Monday, January 20, 2014

10 Things I've Learned about Making Cold Process Soap

Call me crazy, but amidst a new job and moving, I've taken up a new hobby. After years of lusting after homemade soap, the lovely Donna from Sossima kindly took me under her wing and gave me a cold process soap making lesson.

After that one lesson, I was hooked.

I had some prepaid VISA's kicking around that were begging to be spent, so I bought some equipment and ordered some supplies. The internet is chock full of soap making how-to's and I'm by no means an expert, but over the last month or so, I've learned a few things about making soap.
10 Things I've Learned About Making Cold Process Soap
  1. Research First - If you're fortunate enough to get a hands-on lesson, jump on that opportunity. Otherwise don't just read JUST one beginners guide or watch JUST one video on youtube, watch many and watch closely, until you can anticipate what's going to happen next. Soapmaking is SCIENCE first and foremost and therefore requires precision and accuracy. Respect Science.
  2. Fear the Lye - Just like on a construction site Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not optional. Lye is caustic stuff and you need to wear gloves, eye protection and ideally an apron.  Keep vinegar on hand to neutralize the acid should you accidentally spill, keep the area well ventilated and ensure your kids and pets are at a safe distance. And just like you learned in 8th grade science, ALWAYS ADD ACID; add the lye to the water if you want to avoid an explosive, corrosive mess.
  3. You need dedicated soap making equipment - If you make soap with it, don't use it for food. Soap has lye and as per number 2, you should have hearty dose of fear with respect to lye. You will NEED a digital scale, a thermometer, a stick blender (I got mine for $10 at Superstore), a large mixing container (mine is a Pyrex 2L measuring cup), a heat proof container and stirring stick for the lye (I use a canning jar and a bamboo skewer) and a mold. Your mold doesn't have to be fancy, you can use a small loaf pan lined with parchment or freezer paper, or you can use a milk carton with the top or side cut off.
  4. Start Simple - I made a half batch of the Soap Queen's tried and true 'Lots of Lather' recipe and although it doesn't have pretty colours or fancy smells, I was successful on my first try. This recipe also uses only a few ingredients and won't set you back a fortune to get started. Plus, it really is a nice bar of soap.
  5. Make friends with a Lye Calculator - unless you are following a recipe EXACTLY how you found it, you need to use a Lye Calculator. Although you can cut all the oils in half successfully, the lye is calculated based on its reaction with each of the fats, so recalculating is not optional (unless you're a fan of the explosive, corrosive mess). If you're willing to invest a few bucks, you can use the Brambleberry Soap app.
  6. Trace is important - Trace is what happens when the lye and the soap blend together in a way that will create soap. Trace varies from light trace, which is kind of like whipped cream, before you whip it, to medium trace, which kind of looks like pudding and then there's heavy trace, which just looks like a big old gloppy mess. Different levels of trace are better for different types of pretty designs, and just to keep things exciting, adding scents or colours can accelerate trace and turn your pudding into glop that MUST be dropped into the mold immediately.
  7. Keep your soap cozy - Once in the mold, cover your soap with a piece of cardboard then wrap it in towels for 24 hours; during the saponification (when it turns into soap) you want a nice stable temperature. You don't however, need to put it somewhere really hot (like on my Mom's heated tile floors) or you may have some cracking on the top of your soap.
  8. Experiment with what you have - After I successfully made a half batch of the 'Lots of Lather' Soap, I substituted half the water with coconut milk, added some ground up oatmeal and used some cocoa powder for a pretty brown stripe. I tried a variation using coffee grounds for an exfoliating stripe, I'm also hoping it will deodorize stinky onion fingers. Scour the internet, be inspired and experiment.
  9. Experiment with Oils - just using oils you can buy at the grocery store you can change your soap. Some oils make big bubbles or small bubbles or lots of lather. So far I've enjoyed partially substituting olive oil with grapeseed or rice bran oils and I can't wait to try out a little bit of mango butter for extra moisturizing goodness.
  10. Be patient - perhaps the hardest part for me is the waiting. After 24 hours you can unmold and cut your soap, it will be soft and cut easily. Then, the real waiting occurs. The recommended curing time is 4-6 weeks; during this time keep your soap spaced our and rotate them occasionally, so that the water evaporates and the soap hardens. During this time the pH will also drop making an extremely gentle bar of soap. You can test out a little sliver to see how it lathers up after about a week, but truly, you need to wait before you start using your soap regularly.
And last but not least, don't forget to have fun!