Editor’s note: Julianne Puckett, 43, of Jericho, is a guest blogger for Vermont Life. She grew up in New Hampshire, and left the Northeast after college in the early 1990s. She and her family moved to Vermont in 2010, and now she blogs at www.yankeekitchenninja.com.
Since moving to Vermont a few years ago, I have grown increasingly interested in living more sustainably and self-sufficiently. In my cooking, about which I blog, I’ve learned how to make many store-bought staples, such as butter and bread, and I have more than doubled the amount of preserving I do with my summer garden harvest.
Outside of the kitchen, I have developed other practical skills by taking local classes. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this affordably is through Champlain Valley Union High School’s Access program. In Access classes, I have learned how to sew, keep chickens and bees, and most recently, make soap.
The soap-making class was led by Kelley Robie of Horsetail Herbs in Milton. From a recipe she taught us, we made a refreshing body bar out of lye, water, coconut and olive oils, grapefruit essential oil (for invigorating fragrance), calendula flowers (for skin-soothing properties) and oatmeal (for exfoliation).
As soap-making is a multistep process, Kelley set up each step as a station and walked us through what was required at each. The class then divided into small groups at each station.
The only slightly risky part of the soap-making process was the very first step at station number one: combining the lye powder with distilled water to make the lye-water base that gives soap its cleansing ability. The chemical reaction that ensued raised the temperature of the lye-water to more than 140 degrees and gave off some pretty noxious fumes for a few minutes.
It was at this station where we also received a little history lesson in soap-making. Early settlers likely made their soap by collecting rain water and adding stove ash to make the equivalent of lye-water, which they then combined with animal lard. While I’m sure it kept them clean, I bet it didn’t smell nearly as refreshing as our grapefruit soap.
While the chemistry experiment was going on at station number one, those manning station number two were busy melting the oils, and at station number three, oatmeal was ground and combined with the calendula flowers to be added later to the oil mixture.
When both the mixtures reached the required temperatures, the products of all three stations were combined and whirled with an immersion blender to reach the right consistency. We then poured the hot liquid soap into our “molds” (clean paperboard milk cartons) and wrapped them in towels to hold in the heat and set the soap while we carried it home.
After 24 hours, I unwrapped and opened my carton to expose the soap to air, which helps it harden. Twelve hours later, I peeled the carton away from the soap and sliced it into bars using a kitchen knife. My soap will continue to cure for another four weeks and then will be ready to use.
Not only do the bars smell wonderful and look lovely, I think they’ll make great holiday gifts. I am thrilled to have developed a DIY skill that is both fun and useful, and I look forward to making another batch of soap on my own.