Plenty of simple and ready-made ingredients and soap recipes make soap making look damn easy. It is not so. To those who have been there (and done it), soap making is a complex process that can take a hell a lot of time if you do not know the nuances and problems involved. On the other hand, if you are a natural troubleshooter who knows to keep your wits about you all through the saponification process, you can make really good soaps.
Like all homemade, do-it-yourself-stuff, soap making too has its share of difficulties. Before venturing into the difficulties realm, let’s take a look at what saponification exactly means.
Saponification process: Saponification is the chemical term for the reaction between lye and fat and the formation of soap. When animal fat meets an alkali, the alkali first splits the fat into two major parts – fatty acids and glycerin. After this, the sodium are potassium part of the alkali joins with the fatty acid part (of animal fat) to form a potassium or sodium salt – which is nothing but soap. From this you can gather that the constituent of alkali is a decisive factor in determining the quality, texture and nature of your soap. Soap making’s favorite alkali is lye or liquid potash or sodium hydroxide. You can use whichever is convenient for you, but you need to be careful about the strength and amount of lye solution you use. This is because lye is one of the first bottlenecks faced by soap makers:
1. Strength of lye: The strength of your lye solution determines the nature and solidity/liquidity of your soap. Inappropriate quantity or low/high strength of your lye solution can mean problems like – curdling of mixture, grainy soap, spongy soap, soap with air bubbles, lye pockets in soap etc. To avoid this, the colonists used a method. To determine if the strength of their lye solution is perfect, they let a potato or egg float on the lye water. If the object floated with specified amount of its surface above the lye solution, it was declared as a fit solution for soap making. To weaken the strength of a strong solution, water was added. To increase strength, the lye water was poured into the ash hopper once again.
Today, you need not make things floppy with potatoes or eggs. There are lye calculators to determine the strength of your lye solution. You can use them after you mix lye with water. You can follow the recipe letter for letter and make your lye perfect without the need to check with a calculator.
2. No saponification: Happens with almost all first-time soap makers. The reason can be many things – excess water, insufficient lye, not enough stirring, rancid tallow, high amount of polyunsaturated fats in tallow etc. Check your ingredients if you do not see any trace of soap formation.
3. Rancid tallow: Beef tallow can go rancid if not well kept. It always better to go for grass fed beef and then render it on your own than opt for a packaged suet. A store-sold packaged suet is processed beef fat which may not contain the necessary elements to help in soap formation. It is ideal as a bird feed only. In order to get better soaps, order your beef from your butcher and render it into tallow yourself. Ensure that it is cleansed of impurities and store it in appropriate ways to prevent rancidity.
4. Unusual soaps: Sometimes the end result maybe a warped or a freckled or a mottled soap. Your soap may carry unwanted colors (without you coloring it) and smell rancid. Sometimes air bubbles may abound in the soap mixture or a small amount of white powder may stay on top. All these are common problems and can be troubleshooted if you double-check the quality, strength and amount of ingredients you use. Air bubbles happen when you stir too long or whip while stirring. A warped soap means you have not followed the right drying process. Mottled look is a result of uneven stirring or temperature changes. A rancid smell occurs when you add too much fat and too little lye.
5. Coloring and scent: Some may add too much scent to their soaps. This is not required. Few drops of essential oils or perfumes (approved ones) can do the trick. See to it that you get the right color and scent you require. A very strong smell can often be a source of headaches and migraines. So, ensure you use the appropriate amount of perfume suitable for your body.