A site for sore tastebuds and a woeful wallet

It May Not Be Delicious But It’s What Every Diva Needs

I cooked up something the other day that you can’t eat, but it is something we can’t live without…at least not without suffering.  It’s SOAP!  We owe our ancestors a huge debt of gratitude for having the ingenuity and perseverance to invent and manufacture this wonderful stuff.  The earliest soaps were believed to be created by the Babylonians in 2800 BC.  Their soaps were used in cleaning cooking stones and for treating wool and other fibers for making cloth.  Egyptians were known to bathe with soap in 22oo BC.  It wasn’t until about 300 AD that true soaps were manufactured across Europe for cleaning the body and clothing.  Soap didn’t really get going into mass production until the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.  Soap making then, was considered a produce as a baker’s bread or a blacksmith’s iron tools. 

In the early 18oo’s soap came into production by such companies as Pears and Lever Brothers.  It is a testament to the demand for soap that these companies have survived over 200 years!  I’d like to have taken out stock back then!  Well, I have taken stock recently in my own production.  My first batch turned out successfully due to the many recipes developed over the millenia.  The early settlers in America probably used a method close to the one I used.  I imagine the dirt and grit of the dusty wagon trails being washed away by their home cooked soaps.  In the Fall when the animals were slaughtered they would use the fat,  and leach lye from their hearth fires to make their soap for the rest of the year.

It took about two hours for me to make sixteen bars of soap.  I used a boiling method and as a tribute to the settlers who worked so hard to produce this wonder, I make mine outdoors on the BBQ grill.  My simple recipe included vegetable oil, olive oil and butter (48 oz weight not volume total), 14 oz. water measured in a measuring cup, and 6 oz. lye (also weighed not measured in a cup). 

It is important to have the fat and lye measured precisely by weight for the correct reaction (saponification) to take place.  The point at which all the lye is chemically bonded with the fat is the goal in this recipe.  To know when this is achieved, the solution will become thickened and a drop placed on the surface will remain on top for a while before sinking back in to the mixture.  This achievement is called the “trace” stage.  It takes a while and a lot of stirring to get there so patience is required.

Activating the lye is the most dangerous and caustic part of the process so be sure to have eye protection and gloves handy.  Always add the lye to the water and not in reverse or a violent reaction could cause harm to you and your work surface…this stuff requires respect!  Keep stirring the lye and water until it becomes clear.  As this happens the temperature of  this solution can reach 200° F or more so use a vessel that can withstand this kind of heat.  While that is cooling, it’s a good time to address the fat.  I heat everything until the butter melts completely but not too hot as to bubble…think bathwater.  I want the adding of the lye to be a smooth process especially over an open flame.  Using a mitt, I carefully and slowly add the lye.  Whew, that went smoothly.  Keep the lye tightly lidded and away from children. 

Now I need to kick up the flame to medium and let it boil for the next hour. 

I watch it go through several stages before it reaches that trace level.  At one point it looked like it went back to the initial stage, but after a lot of stirring it started to slowly thicken and even come to a rolling boil.  The foam started to return just like before and then things started to really happen.  It should look like thin applesauce when it reaches that trace stage.  After that things move along pretty quickly so it’s good to have your molds ready and lined with waxed paper.  Your molds should be made of material that can withstand some pretty high heat.  I use kitchen drawer organizer boxes that came in a kit from Wal-mart.  Between stirring I also get my lemon balm prepared.    

Soon after the trace stage is when you would want to add essential oil for fragrance or any other additives that benefit the skin.  Some people add finely ground oats for soothing the skin, even charcoal dust as an exfoliator.  Colorants may also be added.  Crayon shavings work, vegetable dye can as well.  There are tons of recipes for soaps and tons of purposes.  For the mechanic or for the beauty queen. ..there’s a soap recipe for you.  For my purpose, I chose to add (chopped lavender in my first batch) finely chopped lemon balm in the hopes that it would smell good and look kind of cool with little green specks.  Besides, I had an abundance of it on hand.  I’m getting that applesauce consistency so it’s time to add the stuff.  When the mixture feels more like mashed potatoes I shut off the flame and stir a bit more to mix in the lemon balm better. 

I’m ready for the molds now.  I pick up about five good hunks with the whisk and slap it in.  It’s pretty thick so you really have to slap it in pretty hard…be careful though, it still really hot!  A stick is a good thing to use to push the soap way into the corners.  I then fold the waxed paper over the top to help square it up better.  I take everything inside at this point.  I’m done experiencing the settlers way, and heck, it’s 97° outside!  

So in the comfort of the house I cover the little strip the waxed paper didn’t cover with a sandwich bag and use a VHS tape box to smash it into a neater square.  I giggle to myself thinking about past soap makers, the present soap molding I’m doing, and the “Next Generation”.   What did Captain Picard do for soap?  Just replicate it?   Ok, I’m a closet Trekkie, sorry.  Let’s just snap back to the present shall we?   

Leaving the stuff alone for six hours  allows it to cool completely.  Once it is cool it becomes hard enough to remove.  I place it on waxed paper on top of a sheet of cardboard and begin to slice out little bars of  homemade soap.  It still needs a while to cure, so I lay the bars on their sides to allow more air exposure.  After a few days they harden a bit more and are ready to use.  I’ve already given several away to interested friends and relatives.  I was invited to a wedding at the last minute, and I quickly wrapped up a set in parchment of “His” and “Hers” bars as not to go empty-handed.  I hope they like them.

This diva for one is grateful for such an ingenious invention even if it did happen accidentally nearly 3000 years ago.  I couldn’t survive without it…at least not with suffering terribly.  I hope you too will try to hone your survival skills and make your own soap.  It will shed new light on how to appreciate the manufacture of such an everyday commodity.  It certainly does for me!


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