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Making Cold Process Soap
Tutorial by Amber Moss Ek
Originally published in Issue 13::SONG.
Cold Process is the process of making soap from scratch by combining fats, oils, water and lye and mixing (or saponifying) them together. Saponification is the chemical reaction between lye and other ingredients that produces soap. Castile soap is the name for an olive oil-based soap.
This is an easy, basic recipe that can be used for first-time soap makers. I developed this recipe specifically for beginners, using ingredients that are easy to acquire online, at the grocery store or through a soap supply store. Once you become more comfortable with the soap-making process, more exotic ingredients and different quantities can be used. For this recipe, we use equal amounts of oil, fat and water, making it a versatile recipe that produces a bar that has good cleansing properties. Regular kitchen equipment can be used in the making of your soap. Wood and plastic will absorb the lye, so they should be dedicated to just soap making and not used for food preparation after they’ve been used for soap making. Glass and stainless steel containers, however, can be washed clean and used for food preparation after soapmaking. Yields 18 ounces
6 ounces coconut oil
6 ounces palm oil (see NOTE in Working with Lye below)
6 ounces olive oil
6 ounces purified water
2.6 ounces lye
essential oils (optional): ½ ounce lavender essential oil, ½ ounce patchouli essential oil
dried lavender buds (optional): 1 teaspoon ground plus 2 tablespoons to sprinkle on top
digital kitchen scale (exact measurements are important for a successful batch of soap.)
glass measuring cup or stainless steel bowl (needs to withstand high temperatures)
stainless steel saucepan (do not use aluminum, cast iron or non-stick pans)
2 stainless steel spoons
soap mold (I used a 6" by 6" cardboard box lined with freezer paper. I also used a disposable paper bread pan.)
wooden rack or a piece of cardboard to hold the bars while they cure
- In a well-ventilated area (I do this outside) and while wearing protective gloves and goggles, measure the water into a glass or stainless steel bowl. Slowly pour the lye into the water. Never pour the water into the lye, because an eruption may occur. With a wooden or stainless steel spoon, slowly stir the water and lye. A chemical reaction will occur and the mixture will create fumes and quickly become very hot. Still until the lye is dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil. Heat over low heat until the oils melt and are combined. Allow to cool.
- Once both mixtures have cooled to temperatures between 100 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, pour the lye/water mixture into the oils. With a stick blender, stand mixer or spoon, begin mixing. The mixing or saponification process will only take 10 to 15 minutes using a stick blender. If a stick blender isn’t available, a regular stand mixer can be used or it may be mixed by hand, but both may take an hour or longer. Stir and mix your soap until trace occurs. You've reached trace when your soap is the consistency of pudding or a soft custard: it will thicken, coat the back of a spoon and hold stir marks for several seconds. After reaching trace, add the dried herbs and essential oils. Stir by hand until combined through.
- Pour into the mold. If you choose, sprinkle dried lavender buds on top. Tap mold slightly to even out the top. Let it rest undisturbed overnight. After a day or two, remove from the mold and slice into desired sized bars, I cut mine into 10 equally portioned bars. Let your bars cure in a well-ventilated area for a minimum of 4 weeks before use. This curing time allows the saponification process to finish, and ensures a longer lasting bar of soap with a rich lather.
photos (left to right): 1. raw oils and fats, measured and ready to melt 2. Lye granules 3. lye and water being mixed together outside
4. fats and oils almost completely melted 5. lye and water at the proper temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit 6. soap after reaching trace, ready to be poured into the mold
7. after trace, the addition of ground lavender buds 8. the soap after being poured into the mold, with lavender buds sprinkled on top 9. one-to-two-day-old bars of soap, unmolded and cut to size
A Note on Working with Lye
A fear of working with lye is often what keeps people away from trying soap-making themselves. Don’t fear the lye! But do treat it with respect. By following the appropriate safety precautions, you can enjoy soap-making without worry of danger.
- Most importantly, protect yourself! Safety goggles and long plastic kitchen gloves will keep your arms and eyes safe and covered during the process.
- Cover your surfaces. Lye can burn through many household materials, and can be dangerous and difficult to clean up if it spills. Use old newspapers or kraft paper to cover your work table.
- Use only pure lye, not drain cleaner or any other product that has lye as only an ingredient.
- Use a heat resistant container for your lye and water mixture, one that has enough room for the amount of liquid you are using and will not splash or spill over. The lye and water mixture can reach up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit so be sure your container can withstand that kind of heat. Do not use tin, zinc or aluminum as lye will react with those.
- ALWAYS add the lye to the water, not the other way around. Doing so can cause the lye to erupt or explode out of the container. Similarly, the lye should be added to the soap oils, not the other way around.
- Choose the right location for your mixing of lye and water. If possible, open windows or use a fan. Take caution to avoid the fumes as the lye is being mixed. Do the mixing in your kitchen sink, which will help contain any spills.
- And lastly, keep vinegar nearby. As an acid, it will neutralize the lye quickly. If you find yourself accidently getting lye on your skin, use vinegar then rinse with cool water.
- Store your lye safely when not in use. And while the later part of soap making can be a great family activity, we do not recommend working with lye around children or pets that are likely to get underfoot.
NOTE: There is debate about the use of Palm Oil. I personally use only sustainably sourced palm oil. If you are uncomfortable doing so, lard or tallow can be used in place of palm oil and works great. For a vegan option, a combination of 2.7 ounces of shea butter, 2.7 ounces of cocoa butter and an additional .6 ounches of olive oil will work for a substitution in this recipe.