Fermenting Your Own Ginger Ale with Wild Yeasts

I know lengthy recipe posts can be a droll, but if you’ve never made your own fermented beverage, it is essential to know a little before you get started! This post is for the beginner and I hope you enjoy!

Pouring an ice cold glass of my own ginger beer! Listen to that fizz! (Sorry for other background noise.)

Before Co2 carbonation, the only drinks historically carbonated were beers and wines. This is because Co2 is a byproduct of fermentation, and when trapped inside the fermentation vessel, the beverage stays carbonated. It is entirely possible to replicate this process at home by making your own fermented and (mostly) non-alcoholic sodas. I say mostly because, much like vinegar, there are trace amounts of alcohol produced by the fermentation process, but the amount is minuscule compared to a traditional alcoholic drink.

In the modern era, we have commercialized yeast to make stable, consistently flavored beers and wines, but before commercialized yeast all drinks were made using wild yeasts, which can be captured by numerous methods. One method used to make homemade sodas is to make a ginger bug. This is made much like a sourdough starter for bread, except the base ingredients are water, ginger, and sugar. Daily, equal parts ginger and sugar are added to the ginger bug. Wild yeasts occur naturally on ginger and so ginger bugs are ready fairly quickly. After 7-14 days of feeding and nurturing your ginger bug with daily feedings of ginger and sugar, you’ll have a bubbly, gingery, alcoholic-smelling soda starter. This starter is then added to your soda base, bottled up, and left to ferment for a couple of days to ensure a nice fizzy drink.

I initially wanted to try fermenting my own sodas because I was curious, but along the way I have come to love the process for so many reasons. First, I feel a bit like a mad scientist brewing up interesting concoctions. Because the sodas are carbonated using fermentation (wild yeasts), they contain live active probiotics. The sodas typically use less sugar, which I prefer the taste of, but you are making this for yourself so you can use more or less to suite your tastes. The ingredients are real and very fresh, so unlike regular soda, there is some nutritional benefit aside from the probiotics. Finally, if you’re concerned at all about your carbon footprint, making your own soda is a little- to no-waste means of making a tasty drink, with no bottle or can to add to the garbage bin afterwards.

There are numerous websites and books which instruct you to make a ginger bug. Some add equal parts water, sugar, and ginger daily, and some start with a set amount of liquid and add only sugar and ginger daily. I have tried both, and both work great. Using a set amount of liquid is a bit easier though. The ingredients types also vary slightly in terms of water filtration, sugar types, and organic vs non-organic ginger and sugar. Again, I’ve used a combination of all various of ingredient types with no noticeable affect on outcome.

To Make the Ginger Bug

I had made a ginger bug years ago, but eventually gave up. Sometime last year I decided to try again and I used the Ginger Bug recipe from Nourished Kitchen. I use organic ginger (unpeeled), water filtered with a Brita pitcher filter, and plain white sugar. Many folks will tell you that you can store your dormant ginger bug in the fridge, taking it out once a week for a few hours to feed it, but I can assure you mine has fared very well being fed only once every 2-3 weeks! If you wait as long as I do between feedings, I recommended feeding at least twice in a 12 hour period prior to using in a soda to ensure it is extremely active. Wait at least 3-4 hours after feeding before use in soda.

Here is time lapse of my active ginger bug a few hours after feeding it with some sugar and ginger.

Easy Homemade Ginger Beer

  • Servings: 4 bottles
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Rating: ★★★★★
  • Print

This recipe makes approximately four easy-top home brewing bottles worth of ginger beer. Each bottle holds roughly two liquid cups.

Ingredients

  • 7 cups of filtered water
  • 2-3″ piece of fresh ginger root, minced
  • 1 cup plain white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2-3 long zested slivers of lemon or lime peel (optional, but boosts citrus flavor without the ned for more sugar)
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon or lime juice or combination of both
  • 1/2 cup ginger bug, fed at least 4-6 hours prior to use to ensure an active starter
  • Fine mesh strainer
  • Pitcher
  • 4 home brew easy top beer bottles (as seen in the previous video)
  • Funnel

Directions


1. Make a “wort” by boiling one cup of the filtered water along with the ginger, white sugar, molasses, salt, and citrus zest. Cover, bring to boil, and lower heat to a simmer, simmering for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
2. In the meantime, juice your lemon or limes. Pour the remaining six cups of water in a pitcher along with 1/2 cup of lemon/lime juice.
3. Grab a strainer and position it over the pitcher. After the wort has simmered for 10 minutes, pour your wort over the strainer and into the pitcher to catch any large ginger and zest chunks.
4. Empty the strainer into your compost or trash. Grab a measuring cup (I use a glass Pyrex two-cup measuring cup), position the strainer over the measuring cup, and pour out 1/2 cup of the ginger bug. (Don’t forget to add 1/2 cup of water to your ginger bug and feed it). Add the 1/2 cup of ginger bug to your pitcher and stir well. Discard any ginger from the starter.
5. Make sure your home-brewing bottles have been washed well with hot soapy water. I like to rinse mine with a mild bleach water to ensure any bad bacteria is not present. When I am ready to pour, I put mine in the sink to catch any accidental spills. Put your funnel in the opening of your first jar, and start pouring. Fill each bottle until there is roughly 1″ of headspace left. If you happen to come up short a little liquid, don’t worry, it should still carbonate well.
6. Place the bottles in a room temperature space, out of direct sunlight, and let sit for 24-48 hours. A lot of pressure can build up so it is vitally important that you do not forget these bottles, or you could risk the bottles exploding. After 12-24 hours you can gently pop open the lid to check for carbonation by sight and sound. You can always let it sit longer if it’s under-carbonated but there’s not much you can do if it is over-carbonated. I recommend testing this outside because if it is over-carbonated the liquid can bubble out of the bottle much like a volcano.* Finally, the time it takes for carbonation to occur depends on how active your ginger bug was, and the ambient room temperature. The cooler the temperature, the slower the fermentation.
7. If you have bottles with a good quality rubber seal, these should stay well carbonated for 1-2 weeks in the fridge. If the soda goes flat, simply let it set on the counter again for another 24-36 hours. The resulting drink won’t be as sweet, but at least you’re saving all of your hard work.
8. ENJOY!

*Ages ago when I was first getting the hang of carbonating my own drinks, I had tried to make a soda out of strawberry juice. When I popped the top the resulting eruption was so powerful it spewed straight into my ceiling creating the largest kitchen disaster I’ve ever made. There was no strawberry soda left in the bottle, and I’ve never tried to make strawberry soda again!

How to Store Fresh Farm Eggs

I sell the occasional carton of eggs, and a frequent question I receive regarding my eggs is about refrigeration. Should you refrigerate farm eggs? I’m going to address that for you today.

Here’s the Short Answer:

This post will go into some detail, with references included, but for those who want the short answer here it is: clean, fresh farm eggs that have not been washed or previously refrigerated can be stored on the counter safely no more than one to two weeks for maximum freshness and flavor with minimal bacterial contamination. For longer shelf life, store them in the fridge for up to five weeks, and often longer. If you do not have access to a refrigerator, at least one study has proven that eggs can be kept for three to four weeks at room temperature if they have been coated in vegetable oil2.

From left to right: Peking duck egg, store-bought Grade A large brown egg, Barred Plymouth Rock egg, Partridge Penedesenca egg, Exchequer leghorn egg

Here’s the Long Answer:

Right before an egg passes out of a bird’s (any bird’s) body, a protective layer, scientifically known as the cuticle, is deposited on the egg5, 10. Colloquially, most folks refer to this protective layer as the bloom. Eggs are porous to allow oxygen to be received by a developing chick, but these pores also leave the egg vulnerable to bacterial contamination. Bacteria is one of the primary reasons eggs will spoil so to avoid contamination, the bloom fills the pores to prevent bacteria crossover10. This means that while an intact bloom is present, the egg is shelf stable.

In the case of eggs purchased from your average grocery market in the US, the eggs were washed immediately after laying, thereby removing the bloom, and promptly refrigerated1. Any time the bloom is removed the eggs are made vulnerable to bacteria penetration10. Even if the bloom is left intact, once the egg is refrigerated it must remain refrigerated. This is because when an egg is cold and placed in a warmer environment it will sweat, and the resulting moisture disrupts the bloom.

There is nothing wrong with washing and refrigerating eggs. In fact, salmonella is the leading cause of foodborne illnesses world wide, with eggs identified as the source in roughly 53% of cases in the US as reported by the CDC4. That is to say, it is incredibly important to take egg storage seriously.

With farm eggs, a properly maintained coop with clean nesting boxes means that most eggs are laid with a beautiful clean shell and a fully intact bloom. Provided the eggs are collected soon after laying and they didn’t reach cold temperatures (for example, if they were laid on a cold winter day and left in the brood box to cool down), the eggs can be safely kept at room temperature for a short period of time. I’ve been hard pressed to find exactly how long it is safe to keep eggs at room temperature, but one frequently cited article from 1970 states that the bloom starts to break down after four days8. One article from Mother Earth News equates one day on the counter to seven days in the fridge, and other blog posts suggest anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks on the counter is safe for unwashed eggs2, 6, 7. But what is actually safe?

I wanted to dig a little deeper into egg preservation methods, and I did come across a few studies, of which I had free online access. In one study, by Eke, M. O. and colleagues in 2017, researchers wanted to assess egg storage techniques for developing countries, such as Nigeria, in which a refrigerator may not be available. They looked at three methods for storage: unwashed, stored at room temperature; unwashed eggs coated in vegetable oil stored at room temperature; and eggs that have been refrigerated. They assessed several parameters of egg quality, including bacterial, mold, and yeast contamination; loss of weight, change in Ph, and overall yolk and albumin quality. In all parameters measured, by Week 1 the non-refrigerated and non-oiled eggs were already decreased in all measures, while the oiled eggs and refrigerated eggs were still pretty close in quality to each other, and have changed little from the Day 1 measures. By weeks two, three, and four the room temperature and non-oiled eggs were radically decreasing in quality, while the other two groups were still close to each other. In the bigger picture, the refrigerated eggs retained the highest quality, but the oiled eggs were a close second, while the non-refrigerated and non-oiled eggs quickly decrease in quality.

When choosing to store eggs at room temperature, it may be wise to coat your eggs in vegetable oil!

How I Handle My Eggs

Earlier I mentioned clean eggs with a fully intact bloom. Unfortunately chickens are not perfect creatures, and even the cleanest coop cannot stop a chicken who has stepped in poop from stepping on her egg, or on an egg that’s already been laid. Sometimes poop happens! Anytime I have a small amount on my egg, I wipe it off and cook it within 1-2 days. If I don’t plan on cooking with it I put it straight in the fridge. Even an intact bloom is not a perfect barrier against poop sitting directly on an egg. Salmonella is no joke! (See FDA article if you don’t believe me!)

If the egg is heavily coated with poop, I absolutely never give it to a customer. I select only the cleanest eggs for distribution and store them in the refrigerator for maximum shelf life. For myself, I wipe it off and bake it in a baked good to ensure it is well done. I do not fry or those eggs, just in case. Fortunately, it’s rare I have a really dirty egg, and I bake a lot.

If you are really worried about egg safety, the only tried and true method of avoiding foodborne illness from eggs is to use fresh eggs, and cook them well done. But who am I kidding? I’ll take mine sunny side up.

Image result for sunny side egg stock photo

References

1“Cleaning.” Incredible Egg, http://www.incredibleegg.org/eggcyclopedia/c/cleaning/.

2“Day 13 – Must Fresh Eggs Be Refrigerated?” Living Homegrown, 23 Oct. 2014, livinghomegrown.com/day-13-must-fresh-eggs-be-refrigerated/.

3Eke, M.O., et al. “Effect of Storage Conditions on the Quality Attributes of Shell (Table) Eggs.” Nigerian Food Journal, No Longer Published by Elsevier, 10 May 2015, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0189724115300722.

4Food and Drug Administration, HHS. “Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs during Production, Storage, and Transportation. Final Rule.” Federal Register, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 July 2009, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19588581/.

5Gole, Vaibhav C, et al. “Effect of Egg Washing and Correlation between Eggshell Characteristics and Egg Penetration by Various Salmonella Typhimurium Strains.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 12 Mar. 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951326/.

6Happy Chicken Coop. “The Happy Chicken Coop.” The Happy Chicken Coop, 13 Jan. 2020, http://www.thehappychickencoop.com/how-to-store-your-chickens-freshly-laid-eggs/.

7Steele, Lisa. “Should I Refrigerate My Farm-Fresh Eggs?” Mother Earth News, 2016, http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/should-i-refigerate-farm-fresh-eggs-zm0z16aszsor.

8Vadehra, D. V., et al. “Role of Cuticle in Spoilage of Chicken Eggs.” Wiley Online Library, Journal of Food Science, Jan. 1970, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1970.tb12354.x.. “Role of Cuticle in Spoilage of Chicken Eggs.” Wiley Online Library, Journal of Food Science, Jan. 1970, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1970.tb12354.x.

9Whiley, Harriet, and Kirstin Ross. “Salmonella and Eggs: from Production to Plate.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, MDPI, 26 Feb. 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4377917/.

10Wilson, Peter W, et al. “Understanding Avian Egg Cuticle Formation in the Oviduct: a Study of Its Origin and Deposition.” Biology of Reproduction, Oxford University Press, 1 July 2017, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5803769/.

Building a Green House and a Few Homesteading Book Recommendations

In December I finally nagged by boyfriend into helping me build a greenhouse. To start, I used the book Step-by-Step Projects for Self-Sufficiency: Grow Edibles * Raise Animals * Live Off the Grid * DIY. This book is fantastic! It has dozens of projects ranging in scale of difficulty, and many of them are on my to-do list for this coming year. Many of these require at least basic knowledge of tools and building, but trust me, if I can do it you can too!

Okay, full disclosure my boyfriend is 100% the muscle and 98% the brains behind all major building projects. My 2% is just coming up with the idea and then cheering him on. However even with this build, I actually contributed, mostly measuring for boards cut, and then subsequently screwing it all together while he did all of the cutting. I couldn’t be happier with the results! I have included pictures of the build, but the book has more comprehensive pictures as this post is not intended to be an instructional guide. Ultimately we spent about $200 in materials, not including the plastic which we already had, and it took us about 10 hours. Way cheaper than buying a kit and we can make it our own.

I’ll go ahead and wrap up this post by saying building a greenhouse is only the first step. You’ve also got to learn how to use it! I consulted several books and online resources before settling on a favorite choice, The Greenhouse Expert. This book is a little older, but it really takes you from the beginning to the end of greenhouse gardening. It guides you through selecting a style based on your needs and types of plants to be grown, building materials, venting options, maintaining temperature, floor plans, growing tips, and so much more. I feel way more comfortable setting up my little seedlings and you can look forward to future posts on the subject. Check out the project below!

UPDATE (04/10/2020): We have since added some windows and a vent! Windows are added as they are found/bought/donated to us. Some are newer, some are older, some open, others don’t. They are all perfect!
Here is where we stand as of this weekend (Feb 8th, 2020). We covered it with plastic because we had it on hand, and our end goal is to convert to reclaimed windows instead of plastic. It took us a month to find the perfect door at the ReStore for only $15 AND it’s double pane glass.
Our entire lawn is sloped so we had to dig into the yard on one end and use the resulting dirt to build up the other side. We built up roughly 1.5 feet of dirt in the end and shoveled out maybe 6-8″.
At this point we decided to add gravel to our driveway because the rain has turned it into a mud pit. We had a ton leftover and used it to put in a 4-5″ layer of gravel as the base. We made the base longer than the greenhouse to hopefully make it more stable long term. Gotta make sure everything is level!
The base was made of pressure treated 4x4s and bolted together with carriage bolts. Not pictured is the 2′ rebar we hammered through the each 4×4 and into the ground to serve as an additional anchor.
Walls going up! For me this was the coolest part because it all started to feel real at this point. We are building a greenhouse!
It took us roughly 10 hours to make it this far. We took our time and had a lunch and dinner break in between. I had a couple friends come, and they helped install the rafters. We didn’t have the most efficient tools for notching the the cut outs for the rafters but we made do. At this point we were waiting to find a door before framing it out so we just covered it with plastic. Side note: DO NOT DEPEND ON STAPLES! We initially stapled the plastic but within a week the plastic had torn so we used carpet wood strip tacks to hold it into place and four weeks later it’s still holding up.
Here’s the inside view of the door. It’s so gorgeous and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome!

Chickens: Why deep-litter composting doesn’t work (for me) and benefits of using a dropping board

When I first obtained chickens, I had four: three hens and a rooster. I eagerly scoured the internet and library reference books in an effort to learn everything I could about chickens. I want the very best for my birds! In terms of coop litter management I came across one recommendation fairly often: deep litter composting. Of course this was how I decided to manage my litter initially but after a year of trying I called it quits.

Deep litter composting is a method of litter management in which the chicken litter is left inside the coop to compost as the chickens are still using it. This means the litter must be turned regularly, with new bedding added as needed. The litter is supposed to compost and therefore not smell. The idea is you use less litter and as an added bonus in the winter, composting generates heat from the good bacteria breaking everything down which helps keep the coop warm. Spoiler alert: this did not work for me. Additionally, when writing this article I’ve searched Google Scholar for evidence that deep composting is effective and came up with exactly zero articles. It’s all speculation!

There are numerous types of litter and even more opinions regarding each type but here’s the most common types for backyard chicken keepers: straw, untreated pine shavings, or sand. For deep litter composting straw and pine shavings should be used as sand does not compost.

I don’t have a picture of my initial coop set up but I was using straw and at its deepest it was roughly 2′ deep. I stirred the straw regularly with a pitch fork and added new every two week or so and the coop always smelled like an old barn. When summer ramped up it started to smell of ammonia so I did a deep cleaning and put all new straw in. However, within a month of the deep cleaning I added seven new birds to the coop and it only took a couple of months before I threw in the towel. In case you didn’t know: chickens poop a lot!

Every morning there were massive piles of droppings under the roost. I’d turn them under and add new straw, but despite doing this daily the coop was dusty and wreaked of ammonia. I was going through a bag of straw every two weeks! That was NOT cost effective and the litter was straight up nasty. Ammonia also poses a serious health risk for chicken’s delicate respirator systems. And news flash: it wasn’t even warm. There was no composting action happening at all even with the addition of Mana Pro’s Coop N’ Compost.

That’s when I came across a post by popular blogger The Chicken Chick: “Dropping Boards, because Poop Happens“. The idea is you put a board underneath the roost to catch the poop and you scoop it up daily. I was sold.

I consulted with my handy-dandy boyfriend and laid out my idea. I wanted to use scrap plywood and install it using scrap 2x4s as braces against the wall. He thought I had lost my marbles, but he complied with me anyways! This was on Thanksgiving Day 2019. We ended up having the materials on hand, and we added a little trim piece from more scrap wood to help contain everything. As a bonus I also had leftover cabinet paint that I used to paint the whole thing. Cabinet paint is water resistant so the plywood should last for ages. The only tools we used were a circular saw and a drill. It took longer to paint it than it did to build it, and even if you had to buy the materials brand new it should cost less than $20 without paint. This is a trivial amount compared to the cost of all the straw I was buying!

The finished product.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed: that’s not straw I’m using. I decided to switch to pine flake at this point because the straw was just way too dusty. Pine can be dusty too, but so far it’s been much less than the straw. The Chicken Chick swears by sand but I decided not to use sand because one of my ladies has a recurrent case of bumble foot and the vet said jumping onto hard surfaces can cause it or worsen it. Additionally my large roo, Rooster Cogburn, likes to nest with his lady Henrietta on the coop floor. Sand would not be very comfortable for them and with pine shavings (vs straw) I can easily scoop up their larger clumps of poo with a cat litter scoop. Sand doesn’t compost either and depending on where you purchase it, it can also be dusty.

That brings me to my final point, the fine layer of sand material that you see on the dropping board is Sweet PDZ. You know that expensive Coop N’ Compost from Manna Pro that costs $9 for a tiny bottle that is gone in one application? Don’t waste your money on that. I purchased Sweet PDZ, a horse stall refresher in a 25 pound bag for $11 at Tractor Supply and this stuff is the bomb, and it is essentially the same thing as the Coop N’ Compost. Not only is it safe for compost, but it’s safe for ingestion if an animal eats it. I spread some over the litter and a nice layer of it on the dropping board. It’s now February 2020 and I’ve never witnessed my birds try to eat it or get onto the dropping board.

It has been three months since installing the dropping board and I have not had to change my litter once! I’ve added extra as needed which has totaled one bag of pine flake and half of a bag of Sweet PDZ. I do still rotate the litter with a pitch fork every 1-2 weeks do stir in any missed droppings. Thus far the litter has remained dry and not smelly. Only a daily basis I scoop up roughly half a gallon of poop from the litter board and it only takes a couple of minutes! The poop goes straight to the compost pile. This system is dynamite!

My advice is, if you have less than five birds, deep composting may actually work. Any more birds and you should reconsider using deep composting as a safe and effective method of coop management.

Edit (04/10/2020): I made it until the end of March with no need to change the pine shavings since Thanksgiving, but roughly three weeks ago I decided to purchase a new litter type from Tractor Supply, Grounds All Natural Animal Bedding. It is made from recycled, used coffee grounds. I spent $30 and bought three bags which covered my 5′ by 6′ coop with roughly 3-4″ of bedding. I continued to use pine shavings in the brood boxes. Grounds is dust free, recycled, and fully compostable. My thoughts are it is better than sand because it is compostable, and sand can contain dust. As an added bonus, I can now scoop any wayward poops. It’s been three weeks and my coop smells like a fresh cup of joe and is largely poop free. I have also started saving and drying my own coffee grounds to help replenish any that is lost. I hope to make it six months to a year without changing the bedding!

Lye Soap: What is it and how is it made?

I’m sure many homesteaders have the deep seated feeling that they have to learn and do it all. I know I do! For me this deep seated feeling leads to obsessions, and right now my obsession is soap. Evidence of soap making has a history that’s thousands of years old. It’s safe to say soap is a vital component to human basic comforts, after food, water, shelter, and socializing of course. It seems natural to learn to make it!

For many folks the art of soap making has been lost. If you’re like me, I vaguely remember my mother making a batch when I was younger and then she put it on display in a decorative bowl with a pretty accent towel. It had a musty clean smell but was otherwise unscented. It also went unused. She commented that it was a pain to make and the resulting soap bar was harsh and drying to the skin. That set the bar for everything I knew about soap until a few months ago when I decided soap would make a great Christmas gift!

Lye soap can be as easy or as complicated as you like it to be. At its simplest, it is fat and lye mixed together to make glycerin, AKA soap. Knowing the basics is important if you’d like to make soap, or even buy soap. As mentioned, lye soap can be harsh and drying, but as I have come to learn, it doesn’t have to be! Today I would like to lay out the basics of soap and soap making. Of course everything I learned, I learned from various sources online. I have linked to all of these sources but I am using this post as a tool to put a thorough summary all in one place.

What is Soap?

Soap vs Detergent

The difference between soap and a detergent is at a chemical level. Soap is made from naturally derived substances (i.e., fat and sodium hydroxide AKA lye), whereas detergent is made from synthetically derived (man-made) substances.

Is one better than the other?

In short, yes. Detergent has the upper hand in most applications. Detergents are more efficient at breaking up dirt and washing it away without leaving a residue. It can be used in cold, warm, or hot water applications for nearly any cleaning purpose. Today’s dish soaps and laundry soaps are detergents, as are most hand, body, and hair washes.

Soap works great for cleaning your skin, but because soap is made from oils, those oils can leave a build up when used for household cleaning and laundry. (Soap scum anyone?) This problem is compounded considerably with hard water. For skin washing purposes, a properly made body soap bar should only leave trace amounts of moistorizing oils on your skin.

Why choose soap?

The advantages of soap are in the ingredients. Soap can be made at home, and you get to choose what goes in it. It can be purely organic, plant-based, ethically, and sustainably made. You can even make your own lye at home. Most importantly, soap making is both fun and useful.

How Soap is Made

Lye soap is made using two different, but similar, processes: cold process method or hot process method. Both methods are effective, but in this post I will only talk about the cold process method.

Soap is made by mixing a combination of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (lye) and water with fat and oils. The most common type of lye used is commercially made sodium hydroxide. Typically the lye is dissolved in water and then blended with the oils. The lye chemically reacts with the oil to turn it into soap, a process called saponification.

Each oil has a saponification value (SAP value). This refers to the required amount of lye needed to saponifiy fat into soap. The Soap Kitchen has a list of SAP values for two different types of lye for the most common fats and oils, but a Lye Calculator is a much easier. Simply type the weights of oil you’re using, press calculate, and the calculator will tell you the exact weight of water and lye needed.

When the lye water is mixed into the fat, the two liquids will begin to thicken. This initial thickening is known as trace. When the trace is kefir- or buttermilk-like thickness, the mixture can be poured into a soap mold. Put in other words, trace indicates that the soap has thickened enough to to support a drop of soap when dropped onto the surface of the mixture.

After pouring, it takes 12-24 hours on average for the soap to harden enough to be removed from molds. The soap must then rest for four to six weeks before it is ready to use. This process is called curing.

Ingredients

Lye

The best chemical for saponification is sodium hydroxide, or lye, because it is a commercially made and consistent product. However, if you want to take it one step further, lye can be made from wood ash, but the resulting compound is potassium hydroxide, and not sodium hydroxide. It is important to note that potassium hydroxide has different SAP values than sodium hydroxide. The vast majority of information available for soap making uses sodium hydroxide.

It is critical to remember that lye is very caustic. It is a strong alkali meaning it is basic (opposite of acidic). It will burn you if it comes into contact with your skin, so take precaution. Sodium hydroxide lye usually comes in crystal form, which is what I use.

Water and other liquids

Water is used to dissolve the lye. It is recommended to use distilled water to ensure no impurities exist to affect the soap. Trace minerals remaining in your water can react with soap ingredients to cause discoloration. This does not affect the performance of the soap, but does affect the appearance. When making soap for personal use, filtered tap water is fine.

Other liquids can take the place or all or some of the water in your soap. Common ingredients include aloe vera gel/juice and goats milk.

Most recipes use around 22% of the weight of oils in water or other liquids. So if you are using 100 grams of oil, the water will equal 22 grams. However, unlike the lye and oil, there is flexibility on the amount of water than can be used . Determine the SAP value for the weight of the oils being used and measure the lye and water accordingly.

The lye must be mixed with water. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO ADD THE LYE TO THE WATER and not the other way around. When the lye is added to the water the water becomes extremely hot, upwards of 200 degrees Fahrenheit and releases fumes. Measure the water in a glass container large enough to also accommodate lye, plus some headroom. I ALWAYS wear gloves to measure my lye (any vessel is fine for this). Still wearing gloves, I carry the measured water and lye outside and stand with any wind to my back and pour the lye into the water. Be careful to avoid breathing any fumes. Stir immediately for about 30 seconds for it all to dissolve. Some trace residue may be noted, which is normal. I usually set the container down on a table outside and allow it to cool. The lye mixture can take some time to cool down. It should be around 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit before it can be mixed with the oil, of the same temperature range. It can take a while to cool so in the meantime, measure your oils if you haven’t already.

I once had some lye water splash on me. I rinsed it off immediately and felt no burn, however I missed a spot on my opposite hand and felt some slight burning. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t have wanted the spot to be any bigger!

Once the curing process begins, this is the phase where the water must evaporate. This aids the soap in hardening. You can quicken the curing process from 4-6 weeks to 3-4 weeks by applying a water discount. However, this speeds up trace. Additionally, fragrance oils can speed up trace. For a beginner soap maker, or when using fragrance oils it may be wise to avoid water discounting.

Oils and Fats

Historically, most soaps have been made with lard, most often beef tallow, as it results in a firm sudsy bar of soap. For many people, tallow was the most readily available fat. Another historically popular fat is olive oil. Soaps made with 100% olive oil are known as Castile soap. Olive oil does not lather extremely well and so some make make Bastile soap, which is about 70% olive oil and some combination of other oils. Olive oil makes a hard, long-lasting soap that is gentle on the skin.

Now with modern global distribution existing at the click of a button, you can easily make a soap comprised of nearly any oil imaginable, although many oils can only comprise a certain percentage of oil to produce a stable bar of soap. Different oils can provide different qualities, with some being better suited to qualities such as cleaning purposes, increasing shelf-life, moisturizing purposes, hardening or softening the soap bar, and/or lathering purposes.

As mentioned, olive oil makes a very hard bar of soap. If you were to try to make a bar of soap from 100% shea butter, for example, the resulting bar would be very soft and may fail to cure appropriately. Typically bar soaps are made of a larger percentage of “hard” oils and a smaller percentage of softer, more moisturizing oils.

In my introduction, I mentioned lye soaps don’t have to be harsh, and here is why: Superfatting means calculating your soap recipe to use slightly less lye than is needed to convert all of the oil into soap. This means a certain amount of oils remain in the soap to moisturize and nourish the skin. This is another reason why many lye soaps are not suitable for washing dishes or laundry. Soap can be calculated with a 1-20% superfat, but 5% is a common percentage. This means 5% of the original oils remain in the soap.

Finally, the weight in oils will be the weight in soap. So 40 ounces of oil will make roughly 40 ounces of soap. On the subject of weights, many recipes use ounces but since there are 4 grams to .01 ounce, I prefer grams as a more accurate unit of measurement.

My Favorite Oils (So Far)

Choosing which oils to use can be very fun! However it is important to consider the maximum amount of any type of oil or fat that can be used in a bar of soap, the properties each oil or fat will add to the soap, as well as cost. Sure, your soap can be up to 33% of Borage Oil, which is rich in nourishing fatty acids and vitamins, but the oil costs $36 a pound! For a beginner soap maker, that just isn’t cost effective and there are other similarly performing oils and butters at lower price points.

My “oil bible” has been a blog called Soap Queen, using this site as a resource I’ve been able to choose my preferred oils. Below is a list of the oils I have personally tried, their shelf life, soap properties, and the amount that can be used in each recipe. I pulled the follow information regarding these oils use in soap from Soap Queen’s Beginner Guide to Soap Making Oils, but provide links to more detailed sources regarding the oils/butters themselves. Linked items with an asterisk (*) next to it indicates that this is a brand I have used in my soaps.

  • Castor Oil2 years: This thick liquid is extracted from the castor bean plant. It draws moisture to the skin and creates amazing lather in soap. Recommended to use 2-5%. You can use it up to 25%, but more than 10% can make the bars soft and sticky.
  • Cocoa Butter* – 2 years: This butter is solid and hard at room temperature. It adds a luxurious feeling to cold process soap and helps to lock in skin’s moisture. Use cocoa butter at 15% or less in cold process soaps – any higher can cause cracking in your final bars. When using unrefined cocoa butter, your products will have a distinct chocolate smell. To avoid the smell, use deodorized cocoa butter.
  • Coconut Oil18 months: This is a common material used in the soap and cosmetic industry. Coconut oil is super cleansing and produces large bubbles in cold process. It’s so cleansing that it can be drying. It can be used up to 33%, but The Soap Queen recommend using it around 15% for dry or sensitive skin. Choose refined coconut oil for a more stable shelf life and to eliminate the coconut scent.
  • Jojoba Oil 2 years: This product is a liquid wax that contributes to a very stable and long-lasting bar of soap. It is similar to the oils our own skin produces and is often used to help control oily skin, but has many other useful properties. Recommended use is at 10% or less in cold process. More than that can weigh down the lather.
  • Mango Butter* – 2 years: This butter is extracted from the fruit kernels of the mango tree. It is also rich in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s solid at room temperature but melts on contact with the skin. Mango butter feels light and non-greasy to the touch and is odorless. It can be used up to 15% in cold process.
  • Olive Oil2 years: Olive oil is one of few oils that can be used up to 100% in soap recipes. You can use extra virgin oil, but it has more of a greenish hue, and is less shelf stable. More commonly used, and more affordable, is 100% pure olive oil or olive oil pomace. Pomace is extracted from the pulp of olives after the first oil press. It is the cheapest. Olive oil is a thick oil that moisturizes the skin and creates creamy lather. Compared to pomace, pure olive oil creates softer bars and takes longer to trace. It can be used up to 100% in cold process.
  • Shea Butter*- 2 years: Shea butter is rich in fatty acids with rich anti-oxidizing and anti-inflammatory properties. Shea butter feels luxurious and moisturizes skin beautifully; however unrefined shea butter does have a nutty/smokey smell. It helps harden cold process soap and it can be used up to 15%.
  • Sweet Almond Oil1 year: This is a very common oil in beauty products, including body oils, lotions, and soaps. It’s full of fatty acids and it has a lightweight and moisturizing consistency. It can be used up to 20% in cold process.

Essential Oils vs Fragrance Oils

Essential oils are natural scent extracted directly from the source. You can guarantee the source of the product, use organic, and even sustainably sourced. However not all scents can come from an essential oil (vanilla for example), and certain scents, like orange (I found out the hard way) will fade from soaps.

Fragrance oils come in virtually unlimited options, but they contain a wide mix of chemicals and oils which results in a synthetic product. The scents are often stronger and last longer. However, certain fragrance oils can discolor soaps and speed up trace.

For a personal story, my attempt at orange spice soap was made with orange, clove, and nutmeg, essential oil and vanilla scented oil. The orange faded to leave a mostly vanilla-spice scent. The vanilla scented oil radically sped up my trace and so the resulting soap had air pockets. It was still a lovely bar otherwise.

I also recommend using the Bramble Berry Fragrance Calculator for determining the amount of fragrance recommended in your soap, although the typical range for scents is roughly one ounce of essential oil for 24 ounces of soap.

Coloring Your Soap

You can use natural materials for dye or pigment powder. Natural colors can provide unpredictable results and fade over time, but of course are more natural. Pigment powder provides stronger color, but can contain a range of ingredients. I prefer to use natural dyes and have experimented so far with: alkanet root powder, paprika, and spirulina powder. I found spirulina faded within 2-3 months.

The blog Lovely Greens has well organized posts for soap colorants here. I’ve referred to this post quite often for color inspiration.

Here were a couple bars from test batches I’ve made. The bar on the bottom was made by infusing 1/2 teaspoon of spirulina in olive oil for two days. The top orange-colored bar was made by infusing 1/2 teaspoon paprika in olive oil for two days. I have since learned that spirulina fades dramatically and French Green Clay makes a significantly better green colorant.

Soap Molds

There are different styles of soap molds but they can be summed up as either silicone soap molds or wood box molds. Wood molds must be lined with wax paper and the soap usually has to be cut once it cures. Silicone can be individual soap bar molds or used as a liner for the wood box. Silicone is easier to clean but can take longer for the soap to harden because it is less porous. For either mold, it can take 12-48 hours for the soap to harden enough to be removed from the mold and allowed to cure. Here are two options for easy-to-use soap molds:

Silicone Soap Mold from Amazon – This is the soap mold that I currently use and have used with great success.

Other Tools

  • A large aluminum or steel stock pot
  • An immersion blender to ensure even blending of your oils
  • A scientific digital scale not a kitchen scale, which tends to be less accurate when measuring small units
  • A thermometer capable of reading between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. I use a digital meat thermometer and say a prayer every time I use it that the battery still works!

Basic Bastille Soap Recipe

Using the Bramble Berry Lye Calculator, I plugged in the numbers for a basic Bastille soap using 70% olive oil and 30% coconut oil with a 5% superfat. I use a silicone soap mold that makes six 4-ounce bars of soap so the total amount of oils needed is 24 ounces. I prefer grams so in grams the amount is 680. This does not account for the essential oil, which is fine.


Ingredients
Liquids & Lye

96.45 grams – Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)
215.68 grams – Distilled or filtered water

Oils & Fats

476.00 grams – Pure Olive Oil
204.00 grams – Refined Coconut Oil
28 grams – Essential Oils of choice (optional; lavender is an easy go-to choice)


Directions

  1. Set up your area. Have your soap mold ready for pouring, stock pot sitting on the stove, immersion blender plugged in ready to go, kitchen scale near the stove, Pyrex or glass jar for water, rubber gloves for handling lye container for measuring Lye, spatula for stirring lye, spatula for stirring oils, large bowl for measuring oils, and thermometer.
  2. Put on your gloves. Weigh your lye into a small container. Weigh your water into a glass container. Carefully carry your water, lye, and spatula outside. With the wind at your back, pour your lye into the water, stirring as you go and being careful not to splash. Stir for about 30-60 seconds. Some residual white bits are normal. Leave the lye water outside to cool. Temps can reach as high as 200 degrees and depending on the weather this can take some time to cool.
  3. Weigh your olive oil and coconut oil and add them to your stock pot. On low to medium heat, melt the oils until they are thoroughly melted and blended, stirring with your extra spatula.
  4. If using, measure your essential oils.
  5. Check the temperature of your lye water and your oils. They should be around 120-130 degrees F and within 10 degrees F of each other. So your lye water can be 130 degrees F and your oils can be 120 degrees F and that’s fine.
  6. When the lye water and oils are the correct temperature, add your essential oils if using and give it a quick stir.
  7. Wearing your gloves, with one hand pour the lye into the oil and with the other start stirring with your immersion blender. Within 30 seconds to a minute, the oil will begin to thicken, or trace. Once a medium trace has been reached, its time to pour. A medium trace is when the soap is thick enough to support a drop of soap on the surface, or is roughly the thickness of kefir, or slightly thicker.
  8. Pour your soap into the molds, using a spatula to scrape the pot clean. Smooth the soap with your spatula and gently tap the mold on the counter to release any air bubbles and help the soap settle.
  9. Let it set for 24-48 hours or until the soap is hard enough to be removed from the mold.
  10. Set the soap out of reach of sunlight on any surface that isn’t metal, and allow it to cure for 4-6 weeks. During this time the water will evaporate from the soap and the soap will continue to harden.
  11. After curing, it’s time to use and enjoy your soap! Pat yourself on the back because you’ve done a great job!


Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links. If purchasing an item through an affiliate link I will receive a tiny portion of the purchase price which goes toward supporting, and improving upon, this blog. Thank you!

Welcome to Humble Hills Farm

Beautiful wildflower honey harvest from our honeybees.

Even in January, the homestead has a big to-do list!

Here we are at the beginning of 2020. I will be honest in saying I have been working on this blog for sometime, and it has been an ongoing learning curve. I think all of my farm hobbies have been easier than getting this blog together! If you want to know more about the farm, please visit the About section of my blog. I’ve finally got myself organized, and so I would like to begin with a summary of what the homestead has going on in January:

  • We discovered we lost our beehive over winter (it appears they swarmed) and so we mailed in the check to pick up two new nucs in May.
  • I ordered five new chickens to join the flock, including a Blue Copper Maran rooster and a Black Copper Maran hen. I chose a new roo with the idea that maybe I will sell the chicks or hatching eggs from these two.
  • We built a greenhouse for which I would like to write a more in-depth post later. Actually, we built that in the last week of December, but who’s counting?
  • A friend of mine, and owner of Hands on Wellness, LLC, has reached out to me to build a partnership. We are currently working on a plan to distribute goods produced and/or made at Humble Hills Farms starting with homemade lye soap, which will be another post in the near future.
  • I have officially started some of my seeds indoors, namely, onions and a couple early tomatoes and peppers.