Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Learning to Make Soap at a Chickens-in-the-Road Workshop

This past Saturday I took a bit of a break from our farm and headed over to Sassafras Farm for a soap-making workshop.  Because getting really dirty is something I do quite well, I thought that making my own homemade soap with my goat's milk would be a useful and fun addition to my list of skills.  Don wasn't particularly interested in making soap but when he heard there was going to be FOOD, he became a very willing participant.  We were accompanied by three wonderful folks who traveled all the way from Indiana to participate as well.  As a side bonus, Suzanne also taught a canning class where we made some apple-maple jam and some roasted garlic jelly. But, back to soap.  Making soap is a fascinating process where you combine fats with lye (sodium hydroxide for bar soap).  Triglycerides present in fats and oils undergo hydrolysis, which is simply a reaction where water is added to a substance to break a chemical bond.  In soap making this reaction is called saponification and the reaction produces glycerol (glycerin), fatty-acid salts and heat (exothermic).  The fatty-acid salt is soap. When the proportion of lye to fat is correct, all the sodium hydroxide (lye) is converted to glycerol and soap.  No caustic products remain. Because glycerin is hygroscopic (attracts water) it acts as a natural skin moisturizer.  In commercially made soaps, the glycerin is chemically removed because it is a valuable by-product.  Home-made soaps are generally very gentle and moisturizing for skin, because home-made soaps retain the glycerin and often contain beneficial herbs as an additive.

The saponification process requires heat to complete.  There are two basic processes for making real homemade soap.  One is cold-process where saponification uses the heat generated naturally during the reaction  to complete the conversion to soap.  In this method, the soap must cure for 5 or 6 weeks in order for the reaction to continue to completion.  We made soap using the hot-process method which uses applied heat (in this case a crock pot) to allow the reaction to complete in a matter of hours.  The soap from the hot-process method is ready to use in a matter of days.

I'm not going to go into details on the soap-making process but the steps are fairly simple for hot-process soap.

1.  Measure all the fats and oils and place in crock pot to melt.
2. Go outside and measure the lye crystals into a container.  It is best to wear gloves and goggles because lye is a caustic substance.  Here I am observing another workshop participant do it first.

3.  Measure the liquid needed, be it water or milk, into a stainless or glass (heat proof and non-reactive) container.

4. Carefully and slowly add the lye crystals to the liquid.  It will get very hot.  In this case I added it to partially frozen goat milk.  The reaction caused the milk to turn yellow.

5a.  Go put 10 goats back in their yard because they got out and are all on the porch now (at my farm not Suzanne's).
6.  Stand by the lovely mural in Suzanne's studio and slowly pour your lye mixture into the melted fat.

7.  Stir with a stick blender until the mixture comes to trace (gets like pudding and the blender leaves a trail).

8.  Go eat while the mixture cooks. I may have that step out of order but we ate a lot (and often).
9.  Periodically check the crock pot.  Once the mixture resembles lumpy mashed potatoes the saponification reaction is completed or nearly so, and it is time to test the pH.

10.  The pH can be tested by using phenothaline drops, a pH test strip or by the tongue-zap method.  At the workshop we used the sensible drops and the pH strips.  Knowing me I'll probably use the tongue-zap test.  Basically you touch your tongue to the soap-to-be and if there is any unreacted lye, it tingles the tongue.  It is prudent to try this only if the soap cooking is near completion.  NEVER try this with cold process soap!!!  In the photo below the upper sample shows a pink spot where the phenothaline reacted with the lye indicating the cooking process must continue.

11. Once the cooking is completed, the mixture is transferred to a stainless steel bowl.  At this point you can add things like oatmeal, colorants, fragrances and the like.  Everyone in the workshop chose really yummy smelling fragrances such as red currant and a heavenly smelling lemon/lavender combination.  Well, um except me.  I chose a rather pungent "bug-be-gone scent" since I am usually either itchy or soon-to-be itchy from assorted bug bites.  After the additives are mixed in , the soap is put into a  mold for a day or so.  We all used Pringles cans.  They work great but must be destroyed unmolding the soap.  All you Pringles eaters out there ...SAVE ME YOUR PRINGLES CANS!

The photo below shows my finished soap.

Suzanne's workshop was a blast and I would encourage anyone interested in learning country skills to visit her amazing blog and take a class from one of her many offerings.  You won't be disappointed.

If you want to see lots of pictures from our workshop day also visit the blog WaterFlourYeast&Salt.


  1. Wonderful! A good excuse to eat more Pringles.

  2. Hi Shelley, have you been making your own soap as you planned? I made some for Christmas LAST year and haven't made it since but I plan on making it again soon. Really liked the way it felt, I guess I've just been too busy! I loved the soapmaking class at Suzanne's retreat (I met you there!) and recently I read Cindy's post on her blog Our Life Simplified on making liquid soap, that sounds fun too! I don't use Pringle's cans for my mold, I made a mold out of a pattern I found online somewhere with sides that are hinged so it's easy to unmold. Works great!

    1. Actually I am selling quite a bit of soap now. We sell rustic furniture in the fall at some open houses so I started selling soap too. I have a few other outlets in the works. I use plastic "goat" molds for my goat milk soap and I made wooden molds for the more rustic hot process bars.