Readers, this is the fourth of 12 basic homestead skills we’ll be presenting every month throughout 2019 from Kimberlee Bastien’s new book, 52 Homestead Skills. We invite you to join Kimberlee and her family on their homesteading journey. Visit 52 Homestead Skills to learn more about this series. You can buy Kimberlee’s book via our online Store.
Some people collect comic books, coins or antiques. I collect bars of soap. When I go on vacation, I like to seek out specialty soap stores and blissfully bury my nose in one beautiful scented variety after another. And then dream of making my own from the honey and wax I harvest from my hives.
Until recently, I’ve been afraid of using lye, a caustic chemical that can burn your skin and even blind you. But when I saw an advertisement for a soap workshop with ZOLI Handcrafted Soaps in Memramcook, New Brunswick, I knew I had to try making my own.
It turns out lye is not as scary as I’d thought — so long as you take the proper safety precautions, such as wearing goggles and gloves. You’ll also want to wear long sleeves. Save your flowy, Boho clothes for another day; you’ll want to wear something snug fitting for soap making.
Jeanne Hebert of ZOLI Handcrafted Soaps describes this recipe as a great beginner soap. The oils used are inexpensive (just in case it doesn’t work out your first try) and it has a short tracing time (the time it takes for the soap to thicken enough for you to pour it into your molds).
I love that this recipe uses tallow. Not only is tallow inexpensive, but it’s essentially a waste product that doesn’t need as much processing as many vegetable oils, which have to be harvested, pressed, filtered, bottled, and transported (in my case) a very long distance. How much energy does that consume versus saving the fat from your beef dinner?
Now, if you don’t happen to have any tallow stored in your cupboard, you may be wondering where to buy it. You don’t. You make your own.
How to Render Tallow
First, you’ll need to call your local butcher and ask for suet (beef fat). Cut any meat from the suet, which can spoil your tallow. Place the fat into a stockpot and add enough water to cover the suet as well as 1 tablespoon of salt for every pound of fat.
Bring to a boil and simmer on low until the fat turns into melted tallow. Meanwhile, line a colander with cheesecloth and place it on top of another pot.
Pour the tallow into the colander and let it cool to room temperature. Store it in your fridge overnight.
In the morning, there should be a large, white disc of fat inside the pot below the colander. That’s tallow! It’s not only an inexpensive ingredient, but used in this recipe, it produces a long-lasting, hard bar of soap with a rich, creamy lather.
- 1.28 pounds tallow
- 6.84 ounces vegetable oil (any kind)
- 3.06 ounces lye
- 8.88 ounces distilled water
- 30 drops of essential oil of your choice
- Soap molds
- Parchment paper or oil for lining/greasing your molds
- Plastic wrap and blankets
- Stainless steel pot
- Stainless steel bowl
- Wooden spoon or hand-held mixer for mixing
- Goggles and gloves
1. Line your molds with parchment paper; for silicone molds, you can use oil (olive, vegetable, or coconut). Instead of using molds, we simply lined cardboard boxes with plastic to make bars of soap.
NOTE: Only certain materials can be used for cold process soap: plastic, silicone, and wood. Active lye will rust most metals and the heat from the lye will melt weaker plastics.
2. Carefully weigh and measure all ingredients.
3. Measure out the water and slowly add the lye while constantly mixing. Always add small amounts of the lye to the water and not vice versa, or you could create a lye explosion. You definitely don’t want this to happen.
NOTE: Carry out this step in a well-ventilated area. The fumes are toxic. Once all the lye has dissolved, you can move on to your oil mixture.
4. Heat your oil in a stainless-steel pot on medium-low until the temperature reaches 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool both the lye mixture and oils to between 100 and 110 degrees. As you wait, continue to mix and check the temperature. Mixing will prevent clumps in your soap and bring down the temperature faster.
5. Once the oil has cooled to the proper temperature, pour the oil slowly into the lye and water mixture in a stainless-steel container.
6. Stir! Use a wooden spoon or, for quicker results, a hand-held mixer until your soap becomes the consistency of pudding. This is called tracing. You can test if your soap is ready by slowly drizzling it with a spoon. If you see the line in your soap, it’s ready to mold.
7. Mix in the essential oil.
8. Pour the soap mixture into your lined or oiled mold and cover with plastic wrap and blankets to keep it warm. You want to bring the temperature down as slowly as possible to achieve a hard bar of soap.
9. Within 1 to 2 days, the soap will be hard enough to de-mold and cut into bars. Always use gloves for this step, since the lye is still active.
10. Let your soap cure for at least three weeks. Turn the bars (using gloves) every week or so to promote good air flow on all sides of the soap.
Kimberlee Bastien is a homesteader and author who traded her suburban life for a century-old farm where she and her husband challenged themselves to learn 52 homesteading skills in a year.