I thought I would share a recipe I’ve been using for some time now to make our home-made 4-ingredient grease-cutting dish and laundry soap. Really, it’s our everything soap. But some folks prefer to have a different soap for each application. So for those folks, consider this a dish and/or laundry soap.
I initially made the recipe out of desperation. We had just butchered Bill, the 1,000 pound boar, and we rendered hundreds of pounds of fat into lard. If you’ve ever processed large quantities of lard in many small-ish pots and pans, you’ll understand the gravity of the dish mess we were left with.
It was summer and our solar hot water system had imploded the previous fall (oops, better install a breather pipe next time). This meant our only hot water came from the wood burning stove. And in the middle of summer we’re not using the wood burning stove. Thus, in lieu of boiling water on a propane stove, we had no hot water.
Now imagine trying to wash pots and pans caked in lard with “eco friendly” dish soap (meaning no harsh detergents, meaning it doesn’t cut grease well) in ice cold spring water. Not happening, right? We eventually evicted a heap of dishes to the front porch, hoping dog and cat tongues would remove most of the grease. They helped, but not enough.
After Andy joked about throwing all the grease-bomb dishes away, I got serious about making soap. I scoured the internet and compared recipes, used a fancy soap calculator and with the help of some liquid detergent recipes, I came up with this one:
7.5 pounds oil
1.1 pounds lye
8 cups of borax (detergent)
3.5 gallons of water
4 simple ingredients. Some folks are against lye. Yes, it’s caustic. But when derived from ash it is a natural chemical that can be made at home. So that’s saying something for the self-sufficient mind set. Do we make our own? No. Someday we will, but for now we buy sodium hydroxide crystals. Borax is also a relatively straight-forward powder. As far as I can tell, it’s a naturally occurring resource that is mined and sold. I have no doubt that industrial production of these two items is absolutely terrible. Are they any less terrible than the coconut industry, or the mass industrial mining of clays used in many ‘alternative’ soaps? Probably not. And so I resign to being satisfied with these ingredients here.
So we have our 4 ingredients. Now I’m going to explain what I did the FIRST time I made this soap. I’ve made it many times since and it never turns out “totally the same” twice. I also never follow recipes with any level of precision (how else would awesome accidents happen?!), so best to stick with my original notes.
For the record, the soap ratios are:
10 parts oil by weight
1.5 parts lye by weight
30 parts water by weight
14.5 parts borax by weight
Borax allegedly weighs 1 ounce per cubic inch, and 1 US cup has 14.45 cubic inches in it, so says the internet since I’ve never weighed borax but wanted to know how much it weighed. Also, these numbers are rounded no more than .5 to make easier parts for ratios. Now you can also see why I never make a recipe exactly the same twice. I also did this because I wanted to know what percentage the lye was of the recipe. And the answer is 2.68%.
MAKING THE SOAP
Virtually all of this happens in a 5 gallon bucket. The entire recipe fills 1 bucket to 1 inch below the brim. A 5 gallon bucket of this soap lasts us about 6 months. We could definitely water it down and stretch it further, but we’re not hurting for lard, so we don’t get ultra conservative with it.
First things first, the oil (we use lard) must be melted over low or medium heat, and brought to around 120-130ºF. It’s easy to get it too hot and it takes forever to cool it off, so best to watch the temp closely. When the oil is at its prime heat (5-10º over is okay), add 1/2 gallon of warm (100º~) water to the bucket. Then sprinkle in the lye. So little lye in so much water won’t cause a fantastic chemical eruption, but it’s still best to sprinkle it in nice and easy. Stir continuously to dissolve the lye. Let the lye mixture sit for 5 minutes or so and watch its temperature. Your lye solution will increase in temperature. How much depends on how hot your water was and what the environmental temperatures is (you should probably be doing this outside so you’re not huffing lye fumes). When the lye solution comes DOWN to 120-130ºF (it may very likely go over that for a few minutes), assuming your oil is still 120-130º, you may now add the 2 together. I try to get their temperatures as precise as possible. Why? I don’t know how much it matters, so I figure better to be thorough than have a ruined batch of soap (which has happened twice, I’ll mention that later).
Pour the oil into the lye solution and mix thoroughly. Continue to mix thoroughly for 30-60 minutes. We’ve found that the longer we stir, the quicker and more reliably the soap sets up. It should be ready to use within 24 hours and set up within 3 days if done right. When we try and cheat with a 5-10 minute stir, it can take 7-10 days for the soap to set up.
Once adequately incorporated and the lye solution has been thoroughly mixed with the fat, you can add your 8 cups of borax and top the bucket off with roughly 3.5 gallons of water. If you want fragrance, add essential oils now. I like to add about 20 drops of lavender and 20 drops of eucalyptus essential oils, for some reason it comes out smelling oh-so-subtley like juniper. It’s not a smell that sticks to anything, it just sort of smells ambiently nice when working with it. The soap will not expand or increase in size as it sets up. Constant, thorough mixing is needed over the next several days. We keep a paint mixer attached to a cordless drill in the soap and give it a buzz every time we walk by or think about it. The soap should be stirred throughout the day. The most time and attention you give it, the better it’s going to turn out, simply put. If it is not adequately stirred in this time period, your borax may not incorporate properly. And as we learned, that means gritty soap. It still functions the same, but with crystalized borax chunks in it it feels kinda gross, like someone dumped sand in it. That only happened once and we learned our lesson.
THE SETTING OF THE SOAP
I recall reading one recipe that said “Just when you thought it would never set up, it’ll start to set up“. We’ve found that to be consistently true. At first it will want to separate. Each time you stir you’ll be mixing a creamy top into a liquidy bottom. When stirred, it’ll look a bit like whole milk. It’s technically usable at this stage, but to the sensitive skin the lye may still be too harsh (it needs time to mellow). If your hands don’t mind the heat, it will cut grease no problem in its liquid stage, thanks to all that borax.
At some point that “whole milk” transitions into a “thick kefir” consistency. That’s my favorite. Given a few more days of stirring, the entire bucket will set up into a thick “Greek yoghurt” consistency. It’s a very satisfying consistency, if I do say so myself. You can scoop it out with a measuring cup or grab a handful out with your fist.
When using this soap on dishes, it’s not like using a commercial liquid/gel dish soap. It will not lather or froth if you used pure lard. I like to take a dollop of the soap and work it into the grease. No need to pre-rinse. I work the soap into the dry grease with my fingers or with a brush or cloth, then I rinse it away. I always test a new batch of soap on the worst dishes and I test them in ice cold water to make sure my soap came out right. It’s very satisfying to watch the soap and grease slide away, leaving sparkling clean dishes behind. In hot water you’ll probably need less of the soap, but if you don’t have hot water, that’s okay too!
This isn’t really a soap you can treat like you would commercial dish soap. Making a big soapy container of water and soaking your dishes in them won’t produce the same pre-degreasing result. But I’ve also found that you don’t really need to soak your dishes with this soap. It’s hot and powerful. Granted, if you burnt rice onto the bottom of the stainless steel pot, yes, you still need to soak that for a good long while. But ‘normal’ dirty dishes won’t require extra soaking.
The soap leaves no smell or residue on the dishes if washed off completely. It will, however, leave white crusty stuff on a surface if you allow the soap to dry out there. It’s not impossible to get out, but it’s annoying and stubborn. Best to avoid leaving droplets of soap on the counter.
We have found, interestingly, that this soap prolongs the life of any dish cleaning utensil we use. Be it a sponge (ew, microplastic), a washrag, or a bristled brush, they seem to never get grimy, stinky, or gross. We’ve since stopped using sponges, but back when we did, the sponge would stay fresh and clean until it literally disintegrated (which inspired us to stop using them, since they were disintegrating into our grey water instead of getting thrown away when they got gross). A single sponge would last months with no dedicated cleaning of said sponge. Washrags last abnormally long as well before needing washed. The soap leaves nothing behind to fester and funk-up your cleaning implements. Our bristled dish brush looks virtually brand new after years of cleaning with it. This soap cleans.
In terms of laundry use, we add a generous 1/4 cup of soap to a miniature washing machine load of laundry. Our machine at the time held 6 to 10 pounds of clothing. 1/4 cup was more than enough for the dirtiest of farm clothing. We just drop the soap right in on the clothes and turn the thing on, no need to use special compartments for soap dispensing.
Nowadays we’re hand washing all laundry. I’ll add that same 1/4 cup to a 5 gallon bucket of clothes-and-water. If we need to wash a huge blanket or something in a large tote, I’ll add about 1/2 cup to the water. If there are acute stains or soilings on the fabric, I rub a dollop of soap directly into the stain, work it really good, and rinse it really well. Works like a charm on the grossest of laundry items and leaves no smell behind.
I recently used our latest batch of soap on a nearly-hopeless hot pad. I had spilled grease on the cook-top stove and had to quickly mop it all up with the hot pad. The hot pad, normally tan and red with an apple on it, turned black, impregnated with scorched grease and stove-top grime. It was stiff and felt super gross. I worked and agitated my soap into the hot pad, rinsed in warm water, and repeated 3 or 4 times. The hot pad came out looking, well frankly, cleaner than it has in the last 5 years. Its contrast, details, and vibrant colors popped out once more. Yay!
HOW ECO-FRIENDLY IS IT?
We use our grey water to water our greenhouse plants. This means that about a gallon per month of this soap is going into our grow beds. We haven’t had a single plant complain about what it’s getting, and the worms don’t seem to mind either. That’s the best answer I’ve got, sorry! Also, if you let them, the pigs will try and eat this soap. Not sure how that ranks in ‘eco-friendliness’, but it was comical to have discovered.
MAINTAINING AND HYDRATING THE SOAP
If the soap is left exposed without a lid it will slowly dry out and thicken. It’s perfectly acceptable to add more water and dilute/thin the soap as needed. I’m sure if the recipe produces a soap more powerful than you really need, you could dilute it considerably and double your soap supply. Otherwise it doesn’t spoil or go bad, at least up to about 6 months, because that’s the longest we’ve ever had soap sit around. But at the 6 month mark it’s about as good as the day we made it.
GOOD OIL VS. BAD OIL
We have used food-quality lard as well as rancid, nauseatingly disgusting lard for this soap. They all come out the same. The chemical reaction with the lye neutralizes any aroma the oil has. Which is a little bit of a bummer; once we used pure bacon grease, hoping we’d have bacon-scented lard. It too was neutralized into a simple “clean” smell. As far as I can tell, there’s no need to refrain from using spoiled oil for this soap.
What else can I say? We love this stuff! Oh yeah, I was going to describe our 2 failed batches.
My first failed 5 gallon bucket of soap was my ultra-lazy attempt to make it. I was lazy because it was cold outside and I didn’t want to stand out there and stir it. I paid no attention to the temperature of the oil and I added lye in with cold water (meaning it didn’t get as hot as it normally does). I basically added oil of unknown hot temperature to slightly cold lye solution. I stirred it for all of 5 minutes before dumping everything else in (including more cold water). I was being stupid. It quickly became apparent that the chemical reaction between the lye and oil had failed. A slightly-altered oil-like mass rose to the top of the liquid and separated from it. It refused to reincorporate into the liquid. It was essentially still fat, just slightly modified in some way unknown to me. I kept this failed attempt around for far too long, always intending to see if I could re-melt the fat and salvage that 7.5 pounds of oil for a new batch of soap. Did I get to it? No. Did it mysteriously disappear? Yes, Andy wanted to us the bucket for something else.
So that was failure #1. I learned to mind my temps, use warm water, and don’t try to rush it.
Failure #2 was part of a 2-bucket batch of soap. Both buckets were done exactly the same. One came out fine. The other did not. The oil we used for the bad bucket was smoked. It was bacon grease collected inside the smoker and had a strong yellow hue to it. The batch turned into… like… 85% soap, but still acted slightly like lard. It kinda degreases the dishes, but it also kinda leaves oil on everything it touches. It’s very strange. It’s like the fat didn’t fully change. It set up just the same and has the same consistency as our soap normally does, albeit a yellowish hue. I’m assuming the chemicals from the smoke somehow impeded the lye’s chemical reaction with the oil. That’s my best guess. We won’t be trying it again with pure smoked lard. Maybe we can cut the smoked lard with regular lard in the future and still get good results.
So there you have it! Go make some grease-eating cold-water-loving apparently-garden-friendly soap! The photos below are from the first ever batch of soap I made, putting it to the test on our evicted lard dishes.
If we ever see the day when we have excess soap, we intend to sell it and share it with the world. But until that day, you’ll have to make your own. Good luck!