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By Susanna Brandon, USA TODAY
Oprah Winfrey was just a little girl when she had a soap epiphany. In a flash, she knew her world was going to reach way beyond rural Mississippi.
"My grandmother said, 'Come here, child, and learn to make soap.' And I said, 'No, Grandma, I won't need to know how to make soap. My world is going to be much bigger than that.'"
I experienced a soap epiphany last fall, bewitched by The Handmade Soap Book by Melinda Coss. As I studied the stylish photos of rough-cut soap with names like Dream Castile and Buttered Roses, my world, unlike Oprah's, instantly narrowed. Everything from sushi seaweed to pumpkin puree became a potential ingredient. From the trash, empty containers -- Hey, who threw out these soap molds? -- beckoned to me to fish them out.
I was hooked. There was just that small problem of . . . lye.
Actually, soap is surprisingly easy and safe to make. You just need to be careful.
As you may recall from school, soap results from the chemical reaction between fats, which are acids, and lye, a base. Our soapmaking foremothers made a weak lye solution from wood ashes, but, lucky us, we can go to the supermarket and buy a truly scary modern convenience in a can, the aptly named Red Devil lye.
The truth about lye: It is not your friend. It is, in fact, the basest of bases - that is, it will hurt you if it can. Leave it unattended and someone will drink it and die. Neglect to use safety glasses just once and it will splash you squarely in the eyes.
But properly harnessed, lye will turn ordinary Crisco, lard or vegetable oils into a thing of beauty and utility. The lye disappears, married off molecule by molecule with the fat, leaving a mild and moisturizing bar with a high percentage of natural glycerin.
Your homemade soap will be kind, even healing, to troubled skin; creams and lotions will become as redundant as a wood stove in July. Once you try homemade soap, you won't go back.
But it's not always an easy sell. When I tried to give my 19-year-old daughter a bar specially formulated for oily skin, she took a step backward. "No way," she declared. "I'll turn into one big zit." Two weeks later, she called home to announce that her face had cleared up. Would I send some tea tree-peppermint soap for her roommates?
Older folks tend to be wary of "lye soap," those hard cakes made from lard that Grandma used for scrubbing everything from laundry to babies. Most people will marvel at your handcrafted soap, although it may take a little coaxing to get them to use it. But once they do, they'll be asking for more.
Which is a good thing, because I'll let you in on soapmaking's dirty little secret: Once you start, you won't want to stop.
In fact, if Oprah had followed her grandma out to the soap vat and started stirring, she might still be in Mississippi today.
First and foremost, arm yourself with safety glasses and thin rubber gloves. Next you'll need:
Fats and oils. You won't find coconut and palm oils, the mainstays of most soap recipes, at the grocery store. So we'll use olive oil (the less expensive, the better) and vegetable shortening.
Distilled water. Tap or well water can cause problems.
Red Devil lye. It's at the grocery, next to the Drano. Do not use Drano, which is not pure sodium hydroxide. Shake Red Devil cans until you find one that sounds "smooth," not crunchy. Read the precautions on the label.
Scent. Use essential oils (the distillation of herbs and flowers used in aromatherapy and found at natural food stores) or synthetic fragrance oils (but only ones that have been tested for soapmaking). You'll need about half an ounce (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) to scent a pound of soap. Or make unscented soap. Just don't dump vanilla extract or your bottle of Chanel No. 5 into the soap pot: Alcohol and soap don't mix.
Color. Soaps can be colored with herbs, clay, spices and powdered pigments, to name a few. In a perfect world, blueberries would make blue soap. Alas, they do not. Food coloring also won't work.
Extras. Oatmeal and poppy seeds make excellent exfoliants. Herbs such as comfrey and calendula heal and soothe. Small amounts of expensive oils such as avocado, jojoba and hemp seed will make your soap even better.
There are endless combinations in soapmaking, limited only by your ingenuity, budget and natural law. Keep your first batch simple.
Very simple soap
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Crisco
1 1/3 cups olive oil
1/4 cup Red Devil lye
6 fluid ounces cool distilled water
Arrange for two hours without interruptions. Wear long sleeves. Put on safety glasses and gloves. Keep vinegar at hand for lye splashes.
Measure the cool water in the heatproof cup. Place it in the sink, where it can't be knocked over. Working in a well-ventilated area, measure the lye. Hold your breath (not because of the danger, but because there will be fumes) and pour the lye slowly into the water, stirring until dissolved. The lye solution will top 175 degrees.
Place the Crisco in the stainless-steel pot over low heat until it melts (about 20 minutes). Add the olive oil. After another 15 minutes, take the soap pot off the heat.
Within five minutes, both the pot and the heatproof cup should feel toasty (about 115 degrees if you have a glass candy thermometer) but not hot. Slowly pour the lye solution into the fats, stirring steadily. The mixture will lighten and start to thicken.
Looking for trace. Stir diligently for 15 minutes, or until the soap traces. Trace occurs when a bit of raw soap, dribbled from the spatula across the surface, leaves "traces" for a few seconds before sinking back in. If you don't get trace after 15 minutes, take a 10-minute break. Stir another 15 minutes. Repeat. Your soap should eventually trace. (If it doesn't, recheck your measurements. You may have to start over.)
At trace, stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons scent and pour the soap immediately into the mold. Insulate. Scrape the leftover soap in the pot onto a paper towel and toss it.
Wash the utensils in hot water.
The cure. Leave the soap undisturbed for 24 hours. It will heat up as it goes through its chemical reaction, then cool. When the soap is firm, cut into four to six bars and put them in a dry, well-ventilated place, away from kids and pets.
Vegetable-based soap needs at least two weeks to tie up loose ends, while soaps made with animal fat seem to take twice that long to lose their "bite." Be patient.
Otherwise, you'll arouse unnecessary suspicion if you offer your creation with the words: "Here is your mild and moisturizing bar of homemade soap, but don't use it for two weeks, OK?"
Soapmaking is a satisfying but sometimes mystifying blend of art and science. One minute you'll be calmly contemplating scraping the baby's leftover spinach into a batch to get green soap, and the next you'll be in a panic, convinced that the thin layer of white stuff on your curing soap is lye, coming back to get you. (Relax. It's harmless soda ash, which can be scraped, shaved or washed off.) It's best to start your research now so that you won't be all in a lather when you get a craving to make chocolate soap or when things don't go quite as planned.
Two books I could not do without: the visually stunning Handmade Soap Book by Melinda Coss (Storey Books, $22.95) and the wise and text-heavy Soapmaker's Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch (Storey Books, $18.95).
Other books to inspire and inform: Country Living Handmade Soap: Recipes for Crafting Soap at Home by Mike Hulbert (Hearst, $19.95) and Perfumes, Splashes & Colognes by Nancy Booth (Storey Books, $14.95), which, while not a soapmaking book, will help you blend scents to make fragrant soap.
Soapmaking, a homesteading craft to warm a Luddite's heart, has spawned an entire electronic cottage industry, supplying soapers with ingredients, equipment, information, commiseration and advice.
You'll find a mother lode of information at http://millersoap.com created by Kathy Miller, a mother of six who has been making soap for nearly 20 years. Her Web page has instructions, recipes and true-life soapy successes and failures. The page offers links to all things soap, from suppliers to mailing lists to lye calculators (handy for designing recipes or double-checking those in books, which can be lye-heavy).
Next, head to the Latherings forum, either from the link on Miller's page or from the host, www.sugarplum.net, where you'll find a cyber-kaffeeklatsch of friendly and knowledgeable soapers.
If you aren't inclined to go on a scavenger hunt, Summers Past Farms (www.soapmaking.com/soapkit.htm) offers an Herbal Soap Kit ($64.95) with everything you'll need, including premeasured oils, lye, a wooden mold and a video. Information: 800-390-9969.
Storey Books offers a similar kit, the Natural Soapmaking Kit ($49.95), with The Natural Soap Book by Susan Miller Cavitch instead of a video. Bring your own lye. Information: 800-441-5700.
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