Soapmaking tips, but first, a history lesson…

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been busy in the kitchen –  making SOAP! If you make soap or have purchased and used hand-crafted soap, you know it’s one of life’s little luxuries!  It seems soapmaking at home has become very popular, and nearly every other “artisan” enjoys making soap. It’s one of those ‘natural’ farm chores and makes a wonderful gift too!  

 soap select

But, before I pass along a few soapmaking tips (which are simply based upon my own experiences, trials and tribulations), let’s review a little soapmaking history. Soapmaking was a homestead skill often forgotten in discussions of colonial days. Soap was of great value in keeping the household a far better place to live and work.

In colonial days, hard-working colonists made soap from the lye collected from wood ashes and waste fats which give testimony to early American self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Soap, an easy item for us to obtain, was produced by boiling wood ash lye and fats together.

At first, the earliest settlers simply brought a plentiful supply of soap along with them. The Talbot, a ship chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Company to carry persons and supplies from England to its colonies at Naumbeak now known as Salem and Boston, listed among its cargo 2 firkins of soap. A firkin is an old measurement which was a wooden, hooped barrel of about nine gallon capacity. John Winthrop, who was to become the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when writing to his wife in 1630 from Boston included soap in a list of necessities to be brought on her crossing to the New world.

After the colonists were settled and had been able to survive the first years of hardships, they found it more advantageous to make soap themselves using the copious amount of wood ashes, a natural result of their homesteading activities. With also a plentiful supply of animal fat from the butchering of the animals they used for food, the colonists had on hand all the ingredients for soapmaking. They did not have to rely on waiting for soap to be shipped from England and waste their goods or few pieces of currency in trade for soap.

Soap is not found in nature, but it can be created by a very simple process. In this way it is similar to bread, wine, glass, cheese, pottery, and other useful items produced by early peoples most likely by accident at first then by design. Soap with some work and luck could be made for free. Soapmaking was performed as a yearly or semiannual event on the homesteads of the early settlers. As the butchering of animals took place in the fall, soap was made at that time on many homesteads and farms to utilize the large supply of tallow and lard that resulted. On the homes or farms where butchering was not done, soap was generally made in the spring using the ashes from the winter fires and the waste cooking grease, that had accumulated throughout the year.

Saponification” is the chemical word for the rather complex but easy to create soapmaking reaction. Saponification is what happens when a fatty acid meets an alkali. When fats or oils, which contain fatty acids are mixed with a strong alkali, the alkali first splits the fats or oils into their two major parts fatty acids and glycerin. After this splitting of the fats or oils, the sodium or potassium part of the alkali joins with the fatty acid part of the fat or oils. This combination is then the potassium or sodium salt of the fatty acid…resulting in SOAP.

 Individual 'sheepy' soap molds.


And now, a few soapmaking helpful tips:                             

Use separate soapmaking pots (I prefer stainless steel or enamel), utensils, etc. from your every day cookware!

ALWAYS weigh your ingredients! Don’t rely on volumes in a recipe.

Don’t forget to ‘tare’ your measuring “vessel”. That means, subtract the weight of the container from the weight of your oil, etc.

When trialing new recipes, make a small batch; if it goes badly, minimize your material loss. Follow the recipe exactly; you can always modify the recipe next time, after the INITIAL sample batch.

If you use individual molds (it has it’s merits, but I prefer a more primitive bar), it’s probably a good idea to have a ‘back-up’ LOAF-type mold ready to go (that is, lined or greased) just in case your soap recipe hardens/thickens while you’re fiddling with painstakingly pouring each and every individual mold!!! Again…minimize your loss. I can tell you I’ve grabbed a cardboard or paper box off the pantry shelf in a panic a time or two…LOL.

Always slowly add the lye/water solution to the fats & oils. (HINT: Acid to water ‘ya ought to).

Have a bottle of white vinegar on hand to neutralize spills.

Always wear safety glasses; I usually don’t wear gloves…I’m bad!

If you’re using goat’s milk in your recipe, I like to freeze my goat milk in ice cube trays and store in the freezer for soapmaking day. Weigh out the required amount of milk and then add the lye to the frozen/slushy milk – SLOWLY! Unless you’re interested in carmelizing/scalding the milk for a more primitive-looking soap.

Insulate your soap during initial cure (cover with a blanket, put in an old ice chest, use a lid with wood molds). Cut your loaf mold after 24 hours.

I hope these ‘tips’ help you if you’re a beginner soapmaker and is a refresher for those hard-core soapers out there…

Happy soaping!

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