Soap is essential to our existence and enjoys a rich history of prolonging human life (and enabling us to tolerate close quarters with one another). As with any process that dates back a few millennia, there is quite a bit of legend and myth surrounding both the origin and the manufacturing of soap. One of the best known legends is that soap takes its name from Mount Sapo, the location of many animal sacrifices by the ancient Romans. Rain then washed the mixture of animal fats and wood ash onto the clay banks of the Tiber where women scrubbed their families’ clothing and first discovered that the soapy water made the clothes much cleaner. Of course, animal sacrifices would probably not have created enough fat to make soap but “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” right?
Most experts credit the Ancient Babylonians as the first to produce soap since they carved a tablet with the first known soap recipe in 2200 B.C. While the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Mayans were bathing regularly in sudsy bubble baths, the early (and stinky) Europeans were still whacking each other over the head with wooden clubs in caveman fashion. During this time, soap making was actually quite dangerous. Soap makers boiled animal fats, water, and lye in large kettles outdoors. The only test for the strength of their lye solution was to float an egg in it. All of that changed when LeBlanc, a French chemist, figured out how to create sodium hydroxide (lye) from sodium chloride (table salt) in 1790. Thank goodness for the French, eh? Soap making practices dramatically improved and soap no longer “took your hide right off.”
So how do you make soap properly and why bother doing so in today’s world where it so readily available? Isn’t making your own soap expensive? Isn’t lye dangerous?
Truthfully, making soap can be as expensive and complicated as you decide to make it. If you want to keep it inexpensive and simple, well… you’ve come to the right place. Here’s how (I’ll dispel the myths along the way):
The first step is to make friends with your local butcher and ask him/her to save the trimmings of fat from the steaks and cuts of beef that come in. Since those scraps are usually tossed, you can obtain the tallow for free (cha-ching!). Gather a large pot, sieve, and cheese cloth. Set them up so that you can drain the fat into the pot. Now grind up the fat with a cast iron meat grinder or food processor.
Take the ground trimmings and put them in a kettle with 1 Tbsp of salt per pound of trimmings and cover with water (the salt ensures that when you make soap – it makes nice firm bars). Let this mixture slow cook on low heat until all that remains is a gray bubbling brew with gray hamburger meat floating in it. Be sure that you keep the fan on above the stove.
Pour the contents of the kettle into the sieve which is lined with cheese cloth and let it strain out. If you have lots of trimming to process still – refill your kettle with water, salt, and ground trimmings. Continue processing until all is finished. Now refrigerate the drippings overnight.
The next morning, scoop out the solid fat on the top and throw out the brown jelly. Weigh the rendered fat and use the fat calculator to figure out how much lye and water you need. Just plug and chug with your amount of tallow and that you are using water and sodium hydroxide (lye). Need conversions? Click here.
Gather lye, distilled water (or rain water), scales, stainless steel kettle, resin cake pans or soap moulds, glass measuring cup with a handle, two candy thermometers with kettle clips, and the tallow. Goggles and gloves should be handy, too. Lye (sodium hydroxide) can be found in your local hardware store in the plumbing section. I don’t advise making it from wood ash, actually.
Measure out your lye and water. Now, pay attention!!! Make sure that you are either outdoors or the fan above your stove is on. Put on your safety goggles. Add the lye to the water. The water will get VERY hot. Watch the thermometer temperature climb. It’s amazing!
Place the tallow in the kettle and begin to melt it on low heat. Stir frequently with the fan on. Make sure that you attach thermometers to lye water measuring cup and the kettle full of tallow. As soon as the tallow has melted completely, remove from heat. Once the lye water and the fat reach the roughly the same temperature – about 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit – add the lye water to the fat. Stir. Now keep stirring. I like to use a hand mixer (a yard sale find) but stick blenders are nice, too. I stir for a while and then take a break and then come back to stir some more. Some people will tell you that you must stir constantly and never leave the mixture alone. But I'm not some people. Stir at least every 5-10 minutes until the temperature rises 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you wish to add scents or colors, stir them in and pour the soap into moulds. I use the resin cake pans because I don’t have line them and the soap is easy to remove after hardening. In twenty-four hours, remove the soap from the pan(s) and cut into bars. Let the bars air or age on cooling racks or use produce containers. Some people will tell you that you MUST age the soap. You don't actually have to age the bars. They really are perfectly safe for use if you have followed the advice of the lye calculator – no more acidic than pool water.
How much did it cost? I purchased the lye for $1 a can (on sale) and used about ¼ of the can, got the rainwater from the sky, and obtained the fat for free. I made four pounds of soap for 25 cents. At no point did I feel that I took any health risks during the manufacturing process.
What do I do with all that soap? First, I take a bar and make a few gallons of laundry detergent. Want to know how?
You will need the following:
Using an old kettle, heat soap and two cups of water (add the other four cups one at a time, stirring constantly). Don't let it boil even if you are really enjoying yourself and have begun to cackle while quoting "Macbeth." Measure & mix the Borax and washing soda. Pour the mixture into your bubbling brew. Stir. Continue to stir until dissolved and then remove from heat. Resist the urge to stick your feet in even though it does look totally inviting.
Add 1 quart of HOT tap water to the bottom of a large tub.Pour the soapy mixture (which should be thickening slightly) into the tub and stir. Pour in that gallon of tap water now. Stir some more. Your arms will hate me.
While stirring, you have my permission to add scent to your goop. I like lemon or lavender or cucumber – something refreshing. I think apple scent would be pretty nifty, too.
Now you can refill your detergent bottles and enjoy some more cackling. You savvy thing, you. Let the mixture cool before pouring it into the bottles and don't be surprised if it separates a little bit. That's normal. Really. Use 1/2 cup per load. It works like a dream.
Making your own soap really pays off. Not only do you have your very own homemade soap, know exactly what’s in it, but you can go on to make your very own laundry detergent. You'll be hooked faster than long hair on fly paper. NOTE: The homemade detergent will not create any suds (this is disappointing to many people who associate cleaning power with sudsy froth).
The historical information comes from the book Smart Soapmaking by Anne L. Watson. If you don't currently own this book and have any thoughts about making soap – I advise picking up a copy of your very own. The woman is a genius.
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