Lye (sodium hydroxide) is a caustic substance that is used in numerous common household products – soaps, cleansers, drain cleaners, metal polishers, etc.
Lye is corrosive to many substances, including your skin. This is why it’s good for dissolving hair clogged drains but not so good if it comes in contact with things you don’t want liquefied. Lye is also reactive to most metals, like aluminum . . . not a good thing . . . contact causes the formation of sodium aluminate and free hydrogen gas. . . both poisonous. Interestingly, since lye is exothermic when it reacts with water it could actually cause a fire. Never add Lye to HOT water . . . it could splatter and cause serious burns.
It may be obvious but use safety precautions when handling lye . . . eye protection, long sleeves, gloves. Avoid breathing in fumes and use only in well ventilated areas. If it comes in contact with your eyes or skin flush with a lot of cold water for a long time then seek the advice of a physician.
Lye is made from filtering water thru white ashes, not grey, made from burning hard woods (hickory, sugar maple, beech, ash, etc.) at a high temperature.
My husband does maintenance and whatnot so he is often at hardware supply stores. I asked him if he would keep an eye out for lye. He asked his local hardware guy if he had any . . . the man replied, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.” HA! Funny guy! Then he asked my husband if he was using it for cooking . . . cooking what? Methamphetamines? Yes, lye and other caustic substances are used in the production of meth.
So, anyway, that got me thinking . . . what would you use lye for in a culinary application? I know that lye is used in curing olives and softening hard grains. But cooking?? It turns out that lye is similar to baking soda and can be used in place of baking soda as a leavening agent. As a matter of fact, this is quite a common use in
. . . of course they also put lead in children’s toys and arsenic in dog chewies. But I digress . . . pretzels and crackers are often made with lye because it makes them extremely crisp. China
What did *I* want the lye for? Not for making pretzels, that I can tell you. I wanted the lye to make soap. I’ve never made soap before but I think it’s a good skill to acquire. In case you didn’t know, almost all handmade natural soaps are made with lye. Interesting in that lye, a caustic substance, is used to make something that comes in direct contact with your skin and can be so gentle.
It’s simple chemistry, really. When you mix a base with an acid, you form a neutral. This is exactly what happens in the soap making reaction. The base (lye) mixes with the acid (oil or fat) to form a neutral (the soap). Pretty cool, huh?
Most home soap makers are making a product far superior to what you can buy at the store. One of the added benefits of making homemade soap, besides the satisfaction of doing something pretty darn cool, are its soothing properties, courtesy of the glycerin that forms during the oil and lye reaction. Did you know that glycerin is (unfortunately) removed from most commercial soaps and sold as a byproduct? $$ Cha-ching, cha-ching . . . another way to boost the corporate profit margin. $$
Besides the amazing things glycerin does for your skin, let me point out another additional benefit.
Glycerin is removed from the soap to be used in skin and hair care products. Skin and hair . . . expensive creams, lotions, shampoos, conditioners, etc. That means that your homemade soap is good for your hair as well as your skin. Have you ever tried to use commercial bar soap on your hair . . . don’t.
Glycerin is a natural humectant. It is non-oily sweet-tasting liquid that attracts moisture in the environment . . . drawing moisture from the air into your skin and hair keeping it soft and smooth.
I've been using handmade soap to wash my hair, and I really can feel and see the difference. Just rub the bar of soap across your hair a few times and you'll have a nice thick lather. There's no residue left on your hair, it rinses out and leaves your hair squeaky clean. I don’t have the need to "lather, rinse, repeat" as most shampoo manufacturers suggest.
It’s important to know that if you’re making your own soap that you should have a dedicated set of equipment set aside just for this process. Why? Anything you cook with your soap making equipment is going to taste pretty darn yucky. Mmmm, soap flavored spaghetti and meatballs. . . blah!
I’m going to be making cold process soap. The basic tools required are:
- A Large Pot . . . Enamel or cast iron do very well for this.
- A Large Wooden Or Plastic Spoon
- A Hand Mixer (Optional)
- A Large Baking Pan Or Shallow Cardboard Box
- 12 Oz 100% Lye
- 21 1/2 Oz Ice Cold or Part Frozen Distilled Water
- 5 Lbs, 7 1/3 Oz Lard or All Vegetable Shortening.
- Essentials Oils (Optional)
Prepare the lye water by freezing 1/2 of the water into ice cubes. Put the ice cubes and the rest of the water into the 1 to 2 quart bowl. Using the stirring spoon (known to soap makers as the "crutch"), pour lye slowly into the ice and water, stirring until the lye is all dissolved. Remember that lye is very caustic and will burn your skin and eyes! Any splatters must be washed off immediately with lots of water!
Cover the solution to keep out air and allow to cool (or warm up) to about 85 degrees F. No need to apply heat – heat will be chemically produced when the lye comes in contact with the water.
Melt the fat in the 4-6 quart bowl or pot. Don't use aluminum or galvanized bowls!
When the fat is melted, cool it down to 95 degrees F. Prepare the box with a plastic trash bag lining, so the fresh liquid soap can't leak out.
When all is ready, begin to stir the liquid fat in a clockwise direction while pouring the lye water into it in a thin steam (pencil size or thinner) until it is all added. Crutch (stir) the mix vigorously, using “S” pattern or use a hand blender alternating with a circular pattern until the mix begins to cool and thicken. At this point do NOT stop or the mix may separate!
First the soap will be murky, then creamy, then like heavy cream and finally, like hot cooked pudding and will show traces when you dribble a stream from the crutch onto the surface. This process can take from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on the temperature, weather and purity of your ingredients. Stir vigorously but patiently! With hand blender stir time is cut to 1/10 of the regular time.
When your "trace" does not sink back into the surface, the soap is ready to pour into the lined box. Wear rubber gloves and treat the raw soap like you treated the lye water. Wash off all splatters immediately. Have 10% vinegar and water and a sponge to neutralize splatters.
After 3-5 hours the soap may be cut into bars with a table knife, NOT a sharp knife. Allow the soap to cure in the box for about a week before breaking it up and handling it, and another month before using it.
The old farm ladies carefully "tasted" the fresh soap with the tip of their tongues for the sharp bite of unreacted lye.
Perfumed soap may be made by adding about 2 oz of essential oil or perfume just before the soap is thick enough to pour.
To re-form the bar into a new shape, place some bars into a Ziplocs type bag and warm them up by immersing the closed bag of soap in hot (120 degree F) water for 30 minutes. The soap should be soft enough to cut, make into balls or even press into molds. It sets when it has cooled and rested for an hour or so.
In a week remove the soap and break apart. Let them cure for at least a month before using.
After you are all finished you will have a beautiful bar of hand made soap.
After you are all finished you will have a beautiful bar of hand made soap.
If you are interested in some perfectly wonderful hand crafted soap but don't want to go through the process of making it . . . Soaps by Judy is a fantastic source. She's a personal friend of mine and a great lady and she makes the most amazing soaps! Check out her website and look her up on Facebook.