As promised, I finally attempted a batch of homemade lye soap. I had plans for an informative how-to article. Those hopes have been dashed for the time being. Here’s how to NOT make soap…
The first problem I encountered was not a lack of information available, but there is too much information online about soapmaking. And a lot of it seems to conflict. The only standards are the amount of lye to use per weight of specific fats. That’s the crucial part. I used the Hot Process in a crockpot. In theory, this allows for a soap that can be used immediately rather than curing for weeks. Sounds cool, right?
Before I get into the failure, I’ll give some basic information on soap. Soap is made by a process called Saponification. This involves properly mixing a caustic (lye) with a fat (lard). The lye is pretty constant across recipes. The fat can be any animal fat or plant oil. During the Saponification process, the lye and fats interact chemically to produce a product called soap. Very specific amounts of lye are used to ensure a complete reaction so we don’t have a soap that is still caustic. Nothing like a nice chemical burn in the shower to start the day!
That’s where it all went wrong for me. I was using a recipe that I was a chart for an amount of lye for different fats. It was not. It was a recipe that actually called for all the fats listed. My fault. I didn’t follow the recipe, and ended up way short on the weight of fats needed for soap. Apparently it is difficult to adjust a recipe in the middle of the process.
I measured out my lye (4.4 ounces by weight) and my lard (6.4 ounces by weight). Any soapmakers reading this are shaking their heads at me right now. I got the lard in the crockpot and melted it. While it was melting, I dissolved the lye in 12 ounces of water. Once it was dissolved, I mixed it with this woefully small amount of fat. After stirring like crazy to mix it, I realized there wasn’t nearly enough ingredients for the volume I was expecting. I re-read the recipe and realized my mistake. At this point, there is a chemical reaction going on.
In a rush, I calculated how much more lard I needed to add for the amount of lye, another 26 ounces or so. I should have used 2 pounds of lard at the beginning. This lard gets added, but it takes a while to melt. I don’t know the mechanisms involved, but it severely disrupted the process. Probably like trying to add 2 cups of flour to a half baked cake.
After stirring for an hour, it never did thicken up like it was supposed to. I went ahead and accepted defeat and turned the crockpot off and went to bed. I awoke to find the process did work to a point. The crockpot was full of a hard soap-like substance. I tested it by sticking a small piece to my tongue. Believe it or not, it’s an accepted way to test for caustics. It tasted like a 9 volt battery. Still caustic.
I decided to go for broke and I turned the heat back on to re-melt this failure. After 4 hours and adding enough water to get it thinned out enough to mold, I placed it in disposable bread pan molds lined with wax paper. It looks like lumpy mashed potatoes in a bread pan. And it is still caustic. The Saponification process will continue, but it will be more like the Cold Process where it will have to cure for weeks before I can test it and see if it works.
While I was washing the residue out of the crockpot, it did lather up and form bubbles. Technically this goopy mess is soap, just not anything I planned on. Now I’ll wait and see how it turns out.
I’ll be giving this another go in the next few days and try to get it right. I’m still holding out hope that I can write a how-to article. And I really want some homemade lye soap on the homestead! Stay tuned, and remember to always follow directions!