Saponification!

I had plans to make candles out of last weekend’s rendered tallow, and after I had the candles mastered, I planned to graduate onto soap, which is more chemically complicated. But once I started reading soap recipes, learning about the chemistry, reading tutorials, candles sounded boring. Soap it is!

Do you know what your soap is made of? Unless you buy handcrafted soap at your farmer’s market, or a natural brand that emphasizes the absence of animal products, there’s a good chance your soap contains beef fat, which is called sodium tallowate on the label. That includes all the biggies: Dove, Jergens, Zest, Ivory… don’t be alarmed! Beef fat makes great soap, and specifically hard soap, so your bar lasts a good long time. Other fats contribute different properties. Coconut oil, for example, creates a nice lather. Olive oil makes a soap creamy and conditioning. There are a bajillion types of oil to create a soap to suit every purpose.

The recipe for soap is simple: fat+sodium hydroxide (lye) = soap. Everything else is just decoration. I wanted to keep my soap natural, so I decided to use turmeric, paprika, and Brazilian red clay as colorants, and lemongrass essential oil for scent.

There are some very good soap-making tutorials out there, specifically the excellent Humblebee & Me blog, which includes photos of the entire process. Since this was my first time making soap, I’d caution you against using this post as a tutorial. There is much greater wisdom out there on the interwebs!

This Soap Calculator is an essential tool for the soap maker. It calculates the amount of lye, water, and fragrance you’ll need in both ounces and grams. I knew I had at least 4 lbs of beef tallow to work with, but after doing some research, I learned that I should probably mix the tallow with some other oils to improve the properties of the soap. I was aiming for a 5 lb loaf of soap, so that meant reducing my tallow quantity. In the end, I calculated the following:

  • 36 oz tallow
  • 16 oz coconut oil
  • 16 oz olive oil
  • 25.8 oz water
  • 9.7 oz sodium hydroxide
  • 2.5 oz essential oil

Note these ounces are by weight, not fluid ounces.

First, bring the oil to liquid state at the lowest temperature possible. You’ll eventually have to get it back down to around 110ºF, so any temp above that is heat you’ll just have to lose later.

Melting tallow

Melting tallow

I brought my coconut oil to liquid state in a warm water bath and mixed with the olive oil, then dumped in the frozen tallow. By the time it was all completely melted, my oil was up to 175º, so I brought it outside to cool.

The next step is mixing in the lye, which is supposed to be almost exactly the same temperature as the oil when it’s added. Timing the temperature turned out to be the most complicated part of the whole process. After you mix your carefully measured lye with your carefully measured water, the solution immediately heats up. I expected this to happen, but I didn’t know how much it would heat up. I made the mistake of cooling my oil down to 120º before mixing the lye and water in a plastic pitcher, and the lye heated itself up to 189º! Then it was the lye’s turn to sit outside and cool. By the time it finally cooled to 120º, my oil was too cool and needed to be heated back up on the stove. But then I overheated it. Back out to the porch to cool. You get the picture. The end goal is that the oil and lye solution should both be between 110-115ºF when you mix them.

Once temperature nirvana was at last achieved, I added the lye to the oil. In the old days, you had to stir by hand for an hour or more to fully combine the substances, but we’re lucky that immersion blenders significantly speed the process. The goal is to achieve “trace,” which is a thickness of similar viscosity to stirred yogurt. It took about 10 minutes with my immersion blender.

Once a thin trace is achieved, it’s time to add any scents or colorants. My loose plan for this soap was to be half yellow and half red, with a thin straight line of vibrant red-orange paprika between the two layers. After adding the lemongrass essential oil, I dumped what I guessed to be half of the soap into a second bowl, added the turmeric to the first and the red clay to the second, and continued blending with the immersion blender to bring the yellow layer to a firm trace. This took longer than expected. Once I could finally drizzle the soap on itself and see the “trace” of the lines left behind, it was ready to pour into the mold, which Joshua sweetly built for me earlier that morning. I lined it with freezer paper. After pouring into the mold, I dusted paprika over the yellow layer using a tea strainer.

But by the time I got to the red clay portion, it had cooled a bit and came to firm trace FAST, much faster and thicker than the yellow layer. The yellow bottom layer would need to be thick enough to suspend the red bottom layer without breaking through the surface tension. I held my breath and gently poured. The red layer sunk and swirled, and the paprika gushed up toward the top. Sigh. It was ambitious for a first soap, perhaps. In hindsight, I should have given up on the neat color blocks at this point and just deliberately swirled the colors, but I left it as poured just to see what would happen.

Molded!

Molded!

The next step is to insulate your soap to allow the second chemical process to happen: saponification. After molding, the soap heats itself back up again and gels, and something in this process is what officially transforms the caustic lye into benign body soap. I don’t really get it.

24 hours later you can cut your soap. After cutting, I realized that my gestalt 50/50 red and yellow was WAY OFF. Next time I’ll measure. I would also use more turmeric for a deeper yellow. My dad says these look like slabs of raw bacon, which is maybe appropriate, given the origins of this project. Maybe next time I’ll make bacon scented soap. The dogs think this is an excellent idea.

Word of caution, repeated from Humblebee & Me: lye should be treated with a healthy dose of respect. Many soap making tutorials recommend wearing gloves and goggles when working with lye. I had no intention of touching the stuff, and I mixed it outside so the noxious vapors wouldn’t stink up the house, so I ignored both of these suggestions. But I still had to stir the hot lye to help it cool, and the steam it gave off as it cooled was enough to mildly burn my hand, which was itchy and raw for the next 24 hours. Next time I’ll wear gloves.

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Rendering Tallow

A few weeks ago we added  125 lbs of grassfed beef to our freezer. In addition to all of those steaks and roasts, we filled a second freezer full of organs (heart, liver, tongue), soup bones, and fat from the cow. We like to use tallow (rendered fat) for cooking, but there’s no way we would get through 15 lbs of it in a year. Fortunately, tallow has many uses, including soap and candles. But whether you’re using it for cooking, candles, soap, leather conditioner, pemmican, or bird feeders, it all starts the same way. You have to convert (render) the raw animal fat (suet) into tallow.

(As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered the difference between suet, lard, and tallow, it goes like this: lard is fat from a pig, and it’s called lard both before and after it’s rendered. Suet is the fat from beef, venison, and mutton, and once rendered, it’s called tallow. Interestingly, McDonalds fried their french fries in beef tallow up until the early 90s when the USDA stepped up their efforts to villainize cholesterol, causing a collective freak-out that animal fat causes heart disease [a myth that continues to trend, but has been widely debunked]. Now McDonalds has switched to vegetable fat (e.g., corn oil), but in order to keep a similar flavor, they add “beef flavoring derived from hydrolyzed wheat and milk.” I can’t help but feel that this is a serious step backward in our culinary evolution.)

So rendering. There are two ways to go about it: dry rendering or wet rendering. Wet rendering involves slowly simmering the fat in water, which helps uniformly distribute the temperature. Once purified, the fat and water are strained through a cheesecloth and refrigerated. The fat will harden in a layer on top, and the water will settle to the bottom, where it can easily be poured out after the fat solidifies.

The other method is dry rendering, which can be done on the stovetop, oven, or crockpot at low temps. I’ve tried stovetop rendering in the past and it works well, but you have to be vigilant about stirring because it’s easy to burn, which ruins the flavor of the tallow. This time, I tried dry rendering in the slow cooker, and it’s the only method I will use in the future. Here’s a step by step.

1. Start with partially frozen grassfed suet. It’s important that the beef was grassfed, because the nutrient value is much, much higher. Also, it should ideally be organic, since the residue from antibiotics, pesticides, and other nasty stuff is more concentrated in an animal’s fat. I started with 6 lbs of suet, which was a good amount for my 5-quart crockpot.

2. Trim off all bits of meat from the fat. These bits will cook and burn faster, which will throw off the taste of your tallow.

Trim the suet

3. Toss the chunks of suet into a food processor. This helps to break up the fibers of connective tissue, and the tallow will render faster. Dump them into a crockpot and set on LOW. The process can take 6-12 hours to fully render.

4. Strain. After about 8 hours, I had more liquid than solid, and it was time to separate. I set a metal strainer over a stainless steel bowl, lined the strainer with cheesecloth, and poured it all in. There was quite a bit of fat left in my cheesecloth, and I thought I could probably get more tallow out of it. But it was already 9 p.m., and I didn’t want to risk burning the whole batch by leaving it in the crockpot overnight. After straining out the pure light-yellow oil, I put the remaining fat back in the crockpot, turned it back on low, and went to bed.

In the morning, nearly 2 pints of additional tallow had rendered, and the fat had clearly finished its rendering process. How could I tell? Because the fat was no longer a greasy looking glob; it had browned and hardened into “crispins,” which sank to the bottom. This time when I strained it, the rendered oil was a darker yellow and had a noticeable “roasted” scent. I’m glad I separated the majority out the day before, because whereas I enjoy a roasty scent in my food, I don’t care for it in my candles and body soap. The first picture shows the initial rendering, the second is the final rendering, with the dark brown crispins on top.

5. Storage. I poured the first rendering into a 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper, to make cleanup a little easier. It hardened into a creamy smooth fat, which I cut up to store in yogurt containers in the freezer until I have some time to make candles. The second (darker) rendering will be stored in an airtight jar on our countertop and used for cooking. It, too, will harden once it cools.

If you still have any reservations about the health value of animal fat, I encourage you to read the article Are the Government’s Dietary Guidelines Making us Obese?, by Margie King, and The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy, by Chris Kresser.

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Moooo

A few years ago I became a beef broker. I can’t say it was a calling, I just fell into the work. You see, my aunt and uncle own Little Canaan Ranch in Eastern WA, where they raise Galloway+Angus (Gangus) beef cattle, fed on the grassy hills of the Palouse. Up until the moment they meet the butcher, life for these cows couldn’t be any more romantic.

Gangus cattle

The hills are alive, with the sound of moooooo-sic…..

And truly, they are delicious. (Maybe I should have put a disclaimer for vegetarians at the beginning of this post.) My enthusiasm for a good steak must be infectious, because I’ve never deliberately tried to be a sales person, and I don’t get a commission. It’s just that I get sort of dreamy and short of breath when I talk about it (think When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having”), and people ask me what they have to do to get some of their own.

My aunt and uncle sell this beef in quarters, halves, and wholes, which is the way they have to sell it in order to navigate the web of USDA laws governing the sale of meat. Essentially, you’re not buying a freezer full of steaks and roasts, you’re buying (part of) a cow. It happens to be no longer living. This arrangement allows the USDA to stay out of it, because a cow is livestock, not “food.” Which is fine with us, because when you buy a quarter or half cow, you get all sorts of cuts you probably wouldn’t pick up in the grocery store, like a tri-tip roast, or a hangar steak. You can use the bones to make stock; you can render the fat to make tallow for cooking, or suet for your birds; you can look up old timey recipes for ways to use the heart, oxtail, cheeks, and liver, because those are bits that are part of a whole cow, and you’ve paid for them, and it seems a shame to just throw them away. The offal also contains nutrients that are hard to find in other natural foods.

Deep into winter, my garage shelves are still stocked with storage crops from the garden–onions, potatoes, garlic, squash; canned jams, pickles, salsas, and stews are stacked in tidy rows above; my chest freezer is full of Gangus beef and berries–black, blue, and rasp–picked and frozen last summer. (My coworkers tell me that my house will be their first stop during the zombie apocalypse.) It feels like a step, a small step, away from reliance on an unsustainable food chain that is built on subsidized grain and petroleum. It also feels like a small step toward the vision that Josh and I have for ourselves. Someday I hope our freezer will be filled with elk we’ve hunted, and goats, chickens, and ducks we’ve raised (on slightly more than a 5,000 sq/ft city lot). It’s a romanticized vision, I realize, but it’s also in my blood.

My great-grandmother grew up in rural Illinois at the turn of the century, where career options were limited and hard work was guaranteed. Born into a tough, German farm family, she knew how much they struggled to make ends meet, and how the fickle weather could change a farm family’s life in a day. She announced there was no way, none, that she would marry a farmer. She wanted out of that life. But you know what? She married a farmer anyway.

The Palouse Prairie

Little Canaan Ranch, Elberton, WA