Six Week Soap

It’s been six whole weeks since I made my cold process Castile soap. Since then it’s been living in a paper bag in my closet, getting turned over whenever I think of it.

But no more! According to my book, the bars ought to have cured to neutrality by now. This is an ordeal that takes only a couple hours using the hot process method, which I did using the exact same Castile recipe two weeks ago. Throwing caution to the wind, we took a bar to the kitchen sink.


Ben, demonstrating a faith in my abilities I did not know he had, offered to go first. He says he doesn’t believe in acids or bases… I think it’s a joke. Either way, he’s going to have a PhD in science soon.


Ben seemed unscathed, so I went next. I noticed quite a few differences between this soap and its hot process counterpart. First of all, the color is totally different. When they’re dry, both have an eggshell look to them. As soon as the hot process got wet, though, it deepened to olive green, which makes sense given that it’s made of olives. This bar stayed the same shade, though.

It also seemed to work better as a soap. The hot process bar has a creamy, gloppy consistency that smears across the skin, while this bar maintains its integrity and works up a nice lather on its surface. I may not be being entirely fair, since the hot process soap lives in the shower now and might just be waterlogged. I’ll have to do a comparison with a fresh bar of each.

Lastly, and I don’t think this has to do with where they’re stored, the cold process bar is smooth. It feels great to the touch, like it was poured into its mold as a liquid. The hot process bar, on the other hand, feels like just what it is – a lumpy mess. It’s what marketers call “rustic.”


So which is better? All things considered, the cold process is a lot more pleasant. It’s prettier, feels better, and seems to have more integrity in its shape. But it does take six weeks, which is a terrible pain.

But what am I saying? I make wine, and I’d be ecstatic if I had a recipe that took only six weeks. And just like with wine, I’m sure that once you get a big enough backlog, you always have something to do. It’s just a matter of getting started.


And getting over the fear of lye. Ben’s been telling me his hands are tingling, but I think he’s messing with me.


Ugly Soap

I have made the ugliest soap.


This is Castile soap, just like last time. That batch, however, was cold process. This baby is hot process. Cold process soap needs to cure for six weeks before it’s neutral enough to use on your skin. The first batch still has another week in the closet ahead of it. Hot process soap, on the other hand, is ready to use the day it’s made.

The difference is heat. Setting the lye and oil mixture to low in a crock pot for a few hours cooks it to neutrality. How does it do this? I don’t know. I’m still learning and taking quite a few things on faith.

I bought a special little 2 quart crock pot that’s just the right size for a 2 pound batch of soap. I followed the same recipe for the cold process Castile soap, only double the size. I put two pounds of olive oil into the pot, then separately mixed together 4 oz. of lye and 10 oz. of water. I took a little too deep of a breath during this stage and had to leave the room for minute. Lye ain’t no joke.

Once I’d recovered, I poured the lye and water mixture into the oil and stirred it all up with my immersion blender. In about five minutes it was tracing.


I put the lid on the crock pot and left it to its devices. Every half hour I gave it a stir. The instructions in my book said to cook for 3 hours, but it was for a 3 pound batch. I guessed that a 2 pound batch would only take 2 hours, and I was right. I bought a little bottle of phenolphthalein, a chemical that lets you easily check pH. It’s clear at neutral levels, and pink at more basic levels. I put a few drops in my soap, and they stayed clear. After stirring and dropping a few more times to be sure, I declared the soap done.


It turns out that finished hot process soap is a lot gloppier than finished cold process soap. It also turns out that two pounds of soap is a lot more than one pound of soap. I should have been able to tell you one of those things ahead of time.

The only mold I have is this set of 12 2 oz. bars. For those not counting, that’s 24 ounces. Two pounds is 32 ounces. I had far too much soap, and nowhere to put it. Luckily, it was so gloppy that I could just pile the extra on top of the bars and trust it not to slide away. It made for some weird little muffin tops.


The part inside the mold isn’t winning any beauty contests, either. The gloppiness made it more or less impossible to get a smooth surface. I’m not sure how real soap makers get around this one.


Ugly as it looks, it is soap!  It works up something of a lather, and it doesn’t burn my skin off. It smells just like olive oil, which is a little strange, but that must be what all Castile soap is like.


I hope it dissolves quickly. I have a lot of this stuff.


Almost Soap

We’re riding soap straight to the top.

Independent of me, Ben made a snazzy educational video explaining how soap works on a molecular level. He explained his little heart out, and the video was picked up by the outreach website of the scientific publishing company Elsevier.

Soon we’ll be the most over-educated soap blogging power couple on the internet.

Though it hasn’t led me to fame and fortune yet, I’m still working away at my Castile soap, hoping that if I follow all the directions it won’t burn my skin off.

It’s been two days, so it’s time to unswaddle the soaps from their towel and pop them out of the mold.


They have a definite plastic wrap pattern that would probably not fly in the commercial sphere. They’ve also lost the vivid yellow olive oil color they had before. But they are more or less set up.


They’re set up, but far from hard. They popped easily enough out of the mold, but even with the gentle push that took, I started to put my fingers through the two in the back. They’re apparently still caustic, so I wore gloves again. I had every intention of wearing goggles, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished that I realized they’d spent the entire process on top of my head. Oh well. There wasn’t much cause for splashing anyway.


I put them in a paper bag and stashed them away in the closet to begin the curing process. I’m supposed to leave them there, turning them regularly, for six weeks. They smell basically like olive oil, which isn’t surprising as that’s mostly what they are.


Six weeks from now I can finally pretend I’m an Ancient Greek beauty rubbing my skin with oils in the bathhouse. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Yes, I’ve Seen Fight Club

Was there a rule about blogging about soap making? I can’t remember. But I guess I’m breaking it.

I asked Ben for soap making supplies for Christmas. He wrapped each piece individually and gave me an unwrapping order, so the first thing I opened in front of my poor parents was two pounds of lye.

I told them I had a body to take care of.


I was genuinely nervous about working with lye. It feels slippery to the touch because it’s starting to turn you into soap. I don’t want to be soap. I wore big gloves and goggles and tried not to breathe, and I was fine. The cutting board, however, was not.


I was so careful to use non-reactive materials. It never occurred to me that non-reactive wouldn’t also mean non-burnable.

I set out to make one pound of Castile soap. Why Castile? Because it has three whole ingredients. My book’s absolutely basic recipe calls for olive, coconut, and castor oils, plus lye and water. Every time I open this book I discover more things I don’t have. Castile soap is made out of olive oil, lye, and water, so out of necessity I’m promoting myself to lesson two.

I mixed five ounces of water with two ounces of lye. It heated right up. The name of the game is mixing the lye water with oil when both are at 110 degrees F, which means letting the lye mixture sit and cool.


It also means heating the olive oil (1lb) a little too high and letting it cool down, too. As soon as I’d mixed the lye and water, I gave the oil two minutes in the microwave, and it came out at about 140F. I didn’t mean to overshoot so much, but it actually worked out perfectly, with both cooling to 110F at the same time.


Once the two liquids were at 110F, I combined them in a small slow cooker pot. I bought a two quart slow cooker for hot process soap (this is cold process, by the by) and it was the perfect size. I’m not entirely clear on how much you can eat off of soap making equipment, but I’m trying to avoid it. I put the oil in first, then added the lye water in a thin stream while stirring. I wish I had photos, but it was a dangerous, two-handed business, and both of my two hands were covered in lye. So you’ll just have to rely on the vivid imagery of my words.

It got opaque. And yellow. Basically immediately. I mixed it for maybe five minutes with an immersion blender set to low, until it started to trace. “Trace” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the things I’ve read, and not always with an explanation. Essentially it means that if you lift the blender out, the globs that fall off sit on the surface rather than reintegrating with the mixture. A bit like stiff peaks with meringue.

My goop tracing, I got out my little silicone mold. One pound of goop yields 8 bars, so I guess I’ve made 2 oz. soaps. I covered the mold in plastic wrap, set it on a cookie sheet, and wrapped it in a towel for warmth. I’m supposed to keep it like this for two days. Why? I don’t know. I’ll get back to you when I finish the book. Presumably the hardening process gives off heat which speeds up the hardening process, creating a feedback loop. The towel also keeps the cat from sticking his face in it, which is nice.


After two days, I’ll turn the bars out of the mold and let them cure for six weeks. Curing is a magical process that transforms soap from caustic to soothing. I hope.

Let’s just say I won’t be using the first bar on my face.