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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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But hey, at least it’s not caustic.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

Mango Avocado Soap

Due to some tricky wording on Amazon Prime, I stocked up on soap making supplies.

Tricky how? Well, if you opt for slower Prime shipping, you can earn $5.99 credit toward Prime Pantry. But you are not, it turns out, allowed to use that credit on anything but the flat $5.99 shipping rate. In other words, if you choose slow free Prime shipping, you build up credit to get a different kind of slow free Prime shipping.

I found this out after I’d happily filled up a Prime Pantry box with all kinds of oils that I thought I’d be getting for free. I went ahead and ordered that box, but never again.

You hear that, Amazon? Your wording is tricky, and I won’t stand for it!

The silver lining is that I got avocado oil and mango butter so I could make this avocado mango soap. I also ordered a case of pigments, so I can start dyeing my soap colors beside the usual shades of brown.

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I cooked up a pound of the soap in my slow cooker, then separated it half. I mixed a little bit of green pigment in water, stirred it into the soap, and crammed it into a bar mold.

Then I did the same with yellow pigment.

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Hot process soap is a pain to work with. I’ve mixed in ground coffee and oatmeal before, but color is tougher because it’s necessary to get more even coverage. I was also working with a smaller amount of soap, so it had a greater tendency to stick to the walls and dry out. I got it in the end, though.

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And I was rewarded with these extremely ugly bars of soap. I think, as a rule, that hot process and individual bar molds just don’t mix. The soap’s too gloppy, and the mold relies on too much exposed surface area.

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Out of the mold it’s not much prettier. The gloppiness thwarted my dreams of a bar that seamlessly transitions from yellow to green. At least it holds together.

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After being used a few times it looks a lot more like what I set out to make. I think if I’d done cold process or even just a loaf pan, I would have had a much better time. The green has a tendency to run when it gets wet – I may have gone overboard with the pigment. It’s not dyeing me green, at least.

It’s full of those little white spots that I think come from the bottom of the slow cooker where the soap’s been heated to much. I’m still not sure how to get rid of them, or if I even should. I think they add some nice texture.

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My fear is that I’m going to say the same thing about patches of uncured lye and burn my skin off…

Coffee Soap

I bought a huge tub of coconut oil. It’s popular in soap recipes and, if you read the hype, just about everything else. Cooking, hair care, skin care – and those are just the recommended uses on the tub. Ask the right people online and it also cures sunburn, yeast infections, arthritis, and cold sores. I rubbed some on my hands and hated it. It felt like I’d just covered myself in Crisco. So much for beauty.

That’s alright – I really bought it for its soapiness. I wanted to make coffee soap following a recipe in my book. There’s a strange phenomenon in this book – the more advanced recipes (like coffee) tell you to start with any basic batch (of which there are many). This leads to a dangerous mixing of scents for the uninitiated…

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For my base recipe I chose a simple one from the front of the book that contains 1 lb 5 oz olive oil, 10.5 oz coconut oil, and 1 oz castor oil. Why so little castor oil?  What’s it doing there? No idea.

To get the coffee scent, I replaced the water in the water lye mixture with strong brewed coffee (10 oz to 4.8 oz lye). It did not smell good.

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While I let the lye fumes blow out the window, I heated my oils in the crock pot. When they finally liquefied (I’m lookin’ at you, coconut oil) I added the lye and coffee mixture and went at it with the immersion blender until it traced.

My previous batch of Castile soap came out with a bunch of light-colored chunks that I thought may have come from too much stirring. I’d since read that you really shouldn’t stir unless the soap starts to bubble up, so I made a pact with myself to leave it alone. About twenty minutes in, however, a big eruption came up the side and had to be dealt with. Maybe stirring isn’t such a bad thing.

This is how it looked after the first stirring. It smelled very strange, but it looked beautiful.

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A while later I gave it another stir and discovered that the soap on the bottom was a completely different color. I imagine it was getting a lot more heat.

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After two hours of cooking, I dropped in some Phenolphthalein and it tested neutral. I ground up two tablespoons of coffee beans for grit. God, I love grit in soap.

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After my super ugly Castile soap bars, I splurged and got myself a silicone loaf mold. I spooned the soap in and tried my best to get it down into all the corners. I put it on the kitchen table, squeezed between a box of beer bottles and the wall to keep the sides from bowing out. I left it for a few hours to cool and garner confusion and suspicion among my housemates.

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Once it was cool, I turned it out of the mold. The silicone was perfectly flexible and I was able to more or less peel it back from the soap.

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The loaf mold came with a handy wavy soap cutter. The soap was totally hard, but still just soft enough to slice through cleanly and easily. It makes for a rough top, smooth sides and bottom, and a front and back cross section that looks great with the coffee grounds and those lighter colored globs I thought I could get rid of.

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So is this method better than the individual molds? Absolutely. Does that mean I’m happy with this soap? It does not. It smells weird. It smells really weird, and not especially like coffee. Everyone agrees that it smells kind of like bread dough. Or banana bread batter. Not bananas, mind, but banana bread. A few smellers, including me, came up with that one separately. I don’t know if it’s the mixture of the oils (olive and coffee is not a combination I’d necessarily cook with), or the coffee I used (it had been sitting for a few hours after breakfast – maybe it needed to be fresher). It may have been something else. Or maybe, just maybe, this is what it’s supposed to smell like.

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But I have a hard time believing that.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.