Saturday (April 13) brought us a beautiful, sunny spring day that encouraged us to open the windows throughout our house to air it out for the first time this year. Our high temperature topped out around 73 degrees and a light intermittent breeze made the air feel truly refreshing. The beauty of the day was made even more delightful by the return of Marina Barnett—the WHSV-TV reporter who filmed our dairy goat farming news segment in 2018—for her third visit to our farm. She was eager to learn how we make our goat milk soap, which we sell with our garden produce at the Farmers’ Market. This time, she was accompanied by her fiancé, Johnny Oliver, who also works at the station as a reporter/videographer. Their wedding is planned for this November. We must admit, they make a very nice couple. We were also joined by Dale and Merrily Carroll, who operate a small goat farm at the entrance to Smoke Hole Canyon, about three miles south of our home. Our first goat kid, Essie, lives with them.
Our first couple of hours together were spent largely on our front porch enjoying lively conversation over a lunch of home-made barbecue sandwiches, coleslaw, chips, deviled eggs, and samples of our canned pickles and home-made goat cheese. Marina brought s’mores bars she had made for dessert. We traded stories and laughed heartily, losing all track of time. Finally, it was time to demonstrate the art of making our goat milk soap to Marina and Johnny. For this, we had to convert our kitchen back into the Peeper Pond Farm laboratory.
Goat milk soap is made using one of two basic techniques—a cold-process or a hot-process. We always use the cold-process. It is called a cold-process because it does not involve “cooking” the soap mixture beyond simply heating the various oils to liquefy them. We find the cold-process to be quicker to complete than the hot-process, although you have to allow the soap bars to cure over a long period of time (roughly three weeks) before they are ready to use. If you make soap using the hot-process, it can be ready to use as soon as it has cooled and hardened.
Soap involves three basic ingredients—a liquid (water or milk), lye, and a blend of oils, including a vegetable, olive, or canola oil, coconut oil, castor oil, palm oil, and relatively small doses of scented or essential oils to give it the desired fragrance. Our soap is made with goat milk we had frozen from our prior dairy operation. Many natural soap consumers are very adamant that their soap contain essential oils. However, if you make it yourself, you realize that the essential oils constitute such a small ingredient (by volume) that it makes little practical or noticeable difference in the quality of the soap. Its biggest impact is on the cost of making and buying the soap. Still, many people profess that the scent of essential oils has a much greater therapeutic effect than non-essential oils, so many soap makers defer to consumer choice. We have used both and have yet to be convinced of that belief in any material way.
Lye, which is also a small ingredient by volume, is very potent and dangerous to use. Lye is very alkaline, which means it is caustic and can be harmful to touch or breath. Fortunately, we could use our open windows and the fresh, spring air to ventilate our kitchen while we were using it. We also use special containers that we use only for mixing soap to avoid any potential lye contamination or damage to our kitchen cooking utensils. Our first step is to mix the lye with water to dissolve it. It quickly generates heat and must be mixed thoroughly as it is added to water. We then let it sit aside to cool slowly (mixing it again occasionally to keep the lye from precipitating out) while we heat and mix the remaining oil ingredients.
We then mix our basic oils in the proper proportions in a separate pot and heat them on the stove. We divide our frozen goat milk and carefully mix (to avoid a potentially volatile reaction) some of it with the lye solution (to help cool it) and the rest with the heated oil mixture. The lye and oil solutions are mixed together when both have cooled to between 110 and 120 degrees. Since the lye solution can retain heat for long periods of time, we have found we often have to carefully set the lye solution container in ice water, if the frozen goat milk is not enough to reduce its temperature.
The combination is then mixed aggressively and steadily (we use an immersion blender for that purpose) as it begins to “saponify” or thickens into a combined soap mixture. This process is called saponification, which is the reaction between the lye and oil solution that gradually solidifies the mixture into soap. The mixture is blended long enough to reveal a “trace” when the mixer is removed. A “trace” is a raised residue of liquid on the surface of the mixture when the mixer is removed. That indicates that it is time to quickly add the fragrance oil and transfer the mixtures into molds for final curing into bars of soap.
This is the basic process used to make home-made soap. The earliest pioneers would even make their own home-made lye by placing fireplace or wood stove ashes in a large barrel, then adding water and letting it sit for several days. After it had set, they would carefully drain the lye solution out of the barrel for use in their soap. That process must be done with great care to avoid caustic burns that can occur when handling lye.
Unfortunately, our soap mixture hardened too quickly, perhaps due to a reaction that can occur with certain fragrance oils, and we were unable to place it in the molds. We will try to reheat and reduce it to a moldable solution at a later time. While soap-making can be a delicate process that can easily fail, we have found it can be occasionally salvaged with a little reheating. We were rushing the process a little and that may have contributed to the problem. However, our issues did not diminish the fun that was had by all. We also received a pleasant side benefit. Our kitchen has retained a light honeysuckle fragrance from the scented oil Marina and Johnny chose. This is one of the pleasant benefits you can receive by undertaking the effort to make things for yourself—the traditional way. That is what we hope to teach everyone who visits us at Peeper Pond Farm. We wish Marina and Johnny a wonderful future together as they embark on their new life. We also hope they will want to carry on the traditions we value most and help them survive for another generation.