In the spring, back a few years ago, my neighbor showed me around his expanding apiary. At the time he had 11 hives filled to the brim with honey bees and a modest roadside stand that was open and stocked with honey. I had a growing fascination with bees and their amazing culture, but this neighbor happened to be a science teacher also, and like any great teacher would, he recognized and fostered my curiosity. That day, he gave me a crash course on honey differences and quality, but more importantly for this discussion, he showed me how to make soap with the honey and wax that he harvested the fall before. He gave me a simple recipe, some wax and honey, and I went home with confidence to try this chemistry lesson on my own. Within a week, I had sufficiently researched the process, I thought, to try this in my own kitchen. The first batch failed miserably! After a brief discussion with my neighbor, he confirmed that the glop I described was indeed “junk” and said to toss it. The weirdness is, I had to find out why I couldn’t make the magic happen in my kitchen. Our family was already using handmade soaps to avoid the industry’s ever expanding ingredients, so I was motivated to research more thoroughly.
The lesson in soap making from my neighbor, Patrick Freivald, is called the Cold Process method. Soap making is a complex chemical reaction between an acid (fats and oils) and a base (sodium hydroxide and water). The acid and the base chemically bond together and produce heat within this process, thus the description of cold processing was coined. There is a common method called hot processing which introduces additional heat, and that heat forces the chemical bonding further which renders a soap which can be considered safe without a long curing process. Back before the discovery of sodium hydroxide or lye, potash leached from wood ashes was used to make soap. The finished product was soft and harsh, but did a sufficient job of cleaning. During the 1700’s, potash was replaced with caustic soda (lye), and soap was made more economically. Today, we have an enormous list of ingredient choices which makes the science of soap making an art also. After combining the oils with the lye, a good amount of stirring must be used to ensure that the chemical bonding continues. This process is called saponification or simply, the making of soap. First, the fats and oils are broken down into fatty acids (triglycerides) and the sodium hydroxide must be split into it’s respective ions, then the reaction, or bonding of these parts is what constitutes the formation of soap. Shazam! Next week, we will look into how and why we choose the wholesome, natural ingredients that make up the products we love.
Researched from: The Soapmaker’s Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch