Soap made from scratch. Photo by my iPhone.

Soap made from scratch. Photo by my iPhone.

How this workaholic longs for the holidays to be over! Especially when the big days fall midweek, effectively knocking out two full weeks. I tried not working—reading, watching movies—but that just resulted in flatness. I need to work, writing or cooking, apparently the way a shark needs to swim.

This week is time to think ahead toward what I hope to accomplish in 2014. I’ve already achieved one goal, small though it was. A few friends and I bought and broke down a pig in December (will post about this soon) and it was exceptionally fatty, leaving us with far more rendered lard than I need to cook with. How to use all this fat? Make soap. To my amazement, it was a breeze and finished in 30 minutes. Though there’s relatively little on the internet, this site provided ratios! Hard to know who this source is, but the ratio worked like a dream, considerably less water than other internet recipes.

This was really important to me because part of my goal was to waste as little of the pig as possible, and this is a lovely neutral soap that leaves the skin feeling moisturized after using.

Other goals for 2014:

  • A redesign of this site. I’ve wanted a proper logo, a cleaner look, and a regular partner (the wonderful company Le Creuset so that I don’t have those annoying ads for Kraft Ranch Dressing popping up on a homemade mayo post!). And most important a responsive site that adjusts to the varying screen sizes we use.
  • A new and improved Ratio app for the new iPhone, with a new design and a fabulous new feature that will allow users to create their own ratios! Very excited about this.
  • HBI, a scale company I love, is making a scale to my specifications, one that I can recommend to all home cooks.
  • My innovative (not an idle claim, it truly is innovative) look at the world’s most versatile culinary ingredient, will be published in April by Little, Brown, and I am at work on four short, single-subject books on specific techniques, as that is what all cooking comes down to, fundamental technique. The first, Roast, will appear next fall.
  • I’m working with a talented small group, one an accomplished writer-director, on a scripted drama for cable, a drama set primarily at a cooking school and a Manhattan restaurant. We have been working on this FOREVER, I am determined to get this off the ground this year.
  • I’m hoping to do a newsy food-related show that I want to call “Wake the Fuck Up!”—but I don’t know if this is going to fly; wish me luck.
  • I’m hoping very much to publish two non-food stories, a novella and a short novel—to publish fiction, my earliest adult goal, has eluded me.
  • I want to create an electronic book of cocktails, based on my Friday Cocktail Hour posts, since those have been so popular, and I’d love to have them in a single source, organized and easily searched.
  • I want to broaden the Ruhlman cooking tools, make new ones and sell more so that we can lower the damn prices and start shipping to Canada and beyond.
  • And I look forward to reintroducing the Schmaltz app for iPads, with additional recipes. Maybe one for schmaltz soap!

As 2014 begins I’d like thank all those people who join me and help me in my work: my assistant Emilia Juocys; copyeditor Karen Wise; Little, Brown editor Michael Sand; David and Joleen Hughes of Level Design; Stephen Jenkins, the man behind my website; Ann and Richard Lagravenese and Robin Skye; Will Turnage; Laura Yorke; Lisa, Cait, Adam, Vanessa, and so many others at CAA; Will Copenhaver at Le Creuset, David Mulvaney (the scale); April Clark (the Schmaltz app); Mac Dalton (our tools); and last and most important by far, my wonderful wife, Donna, without whom I couldn’t do half of this.

Now, about the above soap, comments and, especially, questions for people who actually know something about this.

For instance, I’m told that it needs to cure, presumably to get the rest of the water out. But the soap above is lovely and useable as is, 24 hours after making it. I intend to wrap and freeze some now (my only concern is rancidity), let some cure, and use some daily. Can anyone advise about the purpose of curing?

I steeped dried sage leaves from the garden in the oil then strained them out because I feared too piggy a smell, but there’s little sage scent and little smell; it’s actually a lovely, clean, neutral-smelling soap and leaves the hands feeling soft. I’m told you can add essential oils for fragrance, but I really like this unscented, no-nonsense version.

Again, I used straight rendered pig fat, lye, and water, nothing else. Worked like a charm. Here’s a source for food-grade lye (don’t be afraid of it, just be careful; I don’t use gloves or goggles and I’m fine). When you aren’t using it for soap, use it to make great pretzels or cure olives!

Lard Soap Ratio:

  • 100% rendered lard
  • 13% lye
  • 38% water

I used:

  • 600 grams lard
  • 78 grams lye
  • 228 grams water
  1. Line a small baking dish or loaf pan with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium, high-sided sauce pan, heat the fat to a temperature of 115˚F/46˚C., give or take a few degrees.
  3. In a separate pan, bring the lye and the water, stirring to dissolve the lye crystals, to the same temperature. Pour the lye water into the fat. Using a hand blender, blend this mixture until it looks like a custard sauce, so that a ribbon will remain distinct on top before becoming one with the mixture again (this is called tracing). It took me 20 minutes. I stopped every now and then to let the motor cool. For some people it can take 30 minutes. Just be patient, and be sure the mixture doesn’t go below 110˚F/43˚C or, for that matter, above 120˚F/49˚C.
  4. Pour the soap into the parchment-lined pan; again, it had the consistency of a lemon custard, and it began to set up immediately, so don’t dally here. Press a layer of parchment on top of this. Allow to set up for 24 hours. It should be hard by this point.
  5. Remove from the mold and cut as desired (I used a wire cheese cutter). I’ve read you’re supposed to let it cure for 3 to 4 weeks in a cool dry dark space. Evaluate it now—it may be good to go. I think because I used less water than most recipes called for it hit the trace stage fairly quickly and is ready for use today.

Other links you may like:

© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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42 Wonderful responses to “New Year’s Goals (and How to Make Soap)”

  • Monty

    Really hoping you can get the shipping to Canada worked out. Many gadgets I’m currently desiring, I’m looking at you spoons!!
    Best of luck with all the projects looking like a busy year!!

  • Jason

    Interesting. I have some vacuum sealed fatback in the freezer. I’ll have to give this a try. You made sausage scented soap. LOL

  • Mantonat

    My wife started making soap this summer and has done quite a bit of experimenting with different fats. One of our favorite recipes uses beef tallow that we rendered ourselves.

    I think the danger of rancidity is pretty low since the fat reacts chemically with the lye to turn into soap. Depending on your ratio, the soap may be a little “superfatted,” which means there’s some leftover fat after the saponification process. Apparently that can be a good thing since it makes for a more moisturizing soap.

    Curing will harden the soap so that a bar will last longer and give less residue. I believe this also helps the soap last longer; it seems like cured soap will last more than a year at room temperature, depending on the type of fat used.

    Many of the aromas are lost to the chemical reaction, which is part of why animal fats make pretty good soap bases. I’m not sure if there are any standard ingredients (like herbs, etc.) that will withstand the reaction and leave an aroma, so some essential oil is necessary if you want the soap to smell like much of anything. Our tallow soap has a rich, nutty aroma from the beef fat, but doesn’t smell meaty at all. the smell of cocoa butter is also pretty nice and persists after the lye is incorporated.

  • Rachel (Harmonious Homestead)

    I’ve made a couple of batches of soap and took a class from a local cold process soap maker. He recommended, and I used, SoapCalc, a free online app that has most fats listed and the lye ratios that will saponify them. http://www.soapcalc.net/calc/SoapCalcWP.asp

    In my experience, aging the soap does harden it, making a longer lasting bar. Waiting at least 48 hours allows the moisture to evaporate, neutralizing the pH. Using right away might be fine, but the remaining moisture will be basic and could irritate skin.

    • Mantonat

      Totally, especially if Jon Spencer Blues Explosion does the theme music and Bourdain gets a couple of cameos.

    • Goober

      Me too! But I fear you would never be allowed to tell the truth on commercial supported TV. Maybe PBS or, as someone suggested, a podcast would allow you to cut through the bullshit that manufacturers, TV doctors, and diet idiots tell us about food.

  • eyeroll

    I’m a hobbyist soapmaker, and while soap is safe to use after saponification is complete (usually a week or so) curing the soap allows more of the water to evaporate, giving a harder, longer lasting bar. The soap also becomes milder and less drying, and the lather is improved. I don’t know the chemistry behind why the soap becomes milder; I don’t think it is solely to do with water loss, but I can attest to it from personal experience.

    There is a lot of information online about making soap. For those interested in learning, I recommend using this lye calculator to determine how much lye to use: http://www.soapcalc.net/. It’s very popular and pretty user friendly, and also provides profiles of the various fats and what kind of product they produce.

    There are many, many soapmaking tutorials online. This is my favorite: http://www.youtube.com/user/soaping101.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    How very Martha Stewart of you!! Good luck on all your projects; are you forgetting to tell us there is more than 1 Michael Ruhlman or are you hiding a few…your list exhausts me but your drama entices me..good luck

  • Barbara Potter

    I’ve followed your blog (and read you books) for a very long time but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. I am a chef and also a soapmaker. There are just a few comments I’d like to make.

    1) Molds: traditional soap molds are very simple wooden rectangles that nearly anyone can make themselves. You can use any number of other objects for molds, including milk cartons, old drawers, plastic boxes, pvc pipes,etc. Lining the mold with freezer paper or silicone sheets will ensure that you can get the soap out again once it has set. METAL objects are not recommended because they can react with the raw soap. Pyrex and glass objects can burst due to the heat generated.

    2) Lye and water: Never, ever, ever pour water into lye when you are mixing them together!! This can cause a very dangerous volcano! Always mix your lye slowly into your liquid.

    3) Temps: I soap at room temperature, as do many others. In other words, both my melted oils and my lye solution are warm room temperature when I mix them together. There are many different methods of soap making, but I’ve never soaped over a heat source. It is important that your oils and lye solution are about the same temperature though or your soap will act up like crazy.

    4) Curing: Although you CAN use your soap right after you cut it, you will very quickly learn that it is not a good idea! :) Curing your soap for 4-6 weeks (or much longer with a pure olive oil soap) results in a MUCH milder bar. In addition, excess water evaporates out during the curing process, resulting in a much harder bar that will last longer when you use it.

    5) Gel: Once you’ve brought your soap to trace and poured it into a mold, it should go thru a process called gel. In other words, the chemical reaction that turns oils and lye into soap produces a great deal of heat and your soap batter will heat up and appear translucent for a while. Some people don’t want their soap to gel, so they will put it into the fridge or other cold space to keep this from occurring.

    6) Lye calculators: If you decide to make soap again in the future and want to use other oils, PLEASE use a lye calculator. http://www.soapcalc.net is free and easy to use. A lye-heavy soap is dangerous.

    7) Making soap is more addictive than wine! Most soap makers go thru a period of being totally obsessed with everything that has to do with soap. Be prepared! :)

    Good luck and have fun!

  • Carri

    Thanks for posting this! I have some beef fat to use up from my last cow and was thinking soap would be just the thing.
    Happy New Year, Michael and Donna!
    Looks like it is going to be a busy one!
    XO

  • Barbara Potter

    Oh, and as far as your soaps going bad: If you start out with good quality, fresh ingredients it’s really not something to worry about. Your soap (according to your post) was superfatted about 6% I think, which means all but about 6% of the lard has been turned into a salt. I have soaps that are superfatted at about 8-9% that are over 2 years old and they are fine. I HAVE had one soap develop DOS (dreaded orange spots) but I knew when I made it that one of my oils was a bit old. I wanted to see what would happen and sure enough, about 8 months later my soap went bad. DOS is the result of the superfatted oils in your soap going rancid. Hope that helps. There really isn’t any need for you to freeze any of your soap. It will be used up LONG before you have to worry about DOS. :)

  • Carol Peterman

    After the soap sets up in the molds, it’s not fully saponofied, meaning that it is still rather alkaline and can be harsh on skin. Typically only 40% to 50% of the mixture has saponofied at the time it’s poured into the molds.The 18-24 hour insulating period after pouring the soap into the molds keeps the saponofication action going. The four week cure also allows for continued saponification as well as allowing excess water to evaporate.The temperature at which you mixed the lye and fat does impact the rate of saponification. I use the cold-process (mixing ingredients at 80-100 degrees F) and therefore let the soap cure for 4 weeks. Also, if the stirring is too slow or inconsistent you won’t get proper emulsification and saponification. I let my Kitchenaid take care of this hurdle for me.

    Susan Miller Cavitch’s book, “The Soapmaker’s Companion” is an excellent resource. She goes into a great deal of the chemistry of soap making and how to calculate the amount of lye for various combinations of fats based on their individual saponification values. The copy I have was published in 1997, she might have a more current version out by now.

    It looks to me like your formula has about a 7% discount, so 7% of the fat will not saponofiy based on the amount of lye used. This makes the soap milder and more moisturizing, but also more susceptible to going rancid. You can add a natural preservative such as grapefruit seed extract to extend shelf life, or adjust the formula so it’s not “superfatted” and there is no discount taken. I would think storing the soap in the freezer for long-term storage would also be effective.

    Now you’ve got me wanting to make some soap, which I haven’t done in a long time!

    • Heather Kalisiak

      Grapefruit seed extract is not a preservative. Preservatives prevent mold, bacteria, and yeast from growing – which won’t happen in soap because at its most basic, it’s a salt.

      What you might want to add to soap, however – and as a professional saponifier, I do not – is an antioxidant. The two most common are vitamin E or rosemary oleoresin. Grapefruit seed extract is rather controversial and I don’t use it for anything, ever.

      • Carol Peterman

        Curious about your comment, I did a quick bit of research and found a paper published in Pharmazie in 1999 that tested six different grapefruit seed extracts for antimicrobial activity. All but one had antimicrobial activity, but here’s the kicker, the five that were active had added preservatives! The one that didn’t had no antimicrobial activity, so right you are. Cavitch’s book describes grapefruit seed extract as a preservative that kills bacteria, but it was published in ’97 and this study was published in ’99, though I didn’t dig deep enough to know if there is much published before ’97. Nothing like a good scientific study to set the record straight. Thanks for pointing this out. Here’s a link to the paper’s abstract.
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10399191

  • Heather Kalisiak

    Not a lot on the internet about soapmaking? You just weren’t looking in the right places! ^_^

    I’ll refrain from spamming the daylights out of your blog, but a good place to start is the venerable Miller’s Handmade Soap website at http://www.millersoap.com/ – and then move on to the Soap Queen Anne-Marie at http://www.SoapQueen.com (her videos are incredibly helpful).

    You can also check out the Indie Business Network’s listings of classes at http://indiebusinessnetwork.net/events if you’re the type who likes to take a class on soapmaking.

    The only thing I always tell new soapmakers – NEVER, EVER, EVER just use a recipe you find on the internet without running it through a lye calculator first. I have come across many formulas online that were so lye-heavy that they are dangerous. Google will give you many to choose from.

    (Disclaimer – I am a professional soapmaker since 2002 and a member of the Indie Business Network but am not teaching classes right now; I have no affiliation with the other websites listed, and out of respect for this excellent blog I won’t even link to my own business site. ^_^ )

  • Aaron

    Wake the Fuck Up sounds like it could work very well as a podcast too. That and the Alton Browncast would make for a very enjoyable morning’s listening.

  • JoP in Omaha

    Awesome projects on your list, Ruhlman. Books and tools and cable shows..oh, my! So much for us to look forward to this year.

  • Jon Savage

    Good times ahead this year Ruhlman. If even 1/2 of your goals are realized then you’ll be well ahead of the game.

    As a coincidence my wife has also recently discovered cold process soap making- the curing does matter but as you have noted the soap is usable in fairly short order. What the curing does give you is a gentler soap & at the same time a physically harder bar which = more longevity for it in use.

    Do try next a castille soap made using only Olive oil water & lye.

    (or mostly so anyway).

    http://candleandsoap.about.com/od/soaprecipes/a/castrecipe.htm

    I for my part am finishing my mise for tomorrow evening’s dinner- Ravioli di zucca using the filling described below. http://ricette.giallozafferano.it/Tortelli-di-zucca.html

    I might also take the extra step and laminate some sage leaves into the pasta which should harmonize well with the sage/brown butter sauce.

    Jon

    • Kristine

      I immediately thought of A Christmas Story; soap, Cleveland, and most posts on this site involve putting things in your mouth.

  • Jennifer

    I make soap. I follow a couple of soap making forums. I wrote the post below on my blog after getting tired of seeing the same questions (many of which I had when I started as well) over and over. Your soap should be fine, but will be much better after it sits for a month or so. The ratio you used checks out. I recently heard (can’t back it up) that lard is as close to the fat in human skin as we get. Some people have been known to use it straight on the face for wrinkles. I’m not quite that hard core. I also highly recommend the book “Scientific Soapmaking” by Kevin Dunn. He wrote it for his college chemistry students, and in the process debunked a lot of the soapmaking dogma that had been circulating for years. http://milesawayfarm.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/soaping-newbies-12-common-questions/

  • Kevin

    Michael, How about a Ratio app for the Windows phone? I know it may not be a huge market now, but you never know what the future holds. Enjoy the soap making, but don’t let it get in the way of your food stuff!. Looking forward to your new fiction. Love the food stuff, but your writing is just plain wonderful. Your show idea sounds like an internet deal unless you just drop the uck off the title. And ignore us for a day. Just my thoughts. Cheers!

  • Scott Johnston

    Goals: want to create an electronic book of cocktails, based on my Friday Cocktail Hour posts, since those have been so popular, and I’d love to have them in a single source, organized and easily searched.

    I really see this more as an app, with the ability to add more drinks with pictures.

  • Pam

    I love the soap idea. Will we have a Kindle version of The Book of Schmaltz in 2014?

  • Mori Gryphon

    Any chance of some love on the Android side of things? I will never own an iPhone/iPad (iOS drives me nuts!), but I would dearly love to have a copy of the Ratio app to play with!

  • Mark J Hoenigman

    My wife tutor’s at St. Helens in Newbury and made soap with/for a third grade class three weeks before Christmas. The next week (she only tutors once a week) she explained the science and processes that occur during soap making. The following week each of the children received a block of soap wrapped and ribboned along with a soap making process fact sheet (that explained the chemical processes that take place while making soap) for a present to the child’s choice recipient. The children were thrilled and seemed to learn various concepts and the parents were surprised with what their children learned and experienced. Thank you for exposing people to some of the basics of our existence.

  • Frank Reiter

    Excellent goals! Looking forward to watching you meet them, throughout the year. Also, loving the homemade soap making topic. I’ve been toying with the idea of making some homemade soaps. I’ll have to check out some of the resources mentioned here!

  • Miss Kim @ behgopa

    Awesome! What motivated you to make soap rather than use it for something culinary related? What would have been your alternative with the fat if you hadn’t made soap? I think I’ve made soap once back in chem class ages ago. I totally want to try again, but maybe with more yummy scents!

  • Peter Murray

    Stumbled across your blog while exploring Slow Food. I read the soap making experiment and attendant posts with great interest. My grandparents and great grandparents made soap, albeit a rather rustic version that they used for laundry. I was very young and only remember them around an outdoor fireplace and using ash in the process. I have often wanted to learn more about what they were actually doing. Your blog is going into my favorites…thanks

  • winnie ryan

    Also, don’t worry if your soap cures extra long and gets quite dry and firm – it’s still good. It will take longer to use up in the shower or where ever you’re using it, but it will still suds and do cleaning.

  • www.google.com

    Helpful information. Fortunate me I discovered your website by accident, and I’m stunned why this accident didn’t happened in advance! I bookmarked it.