With a few key tools and pieces of knowledge, soapmaking is no harder than most of the ambitious cooking projects we take on.
A tutorial from Caitlin Pike about how to (safely!) make your own soap.
.)Although soapmaking becomes cost-effective if you do it often, making your first batch can be a bit of an investment since none of the tools can be reused for cooking (a good reason to make soap again and again). I’ve linked above to low-priced options for many of the tools required, and thrift stores are also a great option for items like the pitcher and pot. Oils for soapmaking can be purchased in 7-pound bags, which will keep costs down quite a bit if you're making more than one batch.
How to make soap at home:1. Mix the lye.Put on your rubber gloves and safety goggles, and set up in a very well-ventilated area such as next to an open window. If you have access to the outdoors, take this step there. Use your scale and measuring cup to carefully weigh 201 grams of sodium hydroxide and set it aside. Then, weigh 19 ounces of distilled water into your glass pitcher or other sturdy, heat-safe vessel. Now, carefully pour the sodium hydroxide into the pitcher of water, and stir just long enough to make sure it all dissolves. This creates a chemical reaction that heats the water to over 200° F and produces strong fumes at first, so work quickly and be extra careful here—I try to hold my breath while I stir.
(Safety note: Always work in this order and add lye to water. Never add water to lye, which can cause spattering of the hot lye solution or even an explosion.)The lye now needs to cool to below 100° F. I usually place mine outside on my porch to speed up this process. Depending on how cold out it is, it can take between 30 and 90 minutes for the lye to cool, which is why I recommend doing this step first.
2. Prepare the mold and measure out fragrance.If you're using a wooden loaf mold or a baking pan, carefully line the inside with waxed paper or parchment paper so its easier to get the soap out later. I often use some masking tape to help hold everything in place. If you use a silicone mold, you can skip this step.
If you like the simplicity of plain rectangular soap bars and think you’ll make more than a couple batches of soap, having a wooden loaf mold like the one shown here makes the process easy and consistent. (I’ve found eBay and Etsy to be good sources for wooden versions at lower prices.) Other options include silicone and PVC plastic molds, which come in many shapes and patterns. If you’re not ready to invest yet, a 9 by 12-inch baking pan or Pyrex dish that your kitchen is willing to part with should also work just fine for this recipe.
Now is also a good time to measure out your essential oils into an extra measuring cup, for ease of adding them later. Blending fragrances is probably one of the most fun parts of making soap.For this batch, I used 5 teaspoons of orange essential oil and 2 of sandalwood.
Synthetic fragrance oils also work well and are generally less expensive than pure essential oils. Mixing fragrances is akin to mixing spices and other ingredients when experimenting with cooking a dish—for blending fragrance oils. You can also opt to make unscented soap (if you're very sensitive to scents and perfumes, for example) and simply leave this ingredient out.
3. Melt and mix the oils.You can now prepare the blend of oils to which you’ll add the lye. If you're using oils that are solid at room temperature, such as the coconut and palm oils in this recipe, you’ll first need to melt them so they can be poured, either by placing the container in a saucepan of simmering water or by melting them in the microwave.
Once your oils are in a liquid state, place your large pot on the scale and weigh (or re-weigh, if you've already done so) each oil into it for precision. Stir everything together and then check the temperature with a heat-safe thermometer. For the next step, the oils need to be between 80 and 100° F. I often find that mine are already in the correct range from being melted, but if not, place the pot on the stove over low heat until the oils reach the proper temperature or set aside to cool down.
4. Blend and pour your soap.When both your lye and your oil mixture are between 80 and 100° F, you’re ready to blend. After removing the pot from the heat to a trivet or heat-safe surface, put your gloves and eye protection back on and carefully pour the lye into the pot of oil. They’ll begin to react with each other, turning the mixture cloudy. Begin blending with your immersion blender, and over the next 3 to 5 minutes you’ll see the mixture become thicker and more opaque. You're aiming for a mixture with the consistency of a runny pudding.
If you lift the blender out and let some drips fall across the surface of the mixture, you should see them leave a visible pattern, called “trace,” before sinking back in.Once the soap mixture has reached trace, stir in the fragrance oil, if using, until blended. Carefully pour the finished mixture into your lined soap mold, and cover with the lid (or plastic wrap, if your mold has no lid). Being sure to keep it level, wrap the whole thing in a towel or blanket to insulate it, and leave undisturbed in an airy out-of-the-way place like a shelf for 24 hours.
This method that I use for making soap is called cold process, where no additional heat is used to facilitate or speed up the saponification process. Hot process, on the other hand, uses an external heat source to accelerate it. While cold process soaps take longer to cure (the next stage, below),
is entirely personal.6. Cut and cure your soap. When your clock indicates that 24 hours is done (don't try and rush it), your soap is ready to be removed; many wooden loaf molds have fold-down sides or removable bottoms to make this process easier. If you’ve used a baking pan, you may need to use a knife to help pry the soap loaf out. Cut the loaf into bars with a sharp knife.
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