Castile Soap


Utensils:           Warning:  Never use aluminum utensils with lye!  Lye eats aluminum!


1.  Weigh out the olive oil and put it in the large container.

2.  Put on your rubber gloves and weigh out the lye in a separate container.

3.  Put the COLD distilled water in a stainless-steel pan or Pyrex bowl and take it outside.  Dump in the lye and stir until it is all dissolved.  Stand upwind while you stir, as it will get steaming hot and release an irritating vapor.

Caution:  Always add lye to water, never water to lye.  This is because lye releases a lot of heat as it dissolves, and if there is too much lye, the water flashes into steam causing a small explosion and throwing lye particles all over.  This is also the reason you should start with cold water, as it will be quite hot by the time all that lye is dissolved in it.

4.  Take the lye mix back inside, pour it into the oil and stir well.  Come back and stir it again every 20 minutes or so for the next couple of hours.  Then you can let it sit and just stir it two or three times a day until it sets.

The setting time for this soap is variable.  It usually takes three or four days, but I have had it set in as little as one day so have your molds ready.  Temperature makes a difference - the soap will take longer to set if it is cold.  (Just recently I left a batch on the stove as I cooked dinner.  It got hot - 150 degrees or so - and set within a couple of hours!)

5.  When the mixture is as thick as honey, it is ready to mold.  The old-timers say that the mixture is ready when a spoon will stand upright in it.  In my experience it doesn't have to be quite that thick, but it must be thick enough that the lye-water and the oil will not separate in the mold.  So if the spoon falls over slowly, that should be close enough.  Stir in two tablespoons more olive oil.  Pour or ladle it into your molds and let them sit for a week or so before trying to unmold them.

Flash!  Easy trick that gets your olive oil soap to set right away - put it in the blender!  You may have to split a batch in half, but stir it well first to make sure you have an equal amount of lye and fat in each half.  Just turn the blender on high speed and hold it down until the mixture is the texture of mayonnaise.  This will take less than a minute, and the soap is ready to mold.  It should be hard by the next day, ready to remove from the mold.

You may want to cover the molds to keep stuff from falling in them (they tend to trap bugs) but make sure that air can circulate as they need to dry out.

If the soap does not come out of your molds cleanly, leave it alone.  It will shrink as it matures - eventually it will fall out of any mold that does not trap it in.

This soap is usable as soon as it is hard, but it will be harsh at first.  Soap improves with age, becoming harder and milder.  I recommend aging for at least a week after unmolding.

Lather:  This soap produces what is called a "fine lather" which means that there are not a lot of big bubbles.  This concerns the novice, as we are accustomed to the lavish lather of commercial soaps.  But the bigger the lather, the harsher the soap.  So the fine lather of this soap is actually a good sign.  It is milder than most you can buy.

Tips and extraneous verbiage:

The simplest "mold" is to pour the soap-mix into a flat glass baking dish.  Let it harden a day or two, then cut into bars with a knife.  Let it stay in the dish until fully hardened.  These bars are usable but not as pretty and nice as some of the alternatives.

Plastic drink cups make good round molds.  Cut off the tops, leaving about two inches of the bottom. Fill them about one inch deep.

Don't try to clean your utensils right away - they will be covered with a caustic glop that is difficult to remove.  Let them sit for a few days if you can stand it.  The glop will turn into soap! Now it soaks off easily and cleans other things in the process.

Olive oil can be purchased in 3-liter cans for about $12.00.  For soap-making I tend to get the cheapest oil, but if you will use some of it for cooking, extra-virgin oil is worth the extra $2.00 or so.

I have tried several other vegetable oils but none so far have made acceptable soap.  Crisco makes soap that looks fine and lathers well but smells rancid.  Sunflower, sesame, and soybean oil make a soap that never quite hardens.  Clarified butter makes good soap but smells like Parmesan cheese (might be good for cleaning the pizza-pan!)  Some of the other web-authors suggest using coconut oil or palm oil, but I have not used these myself.

Adding Color

A nice yellow color can be made using annatto oil.  Where to get annatto oil?  You make it!  Go to Mother Earth or visit the Mexican department of a supermarket and get some annatto seeds.  Place 1/2 cup of olive oil in a pan and heat it very hot, until is smokes just a bit.  Remove from heat, add 1/4 cup of annatto seeds and cover immediately:  (Some of them will pop, spattering hot oil.)  When all is cool, strain the oil into a bottle.  This is your annatto oil.  It has a deep red color and a nice flavor as well.  You can use it to make your own yellow rice - it is classic for paella.  For yellow soap, use this as the last two tablespoons of oil added just before molding.

For two-color soap, divide the mixture in half and add one tablespoon annatto oil to one half and a tablespoon of plain olive oil to the other half.

It's fun to stir a little of one color into the other, making swirly soap.

More colors!

I have sometimes used liquid Rit dye to color soap.  If you divide the soap mix in half, add your 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon red or blue liquid Rit.  It will look pretty funny at first but have a nice color once set.  Use very little Rit, or else your soap will dye things as you wash them.

Cinnamon soap

You can add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon to your soap, but do so with caution - it will be nicely scented but grainy and a bit abrasive.  As it is used, it's light-brown color will darken until it becomes almost black.

Other Scents

I have had little luck with scenting my soap, having tried adding a number of natural oils, often at great expense and with no substantial scent in the finished soap.  If you figure out how to do this, please let me know!

Meat Soap - much faster!

Lard and tallow make nice soaps too.  In fact, most commercial soap is made with tallow.  Read the ingredients on a bottle of shampoo and you may find "Sodium Tallowate" among them - that is soap!  And it is no accident that the major soap manufacturers are also meat-packing companies:  Dial is made by Armor, Proctor and Gamble makes Campbell's soups.

Lard is easy to buy and makes good soap, but it smells a bit like dead pig.

Tallow is a little more work but much nicer.

To get tallow, go to the meat department of your supermarket and ask:  "Do you have any fat?"  The meatcutter will say:  "Do we have fat!"  Ask for beef-fat, and they will wrap you a bundle.  Sometimes they charge ten cents a pound or so, but usually they will just give it to me.  I try to look hungry.

Place the fat in a heavy cloth bag.  I use the leg from an old pair of jeans that have been cut off to make shorts.  Tie the open ends and place the bag in a huge pot of boiling water.  A canning-pot works fine.  Boil it for an hour or two.  Let it cool until it can be handled, put on your rubber gloves and squeeze the juice out of the bag into the pot.  Skim the fat from the water, and put it through a strainer if it has any odd stuff in it.

Use this fat instead of olive oil in the recipe above, but beware that it will set within hours, not days.  Be aware that heat sets soap faster, so in cold weather you should expect it to take longer.  If you want to slow it down, put it in the refrigerator or freezer.

Jimmy Yawn
rev 01/16/01