Troubleshooting the Soapmaking Process

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Find out some of the most common issues that soapmakers run into along with a brief explanation and some tips to fix or avoid the problem next time.
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“Simple & Natural Soapmaking” by Jan Berry offers everything the modern-day enthusiast needs to make incredible botanical soaps.

Simple & Natural Soapmaking(Page Street Publishing, 2017) by Jan Berry presents 50 easy, unique soap recipes with ingredients and scents inspired by the herb garden, veggie garden, farm, forest and more. Beginners can join in the sudsy fun with detailed tutorials and step-by-step photographs for making traditional cold-process soap and the more modern hot-process method with a slow cooker. This section helps you identify common issues with your soaps and how to avoid them.

Sometimes, soap just doesn’t behave as it should. In this section, I’ve listed some of the most common issues that soapmakers run into along with a brief explanation and some tips to fix or avoid the problem next time.

Common Soapmaking Issues

Alien Brains

This creatively named soap condition is evident when soap overheats and leaves a wrinkled or brain-like look on the top. This is a purely cosmetic issue and your soap is still fine to use. To prevent this from happening again, mix soap at cooler temperatures and be careful to monitor freshly poured soap for signs of overheating.

Crack Develops On Top Of Soap

If you notice a crack developing along the top of your soap, it means that it?s overheating and needs to be cooled down. Uncover the soap, if it was insulated, and move it to a cooler area or in front of a fan. If the soap stays covered and continues to overheat, it can develop into a soap volcano. Small cracks can be carefully pushed back together, but remember that the soap is still caustic and hot at this time, so wearing gloves is a must. Soaps high in honey, milk or other natural sugars tend to heat up more than soaps without these ingredients.

Crumbling Soap

One common reason for soap to crumble is that it contains too much lye. Double-check the recipe with a lye calculator to be sure it has been calculated correctly. Sometimes, when measuring out oils, you may inadvertently leave one out, upsetting the lye to oil ratio. Keep a small list nearby and check of each ingredient as you add it, so nothing gets omitted. Soap can also become crumbly in spots when false trace happens. False trace is when cold temperatures cause solid fats (like butters) to start hardening before they’ve had time to come in contact with lye, leaving some parts of the soap lye heavy and others still oily. Separation may also occur with false trace. Soap that hasn’t gone through gel phase can sometimes crumble more easily, especially when trying to cut it too soon after removing from the refrigerator or freezer. To reduce the chance of that happening, let the soap stay in the mold a few days longer after it has spent time in the refrigerator or freezer.

Dark Spots In Honey Soaps

If honey isn’t thoroughly stirred into the soap batter, it can pool together in various areas of the soap, often near the bottom of the mold. These pools of honey can darken or scorch from the heat of gel phase, leaving behind oozing brown spots when you cut the soap into bars. This is a completely harmless condition, though unattractive for gift giving. To prevent this from happening in the future, dilute the honey with an equal amount of distilled water and be certain that it?s thoroughly stirred into the soap batter before pouring into the mold.

Glycerin Rivers

These are caused when the glycerin in the soap overheats and forms clear veins or marbling throughout the soap. Glycerin rivers aren’t harmful and the soap is still great to use. In fact, most people who aren’t soapmakers wouldn’t realize that the design wasn’t created intentionally. To reduce the occurrence of glycerin rivers in your soaps, work at lower temperatures and try reducing the amount of water in your recipe.

Oil Or Glycerin Oozing Out Of Soap

This is sometimes caused by humid weather or using tap water, which may contain unwanted minerals or contaminants, instead of distilled water. If it?s just a small amount, visible as weeping droplets or a thin sheen, give the soap more cure time in the open air and it may reabsorb into the soap. You can lightly dab at the droplets with a paper towel or run a fan over the soap to speed up the drying process. If there’s a visible puddle of liquid on top of the mold, or liquid gushes out when you cut a bar, the soap should be rebatched.

Partial Gel

This happens when the inside of your soap starts heating up during gel phase, but starts cooling off before the entire soap gels. As a result, the inside of the soap is usually darker than the outside edges. The soap is still fine to use. To prevent a partial gel, you can either force a full gel by working at warmer temperatures and heavily insulating the filled mold, or prevent gel phase by soaping at cooler temperatures and putting in the refrigerator or freezer for 24 hours after pouring. If you’re plagued by partial gel when using loaf molds, try using individual molds instead, as they tend to cool down more evenly. If you notice a partial gel has formed in freshly made soap, you can sometimes save the appearance by carefully sliding it back into the mold and placing it in an oven turned on lowest heat for 1 hour.

Separation or Tunneling

If your soap starts to separate in the mold, it may not have reached a full trace. Sometimes a false trace happens where the soap looks like it has emulsified, but it?s only because a solid ingredient in the soap has gotten cool enough to start thickening the soap batter. Depending on the texture and workable nature of the separation, you could pour it back into your mixing container and stir/blend until a true trace is reached, or scoop into a slow cooker to hot process. To make sure you’re at a true trace next time, mix the soap until it appears trace has been reached, then let the soap batter sit for about 30 to 45 seconds. If the soap thins back out or has a visible oily layer, it?s not at true trace and needs to be mixed further. If your loaf of finished soap looks fine on the outside, but has visible separate layers or tunnels containing liquid or oil throughout when cut into bars, it?s likely caused by incomplete mixing. In this case, it?s best to discard the soap, since portions will be lye-heavy.

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Excerpted from Simple & Natural Soapmaking by Jan Berry. Copyright © 2017 (Page Street Publishing. Used by permission of the publisher.