Soap making 101: Troubleshooting soap making
So your soap didn’t turn out quite how you had hoped? Never fear, all may not be lost. Read through the common problems below to find the solution to your soap saga.
I am fortunate to have a huge base of soap making friends with tons of experience. One thing that I have learned from them is that botched batches are sometimes salvageable. Granted, they may not turn out looking like you envisioned them, but they will still be good, usable soap. Ugly soap is much better than wasted money any day. Today I am going go over some typical troubles with soap batches and what you can do to avoid them.
• Soft. Putty-like soap. Usually the result of too much water or not enough sodium hydroxide. Usually if you cure these batches out several extra weeks, they will become firm enough to slice into bars.
• Mixture becomes grainy (ricing). Usually caused by either too high or too low soaping temperatures; or the stirring process was not brisk or consistent enough. Most often results from synthetic fragrance oils. This is an aesthetic problem only. You can pour into the mold as is, or you can try some extra stirring. Sometimes I find that putting it on the stove on low heat and stirring with a stick blender will smooth out the mix.
• Mix does not come to trace. Usually caused by too much water or not enough lye. Sometimes can be caused by incorrect soaping temperatures or not enough stirring. Double check your recipe for correct measurements and your soaping temps. Continue stirring up to 4 hours. If mix does begin to thicken, go ahead and pour it. If it separates into oily and watery layers, give up and trash the batch.
• Hard, brittle soap. Too much lye was used, do not use these bars, they will be over alkaline or ‘lye heavy’.
• Batch separates into a layer of oil and a layer of soap-like substance. Usually caused by too quick of a temperature drop in the molds. Inaccurate proportions of oils and lye (too much lye), not enough stirring or mix was poured prematurely into the molds. I have seen some remarkable separations caused by synthetic fragrance oils as well. Some would recommend putting these onto the stove to reheat and repour, but, DO NOT do that. In most cases, the finished soap will be lye heavy and not skin safe.
• Mixture curdles, forming small pebbles at the bottom of the pan. Usually the result of oil, lye or both being too hot when mixed, or inconsistent stirring. You can try and correct with a stick blender or more vigorous stirring. Go ahead and pour the batch. If it turns out with white flecks or pebbles in it, do not use it.
• Mix sets up to quickly in the pan (seizing). Usually the result of synthetic fragrance oils, although some essential oils will cause this issue as well. Can also result from either too high or too low soaping temperatures, or too much saturated fat in the recipe. You can try and get this into the mold, sometimes it is possible. You can also put the entire mix into a zip lock bag and begin kneading it like you would do bread dough. Once it is workable you can tray and press it into the mold or roll it into a log. I find it easier on a severe seize to roll it into a log and then just cut it into soap rounds.
These are just a few of the more common problems when soaping. I have seen synthetic fragrance oils do some crazy things in soap. I always do a small test batch when working with new fragrance oil.
Another good soaper trick is the tongue test. Unmold your soap after a day or two and stick your tongue to a bar. If you get a ‘zap’ your soap has turned out lye heavy and should not be used. The zap is very similar to that of sticking your tongue to a 9 volt battery!
Hoegger Farmyard Contributor
Debbie is the owner of Plott Hollow Farm, dedicated to preserving endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. She is an experienced soap maker and member of The Handcrafted Soap Makers Guild. Find her farm and products at www.plotthollowfarm.com