Lemon and Raw Lye Soap

I’ve gotten too big for my soap britches.

I was so proud of my shea butter success that I set out to invent another soap the very next day. I thought I’d make a nice fresh lemon zest soap.


Since I was already winging it with the lemon zest, I decided to stick to an oil ratio from my book: 21 oz olive oil, 10.5 oz coconut oil, and 1 oz castor oil combined with 4.8 oz of lye and 10 oz of water.

I mixed it all together and blended it to trace. Then I added a handful of lemon zest.


I’m choosing to believe that the lemon zest was my downfall. I don’t have any actual proof, but this is my first batch to go wonky and the zest is the only new variable. My heart tells me that adding the very acidic zest threw off the careful balance of base and oil and messed up its saponification.

But I can’t help but remember my coffee soap, in which I replaced all the water with decidedly acidic black coffee. While it didn’t smell amazing, that batch turned out fine. And I’d even used the same olive/coconut/castor oil recipe…

I suppose it’s possible I just measured something wrong.

Whatever the cause, the stuff never neutralized. After the two hours that always does it for a two pound recipe, I dropped a little Phenolphthalein in and got the bright pink that meant it was still basic.


I gave it another half hour. And another. And another. At that point I decided it just wasn’t going to happen. On top of not testing neutral, the batter was runny, much more like cold than hot process. I mixed in the rest of my zest, poured the stuff out into a loaf mould and left it overnight.

The next day I turned out something that could easily pass for an olive loaf. On the left edge you can see a hot pink streak of Phenolphthalein.


I’m totally prepared to find that it can’t be salvaged, but I don’t want to give up just yet. I sliced the loaf into bars that are actually pretty pleasant looking. I’ll leave them open to the air in the basement – with any luck they’ll cure just like a cold process batch. I’ll just have to wait and see.


To make matters worse, my beloved shea butter concoction is not really holding up under the pressure of being soap. It does lather, but only with some serious scrubbing. And when it dries it fills with fissures that don’t exactly evoke visions of moisturized skin.


But hey, at least it’s not caustic.



Shea Butter Soap

I’m running low on soap!

I never thought it would happen, but I’ve been giving it away and using it up at such a rate that my old batches are almost gone. It’s time to re-up.

I while ago I bought 3 pounds of shea butter online. It arrived on my doorstep in a nondescript plastic bag, squished together into a big loaf. I may have done an underhanded butter deal.

I cut slices off of it, just like with bread, until I reached the weight I wanted.


Until now I’ve been following recipes in my soap book, but I’ve more or less run out of recipes in it that I can make easily. A lot of them call for palm oil, which I have a vague sense of being even worse for the environment than the things I normally buy, so I’m making an effort to avoid it.

How’s that for activism?

I’d read that you could substitute other oils for palm as long as you reworked the amount of lye needed. Each oil has a different saponification level, which means it needs a different amount of lye to be made into soap. Change your oils but not your lye, and you may get a soap that’s too basic or too greasy.


I’d been told to run my new oil amounts through a lye calculator to get a palm-free version of the recipe I wanted to use. But it occurred to me that if I had all the tools to rework a recipe, I could just as easily make my own. Since I had all this shea butter, I thought I’d make a 100% shea recipe. Some words of caution online said that all-shea doesn’t make much of a lather, and that a little bit of castor oil couldn’t go amiss. I’d always wondered what that castor oil was for in my past recipes – apparently it’s bubbles!

I went to the Brambleberry Soap Making Supplies Lye Calculator and entered in 33 ounces of shea butter (to equal about the amount of oil that’s fit in my slow cooker in the past) and 1 ounce of castor oil. I said I wanted a 5% superfatting level (this is extra oil that isn’t converted by the lye, making for a smoother, oilier soap).

The results I got in ounces were kind of rough, so I converted them to grams to get a finer measurement. This gave me 117.4 g of lye and 318 g of water. I weighed everything out, melted my oils, mixed my water and lye, and slapped it all together with my immersion blender.


After a few minutes with the immersion blender, the soap started to trace and I conducted an experiment. I always check to see if my soap is neutral by adding a couple drops of a chemical called Phenolphthalein. Supposedly it stays clear if it comes into contact with a neutral substance, but will turn bright purple if it touches something basic. With every batch I’ve waited until I think the soap is done, dropped a few drops of this stuff, seen that it’s clear, and rubbed it all over my body without a second thought.

I had never, however, seen how it reacted to something that I knew to be basic. For all I knew I had a broken bottle.

It turns out that my bottle works just fine. I’d say pink is an understatement.


I let the soap cook for two hours, beating it back when it bubbled up like this. It still had some pink to it at this point.


I liked how the pink looked and wanted to do something more with color. I shook some purple pigment out into a dish – my plan was to mix it with a little bit of cured soap, then work it back into the bigger batch for a swirled effect.


This plant worked great until I tried to implement it. The amount of soap I tried to mix was way too small and hardened against the dish almost immediately. I scraped as much as I could back into the full batch, then dumped some more pigment straight into that. I stirred it around a little and hoped for the best.


I glopped it all into a silicone loaf pan and let it sit to cool. After a few hours I turned it out of the pan and sliced it into bars. All things considered I think the pigment came out well – just enough purple to make it interesting.


I left the slow cooker to soak overnight to make cleaning easier, and the next morning I made a discovery. All that extra soap caked onto the sides can’t go down the drain (apparently it’s a clogging nightmare) so I scooped it out with my hand. I was planning on throwing it away, but before long I found myself with a big handful of the stuff – at least another bar’s worth. I squeezed it into a ball and saved it. It’s awfully wet, but I’m leaving it to dry to see what happens… though I’ll be very surprised if anything “happens” apart from it going from a wet ball of soap to a dry ball of soap.


But sometimes you have to inject a little suspense into your soap blog.