Tips I learned from making soap this weekend and some questions and concerns that I initially had that others out there may have, too:
#1 SHOULD I OPEN A WINDOW?
Don't be an idiot- open a window while you're making it. I stood over that stuff for an hour breathing in the lye fumes and now I've got a sore throat. Wow. Just. Wow.
#2 PROTECTION GEAR?
Yes, I looked like a Walter White western bandit with my yellow rubber gloves, goggles, and a tea towel tied around my nose and mouth. Ironically, I used the towel because I was afraid of breathing in any lye powder while I was mixing the lye and water. Apparently, it also fumes a bit as it's hot and being stirred on the stove. Wow, again. Sometimes it's a wonder I made it to adulthood.
#3 I'M SCARED OF LYE
Lye isn't that scary. I got some on myself and I didn't die. The powder got on my arms and I also got raw soap on my fingers and all it did was sting a bit. Just pour vinegar over the spot that stings, let it sit for a few seconds, then run it under cold water.
Maybe I'm just not deep enough into the homemade soap scene, but I've yet to meet a soapmaker with Fight Club burns on their hands. Just don't go around kissing people's hands and then pouring lye on it and you shouldn't have any problems. Also, I must note that, unless you use a special process, the glycerin stays in your soap, it doesn't separate on it's own. Come on, Hollywood, I can't believe you'd make a scientifically inaccurate movie...
Don't be scared, there are lots of everyday chemicals that are just as nasty as lye. Toilet bowl cleaner, bleach, and oven cleaner are good examples. Just be careful and take precautions. Also, unless you fancy a steaming lye water volcano in your kitchen, always, always put the lye into the water, not the other way around.
#4 - CAN I MAKE SOAP WITHOUT LYE?/ I'M STILL SCARED OF LYE
No, you can't make actual soap without lye. Through the magic of science, lye mixed with tallow (or other fats, or oils) becomes "sodium tallowate" after the saponification process and it is no longer lye and doesn't have the same qualities as lye. Check the labels of the soap in your bathroom- does it say "sodium tallowate"or "sodium palmate"? That was made with lye and some kind of fat or oil. The reason that your soap doesn't usually say "lye" (although some, like Dr. Bronner's, list sodium hydroxide, but are quick to point out that none remains after saponification) is because even though it's an ingredient used in the process of soap making, there's not actually lye in the final soap product, it's "sodium insert-whatever-fat-or-oil-used-ate" or "saponified oils". See what I mean- magic! Also, if you're not into "magic" as the simple explanation, here's a hoity-toity chemistry explanation of saponification.
#5 TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS LYE THING
If you buy lye in a plastic container, open it in a larger plastic container. The static electricity from the container will cause a bunch of little lye balls to shoot out of the container and bounce around your kitchen counter like cake-fueled kids in a birthday bouncy house. It wasn't a big problem, as I just wiped them up with a vinegar-soaked paper towel and then washed the counter, but it would have been nice to know that would happen. Just keep some vinegar handy to pour onto anything that gets lye on it or to wet paper towels and use them to clean up spills.
#6 WHAT IS THIS "TRACE" THING THAT ALL THE RECIPES TALK ABOUT?
If you've ever made homemade pudding, you will have no trouble figuring out what "trace" is and when it's happening. It just means that when you drizzle the soap from a spoon, the drizzles stay on the surface a bit. It looks like pudding that's still warm but has thickened up in the pan. I'm assuming here that if you're crazy enough to want to make your own soap, you're crazy enough to also have made your own pudding- same idea- "I know what went into it and it's just plain better than the store-bought stuff, despite all the work".
#7 DO I NEED SPECIAL TOOLS?
I don't use special tools only to be used for soap. Not saying you shouldn't, but as a very infrequent maker of soap, it just wouldn't do to have a separate getup for all of the soap making things. I would recommend you have a wooden spoon for soap use only, as the wood will absorb things that you can't easily wash out. Other than the wooden spoon, I use all of my regular kitchen items like the stock pot and water pitcher. I just wear gloves while first washing them with hot soapy water, then swish vinegar in them to neutralize any leftover lye residue, then wash again with hot soapy water. I've never had lye on my tools after this washing method. If you're really nervous, you could test the surfaces with pH strips to be extra safe.
The idea behind separate tools is that you might not rinse all of the uncured soap/lye out and end up eating lye/raw soap. While I'm not recommending anyone out there try this, when I'm done washing the tools I touch them with my finger and touch my finger to my tongue. I promise you'll know immediately if they still have lye or raw soap on them.
And, unfortunately, yes, I know what raw soap tastes like. On a school field trip to a living history farm (at the ill-advised urging of my friend) I snuck some butter from an unattended butter churn. Do you know why there would be an unattended butter churn with butter in it just sitting outside of a log cabin on a hot summer day? It's because it's full of soap, that's why.
#8 I REALLY THINK I NEED AT LEAST ONE SPECIAL TOOL, THOUGH
I thought it was stupid to have an immersion blender just for soap because I hate having one trick pony kitchen gadgets, but after stirring for over an hour waiting for trace, the idea of one has grown on me immensely.
#9 OKAY, YOU'VE CONVINCED ME, BUT WHERE DO I BUY LYE?
Thanks to all of the meth heads out there, lye is increasingly difficult to find. I did manage to find some at my local hardware store, though. Just check the aisle with all of the drain openers and make sure you buy 100% lye (sodium hydroxide). You can also buy it online.
#10 IS IT REALLY HARD TO MAKE?/ WHY ARE THE INSTRUCTIONS SO LONG?
If the steps below seem intimidating, it's just because I wanted to explain all of the steps to you. If you're like me, you want to know why, not just "don't do it". My poor mother, I was definitely that child. If you just want a quick run-down of how to make soap, I've put it at the bottom of this post. I put it after all of the detailed explanations so no one could run back to me with lye burns or soapy foods later and say I never warned them.
Now that I've imparted you with the knowledge that I've gained through trial, error, and personal bodily harm, I'll let you know how to make soap.
The Man and I had these while out to eat at a fancy Minneapolis restaurant. They were amazing, but they cost $14 and there were only five of them. What a sad number for an appetizer- you have to go through the "no, you take it", "no, you take it" rigamarole with that last, lone piece. Nobody wins with that game.
Well, in order to avoid that (and also to get rid of that nagging feeling in the back of your mind when you ate something awesome but didn't quite get enough of it), we decided to try to make them ourselves.
Turns out, these are really simple to make, not that expensive, and can make either a really good light meal or an impressive appetizer.
Hello, new favorite guilty pleasure snack.
On my way home from work, I stopped at a local fancy schmancy grocery store to see if they had tallow. I ended up bonding with the butcher over the silliness of grass fed-only beef if you care about flavor (I've raised calves and know a little corn now and then means happy cattle and beautiful marbling). Then I bought a bunch of beef fat from him. I felt weird enough asking for it that I was glad my awkward self didn't squeak out an "I'm gonna render it and make soap!".
I barely made it out of there without completely embarassing myself, albeit teetering dangerously on the edge. I made it out of the store before embarassing myself, sure, but not home...
Well, I also bought a bunch of their amazing La Quercia prosciutto and couldn't wait the forty minute car ride home to have some of it. I barely made it to the car before I opened the package, mind racing with happy thoughts of the glorious, rosy meat sheets. I pulled out two of the paper thin goodness and, alas, had nowhere to put them while I wrapped up the package. Coat- too fuzzy. Mouth- don’t want to eat it all at once. Hmm. Steering wheel- it was practically begging me to have prosciutto hanging from it. Just as I had lovingly decorated my steering wheel with meat and tucked the package away, I look up to see a fancy-looking lady came out of the store.
Oh, please don’t be coming this way.
You parked right next to me, huh.
So there I was, meat-coated steering wheel out there for all the world to see and probably dashing the hopes of a brighter, better upcoming generation for this dear elderly fancy lady.
My momma would be so proud.
Moral of the story: If you ever feel awkward or like no one else is a weirdo, take heart. I guarantee everyone is a bit of one at one time or another.
Also, I'm going to post some recipes later in the month of how I rendered the suet and what I did with the tallow...
Men are super hard to buy for. I'm always completely uninspired when it comes time to give a gift to my Dad, my brother, my two brother-in-laws, or even my hubs. This year, I've vowed to try out all sorts of man-friendly DIY gifts and to remember to take pictures of them and write about them so all of you wonderful people out there can have some ideas about what to make for the men in your life. On a side note, this cutting board was sort of a gift for me, too (of course women would love this gift, too).
This cutting board is really easy to make, easy to personalize, and easy to use. You don't even need to get out your power tools. Just some elbow grease.
p.s. The lovely patina achieved on mine is because I accidentally (okay, on purpose because I'm really lazy sometimes) put mine through the dishwasher. This is not recommended, although it did a lovely job of sort of spalting the wood.