In the autumn of last year I bought fat (lard), for the purpose of rendering for cooking & making personal care products such as soap and salves, from a farmer who pasture raises pigs & beef.
In case you’re wondering, rendering involves melting the fat and skimming it until all that’s left are what’s called cracklings remaining in the pot. Fat rendered from a pig is called Lard and from a cow is called Tallow. Rarely will one find fat for rendering from anywhere but directly from a farmer who raises beef or pigs for sale for meat; and don’t assume the fat, bones or offal will be made available if you order by the half or quarter. Most people have no idea how to use these or simply don’t want and often the farmer does not include them, so be sure to ask. And, if you’re thinking this is the same as supermarket lard: No. One has no idea how the pigs were raised, and in typical food processing the lard is hydrogenated, deodorized and has preservatives to prolong shelf life. But I digress.
With a couple kilos of lard and tallow in the root cellar, it was time to channel my ’70s back-to-the-land self and try making homemade soap: something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. What held me back was a wariness of working with sodium hydroxide (lye) which is necessary for saponification, the chemical process lye mixed with fats undergoes to produce soap (there is no way to make soap without lye, sorry). When soap is made in an industrial setting, the moisturizing glycerin byproduct of saponification is removed and sold separately; the benefit of homemade soap is the beneficial glycerin remains in the handcrafted bar making it a far more conditioning soap.
Lard: that’s from an animal, right?
Yes it is. The golden trilogy of handmade soap in most books is olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil which together are a complementary balance of fatty acids providing the ingredients for a soap that will lather, condition, cleanse, and won’t melt in the soap dish. In soapmaking, as with palm oil, the triglyceride properties of lard and tallow help make a soap that’s hard and long lasting. The problem for me personally is that palm oil is not always sustainably grown and harvested; in the tropics where it is grown, there is widespread devastation of habitat for endangered species, both flora and animals. If you choose to use palm oil, please ensure your supplier clearly states it was sustainably sourced. Using lard and tallow fits with my philosophy of using all the parts of the animal that has given its life for our provision.
Handling Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)
Sodium hydroxide (chemical formula NaOH) is a caustic alkali salt with a pH of ~14 and must be treated with respect; improper attention to safe practices when handling can cause a chemical burn to skin and respiratory damage if inhaled. This is not something done with children or pets underfoot–send them outside or to Nana’s. When lye is added to water an exothermic reaction takes place; put simply, heat is released when the two chemicals sodium hydroxide plus water are combined. When I say ‘heat’ it means a sufficient volume of the two chemicals mixed could potentially generate a mixture that surpasses the boiling point of water. When adding lye to water (never the other way around), wear protective clothing and ensure area is well ventilated, ideally with a fan to remove fumes. Pour slowly while stirring constantly and keep face back from container of lye-water at all times such as when checking temperature before adding to fats. It’s a good idea to keep nearby a pitcher of water that has vinegar and dish soap added for cleaning up or neutralizing spills. Sodium Hydroxide should be stored in a cool dry place away from the reach of children and pets.
Let’s make Soap
After reading a number of blogs and books about soap making, and watching a dozen or so Youtube videos I felt sufficiently reassured that if all these people could make it, then why not me. One of the blogs visited was a local maker of hand crafted soaps who offers lessons and this seemed to be an excellent approach: learn and make at the same time. I contacted Ashley at Hanna Made Soaps and by the end of the afternoon with Ashley’s instruction I’d made my first batch of soap. Yay!
Ashley loves making soap and it shows in her enthusiasm for sharing what she knows. She supplied everything necessary for soapmaking including safety gear such as gloves glasses, and facemask, as well as providing lye, and a selection of oils & fats, and essential oils if desired. While Mad Cy created an amazing and ingenious wood soap mold for me to use, Ashley has some that can be borrowed or students can bring their own–anything heatproof in a shape that’s suitable for forming the soap will work.
Prior to beginning the soap making, Ashley and I talked about safety and procedure, as well as combinations of fats & oils, and additives such as beer, milk, colour, clay, charcoal, essential oils and herbs and the characteristics of finished soaps. Once I had decided what ingredients to use, Ashley showed me how to use a soap calculator for creating a recipe with the correct percentages and weights of fats and lye-water, and the essential oils chosen.
Soapmaking in summary:
- Work in an uncluttered well ventilated area protected by newspaper; safety gear and appropriate clothing is worn.
- Prepare the mold to be used when the soap is ready to be poured: lining with parchment paper or butcher wrap.
- Use cooled distilled water for mixing with lye; measure water into large heat-proof container.
- Add lye slowly to cooled water while gently stirring; take care to keep away from face and set aside when stirred to cool. Lye-water and fats must be a similar temperature before mixing.
- The oils and fats are weighed and put into large non-reactive pot for melting (aluminum must never be used when working with lye).
- When fats and lye-water reach the temperature appropriate for your recipe, slowly add the lye-water to the fats in the pot and stir well to blend with a utensil such as a silicone spatula that won’t react with lye or heat. Saponification will begin immediately and while mostly complete within 48 hours, soap is best cured for a month before using.
- The soap can be hand stirred until it’s done but we’re talking around two hours so it’s understandable that most soap makers use a stick blender which reduces this step to minutes. Ashley suggested hand stirring and blending in 20 second intervals.
- From this point, much depends on the recipe and fats chosen for determining how long to blend before soap mixture is ready for pouring. What the soap maker is watching for is something called Trace; at this point additives go in and some of these may accelerate the saponification.
- When the soap mixture is ready, pour into mold(s) and cover to protect from air. There is a reaction called gelling that is determined by heat in the saponifying soap.
There are many variables in soap making that are governed by the fats and additives (fragrance, colourants, exfoliants, herbs, etc.), type of mold, and the creativity of the soap crafter. A search of books on soapmaking in the local library or the bookstore will provide enough inspiration for any novice soap maker; some of the ones I’ve referred to are here but this is not an extensive list. The recipe below is the one I used and made a very nice, scented bar.
- 380 gr Distilled water, cooled
- 141.399 gr Sodium Hydroxide (Lye)
- 500 gr Olive oil
- 250 gr Lard
- 250 gr Coconut oil (76 degee)
- 15 gr Rosemary Essential Oil
- 30 gr Grapefruit Pink Essential Oil
- Prepare a mold for your soap; this can be pretty much anything that is strong enough to hold the mixture and also heatproof & non-reactive. Line with parchment paper or butcher wrap (shiny side facing soap) to ensure easy removal.
- Set a measuring cup on a digital scale and press tare to zero scale. Measure rosemary essential oil into measuring cup. Press tare to zero scale. Measure grapefruit pink essential oil into measuring cup. Set aside.
- Set a heat proof, stainless steel pot on a digital scale and press tare to zero the scale.
- Measure the olive oil into the pot. Press tare to zero the scale.
- Measure the lard into the pot. Press tare to zero the scale
- Measure the coconut oil into the pot.
- Set the pot on medium low heat to melt the oils together, then set aside to cool.
- Set a heat proof, non-reactive container on a digital scale and press tare to zero the scale.
- Measure the water into the container; remove and set aside.
- Set a measuring cup on digital scale and press tare to zero the scale.
- Measure the lye into measuring cup.
- In a well ventilated area (outside is ideal!) slowly add the lye to water while stirring constantly with a silicone utensil; avoid inhaling fumes. The lye-water mixture will heat up from the chemical reaction. Set aside to cool.
- When both fat mixture and lye mixture are the same temperature, it will be time to begin blending. Use separate thermometers to measure; there are mixed opinions on what is the optimum temperature for this step--this particular recipe was mixed when they were 110F.
- Slowly add the lye-water to fats until all incorporated, stirring constantly; the chemical reaction between the sodium hydroxide and the fats will begin instantly and continue as you stir (and stir). Stirring and blending until identifying trace is the fine art of soap making. The stirring can be sped up with the use of a hand blender (15 -30 minutes instead of 2-3 hours of hand stirring). Using a hand blender must be done with care because the soap mixture is caustic until saponification is complete in 48+ hours. Ensure the blender head is always submerged and blend in intervals between stirring. You may read references to light or medium trace in soap books--let's just say when the soap becomes like pudding, it's time to add the essential oils. Continue stirring and blending. Finishing with stirring several minutes will give one a better sense of the soap developing in the pot.
- When ready, pour into prepared soap mold and cover top with plastic wrap. Some books recommend covering entire mold with blankets to insulate. I didn't do that, and nothing terrible happened. Set mold in place where it won't be disturbed for 24-36 hours. Remove from soap mold and cut into bars; bars should be cured on a rack in a well ventilated spot away from direct light. While most of the saponification will take place in the first 48 hours, the soap will continue to cure and improve (i.e., become harder as more water evaporates) the longer it sits. Three to four weeks would be good for this recipe.
- I used this soap about two weeks after making and the scent has diminished somewhat; the bar itself is beautiful to wash with: creamy, lathers nicely and feels wonderful.
- Clean up: Many soap crafters use dedicated pots, containers & utensils they've picked up from a thrift store, which I'd recommend doing. After you're finished making soap, wash the containers used to measure and mix lye in water mixed with vinegar & dish soap. Do not wash the pots and utensils used to blend the soap; instead, wait 48 hours until the residue has saponified. Otherwise, you may clog your plumbing with the fats. Always wear gloves when cleaning up--the lye is still caustic until the saponification is complete.