Whether you're a veteran or a rookie when it comes to soap making, you are not immune to mishaps. It happens to everyone, but knowing how to diagnose the problem will better enable you to learn how to fix it.
It happens to beginners. It happens to seasoned professionals. No cold process soap maker is immune to mishaps. But knowing how to diagnose the problem and how to overcome the situation is key in learning and understanding. Consider the following pitfalls. Have they happened to you? Take careful note and next time you will have the troubleshooting upper hand.
Dry and crumbly
If your soap crumbles when cutting or appears dry and powdery, it is likely that the soap is lye heavy. An abundance of lye in your recipe will be left without an oil to saponify with, thus showing up as free radical particles. Chances are you miscalculated or mismeasured; too much lye or too little oil.
Soft and squishy
Soft and Squishy. Just the opposite of lye heavy is soft soap. Its characteristics are spongy, gelatinous and malleable to the touch. If this occurs, double check your calculations. Be sure you did not add too much oil or left out a portion of the lye.
Won't set up
If after 24 hours your soap hasn’t firmed up your problem could be (1) improper measurements or (2) inadequate mixing. Retrace your steps to be certain that you correctly calculated your lye solution. If your measurements were 100% correct, the diagnosis could be that you did not bring your soap batter to a proper trace.
In order for saponification to occur the oils must be completely combined with the lye. False trace is a phenomenon that can occur when the reaction temperature drops and the fats solidify before they are properly incorporated. To avoid this, keep your oil and lye solution temperatures consistent with each other.
If you cut into your soap and discover that you have pockets of weeping oil, chances are the culprit is either your fragrance oil or a superfat. Unblended oils often appear in finished soap as droplets or small pouches of unsaponified oil. Given time the oil may be reabsorbed but if not, it may be best to rebatch the loaf.
Dreaded Orange Spots, or DOS, are the nemesis of nearly all soap makers at one time or another. Sometime they show up right away while other times they take weeks to appear. There are many factors that cause DOS but the most probable cause is using oils that have passed their expiration dates and have become rancid. Always store your soap making oils according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and be certain to double check the expiration date prior to using.
Another common aesthetic nuisance plaguing soap makers is a gel ring. During the saponification process your soap heats up and goes through a gel phase. The gelling begins in the middle and works its way out to the edges. As the soap completes the gel phase, the process is reversed with the edges cooling and solidifying first working back into the center. If at any time during this process the temperature changes or the natural process is halted, a gel ring can occur. The finished soap is absolutely okay to use but aesthetically it can alter the design of your soap.
To avoid a gel ring you can (1) bypass gel altogether by placing your newly poured loaf into the refrigerator/freezer or (2) create an environment where your saponifying soap will remain at a constant warm temperature.
If your soap batch gets too hot while gelling, it can begin to crack. Similar to bread baking in the oven, an exit for the trapped heat forms. This often happens with soaps that contain milk or sugar ingredients. Quite often the crack will come back together as the soap cools and be almost unnoticeable in the final design. If you find your tops splitting more often than not, try elevating your loaf to allow for airflow around the mold. Or switch to a mold that is not quite so insulated. Cracked tops still produce viable soaps but they can be aesthetically unpleasant.
The old adage of measure twice and cut once certainly applies to soap making. Don’t rush your process. Take the proper time to accurately measure and remeasure your ingredients. Keeping a record of your steps will not only provide a history for re-creation. But it also offers a record to scrutinize when things go wrong. Learn from reflecting on the experience and trying again.