The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Making Lye Soap - Folkways - April, 1984

By John Beard © 1984

Issue: May, 1984

Whenever I get to talking about soap, my memory takes me back to a day when my grandfather, full of devilment, sent me indoors to show off my vocabulary of new words - words that he had taught me just for the occasion. Naturally, most of them turned out to be words that I wasn't supposed to say, and I remember wondering how anything that tasted as bad as soap could be good for anything.

While growing up, soap was a continual bother - ma made me take a bath with it every month, wash my pair of overalls with it every week and even wash my hands with it every day. However, as I got to courtin' age, I began to appreciate soap and even grew to like it a bit.

Because of what it did for me, I'm real proud to be able to tell you how to make some. Now I've heard tell that homemade soap will "eat the skin right off your hands" but that's just not so. It's as, gentle as most and even better than some.

You'll need to start with water, lye and animal fat (or lard). We always made our own lye but since hardly anybody has an ash hopper anymore, we'll stick to using store-bought Red Devil Lye.

To begin with, your fat needs to be clean. If you're using bacon drippings, used lard, etc., you'll need to clarify or clean the fat. It's not hard. Just stoke up the stove and boil one part fat with one part water. When the mixture starts to boil, remove from heat, cool down a bit, and add one (1) quart cold water to each gallon liquid. The pure fat will float to the top. Spoon the fat off and save it. When you've stored up six (6) pounds of good clean fat, you're ready to make soap.

Pour two and one-half pints cold water into an enamelware or stainless steel pan or Pyrex dish. CAREFULLY add one (1) bottle (thirteen ounces) Red Devil Lye crystals slowly while stirring with a wooden spoon. The reaction here will send the temperature way up - around two hundred degrees F. Allow the lye to cool to about ninety-eight (98) degrees F. (This can be rushed a bit by placing lye solution in a pan of cold water.) While the lye is cooling, heat your fat to ninety-eight (98) degrees F. also. When both the lye and fat are ready, pour the lye solution into the fat in a thin stream while stirring slowly and gently.

Be careful stirring - if you pour too fast or stir too roughly, it just won't do right.

Stir on until mixture gets thick like honey. You'll know it's right when, after ten to twenty minutes, a few drops off the spoon sit on the surface for a few seconds before sinking into the mixture.

It's at this time that you'll want to add any perfumes or colorings (If you're going to add any - more on that in a few seconds.)

Pour the mixture into a mold (Like a Vaseline greased shallow cardboard box) and place in a warm location. Cover with an old blanket, towel or rag to help retain the heat.

Let the soap stand for twenty-four (24) hours, cut into bars, and let air for about two weeks. You'll have made close to nine pounds of good old soap, suitable for most any cleaning chore you might run into.

After you get good at soap making, try a few of the following variations. All are added after the mixture thickens and just before you pour the soap into the mold: Milk and Honey Soap - Add one (1) ounce each of powdered milk and honey. Cold Cream Soap - Add two (2) ounces cold cream. Cinnamon Soap - Add six to eight ounces oil of cinnamon. Floating Soap - Beat the soap with an egg beater to whip in air bubbles.

Finally, if nine pounds of soap are just too much (or if bathing just doesn't appeal to you,) follow the same steps as outlined here but reduce your recipe to the following amounts:

One-half cup cold water
Two heaping teaspoons Red Devil Lye
One cup clean fat

That about does it for this month.

If you have any questions or ideas for topics or, if you just want to say hi, please feel free to drop me a note care of The Mountain Laurel.

Thanks for your help! We'll see ya next month.