By the time I finally get around to making a new batch of soap, we are so close to the spring that I feel inspired to make something refreshing and fruity, something lovely to lather up with in the shower during the spring months. And here they are: brand new bars of lemon poppyseed soap — with lemon essential oil for fragrance, and poppyseeds for gentle exfoliation.
I haven’t always made my own soap. In fact, up until three years ago I never thought I would. I’m generally a pretty unstoppable DIYer, as you may have gathered, but when it came to soap-making, there was a fairly high threshold for me. Turning oils and water into a solid bar sounded like a very complicated process involving chemistry calculations, and knowing that soap-making involved working with lye — a caustic substance — probably didn’t help. But eventually, I got over my trepidations and signed up for a soap-making class at The Nova Studio (this was back when we were living in California). I came back with clear instructions that de-mystified the entire process for me, and have been making my own soap ever since.
So taking a class with a good soap-making teacher is what I’d recommend to anyone who is curious to try. If that’s not possible, this online tutorial is one of the better ones out there. It’s true, there is some math involved, but a first-time soapmaker can give herself a break and follow a pre-formulated recipe. It’s also true that the steps involving lye require vigilance and protective wear such as gloves, goggles, and long sleeves, but all of that’s doable, right? It’s not like you need a nuclear radiation protective suit or anything. Otherwise, you simply follow the steps, measure everything exactly, breathe and have fun.
How long does it take to make soap? In the beginning, it must have taken me well over two hours because I was hesitating and obsessively checking the instructions at every step. These days, the whole process — from preparing the mold to cleaning up — takes about an hour and a half, and about 30 minutes of that is simply waiting for the oils and the lye-water mix to cool down to the right temperature. Cold-process soap does needs to cure for 4-6 weeks, though, to be optimal.
Here are the essential steps:
First, mix the (carefully measured) lye into the (carefully measured) distilled water in a well-ventilated place. Then melt the solid oils — in my recipe, that’s coconut oil and palm oil — over low heat.
Add the liquid oils (I used olive oil and castor oil); let the mixture cool down to 100-120 F.Carefully add the water-lye mixture into the oil mixture. Using a stick blender dedicated for this purpose, mix the batch in short spurts at a time…
…until you reach what’s called “trace,” pictured below:Add any colors, herbs, or exfoliants you want to use, and lastly, essential oils.Pour the mix into the mold. I like the rustic look of soap bars cut out of a big loaf, so I make a large single mold by lining a shoebox-sized cardboard box with freezer paper. After 2-3 days, the mix has solidified enough that you can cut out your soap bars. After the 6 weeks of curing time, these bars will be ready just in time for spring!Lastly, here are some of the tips I’ve found useful in my soap-making sessions:
- Keep a spray bottle filled with white vinegar handy, and use it if you accidentally splash lye onto any surface. Vinegar neutralizes the lye. I also spray everything with the vinegar before cleaning up.
- Cover the work area with something — again, the lye and un-saponified soap mix is caustic. I use old, crazy-colorful cotton bedcovers from India for this purpose.
- If you’re going to add colorant, keep in mind that the color changes during the curing process (as you see in these images) — usually it becomes less vibrant as it dries, so add more to start with.
- I almost never use paper towels in my kitchen. But I make an exception when making soap. It helps the clean-up process immensely to wipe off any excess soap mix from the pot, blender etc. with paper towels before washing them.