I’ve been wanting to learn how to make soap for what seems like forever. So when I was given the option at YMCA Camp Du Nord this summer, I signed up right away with a few friends. I was also happy that my twelve-year-old was into the idea too—that meant two batches of soap for us to enjoy for the next year!
The process was fun, and pretty fascinating really. Soap is actually a salt formed as a result of saponification. What’s saponification? It’s a chemical reaction between lye (sodium hydroxide), which is an acid, and oil (in this case, olive oil, coconut oil, and vegetable shortening), which is a base. Lye is nothing to mess around with, so take precautions when working with it. Be sure to wear rubber gloves and safety goggles and work in a well-ventilated place.
Making soap turns out to be quite easy, too, especially with a group of friends to share the work of stirring the batch. Here’s how it’s done.
Measure out ingredients using a digital kitchen scale. If you have a few friends to help, divide and conquer: First, have someone put on gloves and goggles to measure the lye (sodium hydroxide) and the water. Pour the water into a plastic or glass jar that holds 2 or more quarts and set it on a heat-resistant surface. Then add the lye crystals to the water and stir with a plastic spoon. Use caution here! Adding lye to water creates an exothermic reaction that spikes the temperature of the mixture to as hot as 200 degrees F. Using hot pads, transfer the jar to a cool water bath to bring down the temperature to 80-100 degrees F.
While waiting for the lye to cool, prep soap molds and choose fragrances and botanicals if desired. Half-gallon plastic milk jugs with the tops cut off make great molds, but you can also line a shoe box with freezer paper, placing the shiny side face up. If you are using milk jugs, slather the inside with a layer of vegetable shortening to prevent sticking.
Essential oils can be added to give the soap a fragrance. Lavender, sweet orange, and peppermint, sweet almond, and rosemary are great options. A little goes a long way! A couple of drops (about an ounce per mold) is all that is needed to give your soap a pleasant scent. Botanicals like lavender buds, calendula petals, parsley, or oatmeal can be added to the soap to give it texture. Know that most botanicals will turn brown in the soap. Calendula does keep its yellow color, however.
Now begin to measure out the other ingredients.
Place the vegetable shortening in a 1 gallon stainless steel kettle and place over a stove burner to melt. When completely melted, stir in olive oil and coconut oil. Let cool a bit and then place in a cool water bath to cool to 80-100 degrees F.
When both mixtures are cool, remove the oil mixture from the cool water bath and set on a sturdy work surface. Slowly and steadily add the lye mixture to the oil mixture. Use a whisk to stir the mixture continuously until it thickens. This is where many hands make light the work! Take turns stirring briskly, handing off the whisk to a friend when you can no longer stir.
After about 30 minutes, the mixture will reach the “trace” stage, meaning you can see the trail left by the whisk as you pull it through the soap mix.
Pour soap mixture into prepared molds. One batch should fill about four half-gallon milk jugs. Add essential oils and botanicals and stir well. Place the molds in a big box and cover with two blankets to insulate the soap. Leave the molds set for 18-24 hours to saponify.
Uncover and let sit for another day. Then remove the soap from the molds and cut into bars. Feel free to use cookie cutters to make interesting shapes. Wrap bars individually in parchment paper, set aside, and let dry for two to six weeks. The more time you allow the soap to dry, the longer it will last once you start using it.
Simple Soap Recipe
12 ounces sodium hydroxide (Lye)
32 ounces water
24 ounces olive oil
24 ounces coconut oil
38 ounces vegetable shortening
essential oils (3-4 ounces for an entire batch; 1 ounce for each mold)
Other tools you’ll need
2 quart plastic or glass jar
stainless steel whisk
1 gallon stainless steel kettle
2-cup plastic or glass measuring cup
4 1/2 gallon milk jugs or shoe boxes (lined with freezer paper)
vinegar to neutralize lye if it gets on skin
long-handled plastic kitchen spoon
And that’s all there is to it! I’m already looking forward to making another batch. The sweet orange-mint soap I made and the sweet almond soap my twelve-year-old made are both heavenly.