Thousands of years ago, our filthy ancestors made a discovery that would keep them cleaner–soap. Over the last hundred years, soap has become an inexpensive and readily available resource, saving us the time and trouble of having to make it ourselves. Shortly after people stopped producing soap in the home, however, the art of making a batch of homemade lye soap became a mysterious and confusing process. If you’re like me and you can see the merits of being able to make your own soap, then you should appreciate this simple method.
Soap is made by mixing together lye, water, and fat, which causes a chemical reaction called saponification. It happens in nature when animal fats mix with wood ashes and rain water, but for more controlled results, use some store-bought lye crystals. For this recipe, gather exactly one pound of lard, 2.2 ounces of commercial lye, and 3.5 ounces of water. Soap making is part art form and part chemistry, but the chemistry part does require precise measuring. Use a sensitive scale to get the lye measurement correct, and use a liquid measuring cup for the water. Dissolve the lye in the water, outside if possible, or else in a well-ventilated space. Lye is a powerful caustic chemical, capable of delivering horrible chemical burns (remember the scene in Fight Club?). The lye and water mixture will become cloudy and make the container very hot to the touch. Make sure that everything you use in making lye soap is labeled, and never used for food purposes again.
Goggles and gloves are a good idea when adding the lye crystals to the water. Use a mason jar or something else that can handle the heat. This mixture heats up quickly and intensely, and you’ll let it cool to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit before proceeding (this takes about an hour). While the lye is reacting and cooling, warm your lard to a liquid around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
SAFETY TIP: Keep an open bottle of vinegar close at hand in case of lye spills. This acidic vinegar will help to neutralize the alkaline lye.
Now, stir the warm fat into a plastic bowl using a large plastic or wooden spoon, and slowly drizzle in the lye solution. Keep stirring until you have a thick, milkshake-looking slurry. This change of texture can happen as fast as 30 minutes, or it can take up to one hour. But keep stirring. This motion is necessary for saponification to occur. Once the texture change has completed, you can add medicinal oils or other soap additives. Pour the soap slurry into molds or a pan to cool. The final step in this type of soap making is aging. After several days, cut the hardening soap into bars for easy use, but you’ll still need to age the soap for another month. Try some after a four-week curing time, and if your hand washing experience leaves your skin feeling a little slimy, rinse your skin with vinegar to neutralize the soap and age the soap a few more weeks.
Ever made your own soap? Tell us about your process in the comments.