process’, or CP soap making is so called because no external or additional heat is added to the soap making process, and it’s the one I do.
Soap making is relatively simple but requires meticulous preparation and care, as it involves the use of chemicals in a process that gives off heat. This process is a chemical reaction called ‘saponification’, and it happens when you mix fats or oils with sodium hydroxide (lye) and produces soap and glycerol. Saponification takes between 24 and 48 hours to complete after mixing. Preparation begins when formulating recipes, because fats and oils have different ‘saponification values’ (the amount of lye needed to completely neutralize them into soap, with no sodium hydroxide left over) and individual ingredients can, firstly, react differently to saponification, and secondly will contribute different characteristics to your finished product. Weighing your ingredients correctly ensures that the ratios of water, oils and lye in your recipe result in a gentle bar of soap that is pleasant and safe to use.
I learnt how to make soap by reading The Soap Maker’s Companion, by Susan Miller Cavitch, and it’s still the first place I go for information about techniques, methodology and trouble shooting.
So how do you do it? You can start with a recipe from a book or the internet but be sure to check it with a lye calculator (your source will recommend one). This is the first part of the meticulous preparation. Having everything ready and then working quickly and cleanly is imperative. Well, it’s important to my process, and the ‘cleanly’ part can go spectacularly wrong, as anyone who has ever knocked a full bowl of anything oily or powdery off the kitchen counter can tell you. Follow the instructions, especially the safety requirements.
There are many opportunities when making soap to burn yourself or set the kitchen on fire, but if you can keep safe by wearing protective clothing and minimising distractions, soap making can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. An endless number variables can impact saponification, and an equal number of ingredients can be used, so through experimentation and research you can create a bar with any characteristic, colour or appearance that appeals to you.
When you’re ready, you’ll put on your apron, gloves, and safety glasses. You will weigh; prepare the lye solution; melt fats and butters; check for temperature. Then add the lye to the melted ingredients and stir. And then, after all the science and chemistry and rule by scales, as if by magic, the golden oils will combine with the solution and become creamy, thick, and luscious. This is my favourite part. In the end, with all those variables, so much can go wrong. To see it go right confirms my faith that everything, with a little bit of luck, instinct, and sheer force of will is – or can be - good in the world.
To the soap batter add scents, colours, or botanicals. Pour into moulds. Two days later, you’ll have soap you can cut into bars. A few weeks later, you’ll have lovely, gentle, hard bars of soap you can use and delight in, and, hopefully, a wee warm feeling of success.