This is an excerpt from A Home Companion about when I first made soap. It really is very easy despite what you read and I really recommend you have a go if you are at all worried about skin allergies. It’s really the only way you can be sure that the soap you are rubbing on your skin is pure without additives or fragrances added.
My first problem was how to get hold of some caustic soda, also known as lye in soap-making terms. My local pharmacist promised to order some in and then rang to say it was no longer available. My local bulk food store had some out the back but my first batch was a dismal failure, due to the inability to work out just how caustic this unlabelled batch of soda was. There was nothing for it but a visit to my local hardware store where I found one hundred per cent caustic soda or sodium hydroxide marketed as a drain unblocker complete with warnings that it was highly corrosive.
‘Just what part of green natural living does “highly corrosive” play?’ asked the ever vigilant Paul, who had only just recovered from witnessing the highly emotional drama that had unfolded with my first, failed attempt to make soap earlier that day.
‘Nature is full of naturally occurring poisons, the secret is how to manage them,’ I bluffed.I have since found out that Paul’s concerns about the use of drain cleaner were unnecessary. The chemical reaction that takes place during the saponification of the oil releases any caustic or damaging elements in it.
And there I was. Safety goggles on, pouring water onto the caustic soda and watching it fizz and emit its highly corrosive gasses. The next problem was that I had to heat that mixture and the other mixture of olive oil, coconut oil and Kremelta (the only vegetable shortening I could find) both to 100°C before I could mix them together to saponify, or turn into soap.
‘God it stinks in here,’ announced Paul as I stirred and swapped my jam making thermometer from one pot to the other – note to self: splash out on another thermometer.
And it did. It smelled just like soap. A big, raw, earthy soap.
I mixed everything together, the mixture foamed, I ran outside with the pot and whisked as if my life depended on it for half an hour.
By which time I didn’t care if it worked or not. I was completely over it, but still cautiously wearing my safety goggles.
Luckily Paul reminded me that a job well done is one which is finished – no doubt having flashbacks to a recent event where a gathering of half-finished curtains lay discarded on the kitchen table for three months waiting for me to hem them.
And so I threw in some lavender oil, poured it all into Tupperware containers and left them outside, ignored, for a few days.
‘Who made the soap outside?’ asked Daniel when he popped around for coffee.
‘Oh those,’ I said. ‘Don’t think they worked. Bloody nightmare.’
He opened a lid and peered inside.
‘Looks like soap to me.’
And it was. Creamy, nice smelling castile soap which was lovingly dried for four weeks and was often brought out, like a brand new white, fluffy kitten, to be shown proudly to visitors.
It would be months before I would be brave enough to make another batch, but I’m glad I did. I bought a new thermometer for the occasion and on re-reading the recipe discovered that I wasn’t actually supposed to bring everything up to the boiling point of 100°C, but the slightly less bubbly and scary 100°F. This discovery made the second session so much less dramatic. I did learn something though.
My first batch, which still remains as the best ever, used very basic ingredients. Rough old coconut oil I had bought from an Indian shop, cheap olive oil from my large tin which I cook with and Kremelta off the supermarket shelves. For my next batch I bought refined coconut oil and vegetable shortening, and it wasn’t nearly as nice. It just goes to show, that sometimes the best stuff comes off your kitchen shelves.
You can have a lot of fun with soap making. You can play around with different oils, throwing in almond or avocado oil for a really special soap, and you can add colouring and different essential oils to make them smell gorgeous. Some people also add very fine clay, or seeds to get a scouring effect when the soap is used. I prefer just the good old white soap, slightly scented with lavender
- 470 ml water
- 170 grams lye (100% caustic soda or drain cleaner)
- 470 ml olive oil
- 400 grams solid coconut oil
- 675 grams vegetable shortening (Kremelta)
- Make sure you are wearing protective goggles and gloves in case anything in this first process splashes.
- In a large stainless steel or glass container mix the water and lye together. It will fizz and get quite hot.
- Meanwhile heat the oils together over a low heat in a large enamel or stainless steel cooking pot. You want it to heat up to 37°C.
- Watch the lye mixture and wait for it to come down to the same temperature (37°C). When they are both at the same temperature remove the oil from the heat and mix with the lye stirring constantly.
- Eventually it will start to drag when pulling the spoon through. This means saponification has taken place. You will know you are there when the mixture is thick and the spoon leaves a channel that lasts a few seconds before filling up. This usually takes about 10 minutes but sometimes it takes longer. You can then add any essential oils, seeds or clay and pour into soap moulds. I just use plastic moulds you would store food in, Ice-cube trays work well for small soaps. Cover with a blanket or towels and leave for 24 hours. The soap should be hard and pop out of the moulds easily. If not, leave it for a few more days. You must then dry the soap out completely before use. I leave it for three to four weeks on wire baking racks to completely set and harden.