What to do when it freezes in Central Texas – make soap!
Posted by Range Officer Rhonda on February 4, 2011
Just a short post about the cold weather. We’ve been over 70 hours where temperatures haven’t reached above freezing; not a common occurence in Central Texas. First thing I noticed this AM after our first real snow this year is that I was woken up not by my dogs whining to go out – but by something pecking on my foot. What the ???
My husband, who doesn’t like to cage animals, decided our last remaining chicken [the flock being devastated by varmints] needed to be in the house. We do have a nursery cage for young or injured creatures, but he must have heard the phrase I recently heard on a commercial about ‘Free Range House Chickens’. Chatty Cathy, our Buff Orrington, became a free range house chick this morning and discovered me all snug in my blankets, so proceeded to wake me up so she could talk to me. Silly chicken follows people and dogs everywhere and doesn’t like to be alone, especially after being attacked and mauled by a racoon and a possum [who now rest in animal heaven]. Me, being the cold hearted person I am, well, I don’t feel like being a dirt floor poor farmer that sleeps with her livestock – I threw the chicken back outside. She can come back in tonight and sleep in a cage though.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Lately I’ve beentalking about making soap – the old fashioned way. With the apple, oak and other hard woods that we burn in our fireplace and Bar-B-Q smoker, I now have plenty of ash to prepare a batch of lye for soap making. For today, I’ll talk mainly about the wood. I’ve been helping make soap since the early 60’s – starting when I was old enough to stir the vat for Grandma Pearl. Kerchief tied over my face and Grandma’s long thick rubber gloves on my hands and an old apron over my clothes, I dutifully, but not happily, felt the burn in my shoulders as I stir the big paddle in the kettle. Grandma was smart and good about making soap & lye, but I never knew the science behind it. The first step, of course, is to make the lye. It sounds like an easy job, even easier now since you can buy it straight from the store! It all starts with the wood. And the tools.
Wood for lye making should always be from hard wood trees, such as Oak or fruit trees – any tree that flowers and has fruit is generally a hard wood. Grandma says it is harder because the wood is more fiberous and not so wet? What the heck does that mean? Trees that are more like evergreens and bear a cone tend to be more ‘wet’ and soft. That’s not to say there aren’t soft hardwoods or harder softwoods..There actually is a science involved in this, but let’s keep it simple here. Use hard wood. Look it up on the internet if you are not sure if you have hard or soft wood. If you have mixed ashes, start over until you know your ashes are all hard wood generated. Applewood is my favorite and since I lost an apple tree last year to the drought, I have perfect wood.
Once my ashes have cooled enough to use, the best way to make lye is to have an old wood barrel with a hole cut in the bottom and a cork inserted tightly. I set this up on some cinderblocks, leaving a space large enough to put a bucket or pan underneath. Taking some clean hay or buffalo grass, I place a layer of fodder about 3 inches deep in the bottom of the barrel. Some people use other types of barrels, from metal to plastic, but they react to the lye produced, so I don’t recommend them. ooops – taht piece of advice is a little out of place, isn’t it?
OK. Hardwood ash, about a 5 gallon bucket full. Check. Wooden barrel propped up on cinder blocks. Check. Bottom lined with fodder – CLEAN fodder. Check. Pour ahses in barrel. Ahhhh….water. You want SOFT water. I can’t use the water from my house, so I use the rain water I collect in my rain barrels. I put in enough water to cover the ash. It will take nearly a day for the ash cloud to settle down. Don’t stir it! Let this mixture set for about three days with a cloth over the top [or board] so that nothing joins the mixture. After 3 days, you can take an egg or raw potato and gently drop it in. If about a quarter sized pieced is showing as the egg or potato tries to float, then your lye is done. If they don’t float, add more ash and soak an additional day until you get the desired result. When this step is complete, pull the plug at the bottom after placing a mesh screen over your bucket, and drain into your bucket. Store covered in a cool place, but it’s best used fresh.
My next piece will talk about what you with the ashes when you are done and what to add to the lye to make soap. But I can’t do that until I get some fresh hog fat this weekend and fill the freezer with meat. Just as a note, we had scraped our ashes from the grill into a metal bucket beside it. Then it rained. And the ashes sat for a week. I knocked into it and splashed some on the porch. Guess what? I now have the cleanest cement pad around the smoker! This lye batch made itself with no help from me!