Tips I learned from making soap this weekend and some questions and concerns that I initially had that others out there may have, too:

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

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".

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. 

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.

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.

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.
(recipe adapted from Miller's Homemade Soap)

makes: about 4 pounds
3 lbs. rendered tallow (about 6 3/4 cups liquid)
2 1/2 cups very cold water
6 oz. lye (about 11.25 T.)

2 oz. or 1/4 cup oil
(avocado, sweet almond, etc.- this is optional but will make the soap more moisturizing) This is if you want to superfat the recipe to make it more moisturizing.  The downside to this is that the oils can go rancid and spoil the bar more quickly.  The up side is that is reduces the possibility that the lye could be too strong in the final bars.

(measurements by volume are not recommended, but it worked for me- super secret: I don't have a digital scale)

Also, these tools, which you probably have around anyhow:
Digital Scale
Heat safe pitcher
Rubber gloves and goggles
Vinegar (in case of lye spills)
Stainless steel or enamel stockpot
Thermometer (I like digital the best for this)
Plastic or wooden soap mold (a plastic shoe box it perfect)
Immersion blender, hand mixer, or superhuman strength and patience with a wooden spoon
Wooden spoon (use wood because it's nonreactive and doesn't get too hot to hold)

Measure the water and put into a heat safe pitcher and put it in the fridge.  Melt the tallow in the stock pot.  You'll need your lye and your tallow at specific temperatures and it's much easier to cool down the lye and heat up the tallow than the other way around.  Let the tallow melt completely, then turn off the heat and stir occasionally.

Take the water out of the fridge.  You want the water to be very cold, as once you add the lye it will shoot up past 200'F very quickly.  Set the pitcher in your sink or in a large, heat safe container.  I prefer the sink because if some happened to spill in it, the worst that would happen is it would clean my drain pipes. 

Put on your Breaking Bad gear- it's lye time.  Carefully measure out the lye and pour it into the water.  Once again, always pour the lye into the water, never the other way around.  I've never tried the other way around, even though I'm curious.  I'm just going to trust the manufacturer's warnings on this one.  Stir in the lye granules until they are fully dissolved.  As you can see in the picture that was taken about five minutes after mixing, the lye water gets really hot really fast and stays that way for a bit.

Now is the tricky timing part.  You need your lye water to be between 90'F and 95'F and you want your tallow to be between 120'F and 130'F.  I'd recommend filling the sink with a few inches of cold water and putting the lye water pitcher in it to cool.  It's much easier to cool the lye down than to heat it up, so I'd be more concerned with the lye water temperature than the tallow.  I like the lye water to be about 94- 95'F, as it will cool slightly while you're pouring it into the tallow.

Basically, you just walk back and forth between the tallow and the lye water every couple of minutes, checking the temps.  Your tallow will stay warm for awhile and your lye water will cool faster if you stir it.  You can even get by with your tallow being at around 95' to 100'F, too.

It's lye pouring time!  Slowly, slowly, painfully slowly pour your lye water into the tallow while stirring.  This is why a pitcher is very handy, as it's easy to pour and stir.  I pour slowly enough that it takes me about three minutes to pour all of the lye water into the tallow.

Now you just stir, stir, stir.  If you have an immersion blender or hand blender, this will go a lot more quickly.  Exponentially more quickly.  If you do use a blender, take a break from it ever five minutes or so and stir by hand for five or so minutes.  If you don't do this, the mechanical combining of the blender will get ahead of the chemical reaction and your soap won't be properly saponified.  It starts to lighten in color, become more opaque, and slowly get thicker as you go.

This is a light trace on my soap.  I'll be honest, it took over an hour for my soap to trace, as I was stirring by hand.  A blender is worth the money if you ever plan to make soap more than once in your life.  If you aren't milling the soap later, this is when you can add your other ingredients, such as essential oils and colorants.

Once it's reached trace, pour it into your mold and put the lid on.  I really like the plastic shoe boxes you can pick up at a dollar store.  They're a good size, nonstick, and have a handy lid.  If you're a purist, you can use a wooden mold, but they seem like a bit of a pain in the rear to me.

Wrap the mold in towels and place in an oven or a cooler.  You want it to cool slowly so that it can properly saponify.  If you put it in the oven and don't live alone, I'd strongly recommend putting a very large and obnoxious sign on the door that says not to use the oven.  I can only imagine that a flaming towel wrapped around a melting plastic box full of still-caustic raw soap would do quite a number on both your sanity and your oven.

After twelve to 24 hours, you can unwrap the soap, remove it from the mold and cut it into bars.  You could probably wait longer, but you're likely antsy so see that soap and may have reached your delf-control threshold after only twelve hours.  You probably want to wear gloves, as it still may be a little "sting-y".  Set the bars on racks to dry, turning them every once in awhile when you remember to, which, if you're like me, will be once.

As you can sort of see, there's a bit of "ash" on the top of the bars because I didn't remember to stick a piece of plastic wrap to the surface of the soap after I poured it in the mold.  If this happens, just scrape it off.

You can use the bars as is after six weeks of curing, or you can mill them to add herbs, essential oils, colors, and/or other additives.  You can also add these things to the original batch at trace, but I think it's nice to have plain soap for your first batch and then mill a few different types to see what you like before making a whole giant batch of it.  Also, if you're new to soap and you screw up, it's better to screw up a plain batch of soap than one with $20 worth of scents and herbs and such.

(for those that like to throw caution to the wind and run wild and free)
Melt the tallow in a stainless steel pot.  Turn off the heat once it's liquefied.  Mix the lye and water together.  Check temperatures of the tallow and the lye until the tallow is approximately 125'F and the lye water is approximately 95'F.  Slowly pour the lye water into the tallow while stirring.  It should take you at least two minutes to pour all of the lye mixture into the tallow.  Stir constantly until it reaches trace (you want the mixture to stay at around 110'F- turn the heat on for a few seconds, then turn off if it starts to cool down too much).  Once it reaches trace, pour into a mold, cover, and wrap in towels.  Place in a cooler or oven and don't open it for at least 12 hours.  After at least 12 to 24 hours, cut it into bars and lay out to cure.  Allow to cure for at least six weeks before using so that saponification has fully occurred (i.e., the bars won't burn your skin anymore).

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