How to Render (Melt) Animal Fat:
Beef fat is called tallow and pig fat is called lard. Poultry fat is too soft to be used by itself, but it may be used in a ratio of about 10% with tallow or a tallow-lard combination. Bear fat may also be used but it must be melted (rendered) quickly after the bear has been killed because bear fat will quickly become rancid. You may also use the fat from farm animals such as sheep or goats, and a variety of wild animals, such as beaver, opossum, raccoon, and groundhog. If there is any lean meat still attached to the fat, cut it off and make sure you only use the fat to make grease.
Melting animal fat is called rendering. Rendering should be done outdoors or in a well ventilated area. The smell of melting animal fat will make most people nauseous. Cut the animal fat into small pieces about one-inch cubed and put them into a pot with about 1/8 inch of rainwater and cook over low to medium heat. Gradually add the fat to the pot and stir to keep the hot grease and solid pieces of fat circulating. As you stir be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent any fat from sticking to the bottom and burning. Do not burn the fat or allow it to smoke. If it starts to smoke then you are applying too much heat and you are burning the fat or grease.
One pound of fat will yield about 2.25 cups of grease. Most of the fat will melt into a liquid but some small solid particles will not melt and these are called cracklings. After melting the fat, allow it to cool slightly, and then strain it through a clean thin cloth and store it in a sealed container until it is needed. The cracklings will be on the top surface of the straining cloth. Save the delicious cracklings for use in other cooking recipes.
(Note: Raw animal fat can quickly become rancid. Therefore raw animal fat should not be saved and then converted into grease at some future date. The best procedure is to render animal fat into grease while the fat is still fresh. Rendered animal fat has a much longer storage life than raw animal fat.)
(Note: You can also reclaim bacon grease (pork lard), hamburger grease (beef tallow), and other used cooking greases for soap making purposes. The basic instructions are on my web site at: How to Clarify Used Cooking Grease.)
How to Make Concentrated Brown Lye Water:
You will need rainwater (or steam distilled water) and the cold ashes from any hardwood fire, such as oak, hickory, maple, ash, beech, or old fruit trees. Do not use the ashes from a fire that burned pine tree wood.
The cold ashes from any hardwood fire can be converted into lye. Lye made from fire ashes is not as caustic as commercially purchased lye. Any large wooden, plastic, or clay container may be used, such as a huge flower pot. A deep container is better than a wide container. The container should have a hole in its bottom center and that is why a flower pot is perfect. Do not use a container made of tin or aluminum because lye is caustic and it will react with these materials. (Note: Or you could use a container with a side-mounted water valve, such as a 5-gallon water jug.)
For example, I use a clay flower pot that has a 9 inch outside diameter top, a 5.5 inch outside diameter bottom, and it is 9 inches tall, with sides and a bottom that is 0.25 inch thick. When packed with cold ashes to within 2.5 inches of its top, it holds approximately 145 cubic inches (about 10 cups) of tightly packed cold ashes. Ten cups of tightly packed cold ashes will yield one-gallon of average strength brown lye water. Tightly packed means the loose ashes were pressed down firmly into the cup. If you use a different size container, then you should do the math to determine how much average strength brown lye water you will get from your container.
Caution: Lye water is caustic and it will burn your skin. Be extremely careful and wear rubber gloves and wear goggles when handling lye water. If possible, lye water should be made outdoors.
Firmly pack a layer of straw, or brown pine needles, or sand about one-inch deep in the bottom of the container to help keep the ashes inside the container. Firmly pack cold ashes from any hardwood fire on top of the bottom layer. Slope the top surface of the ashes slightly from the sides of the container to its center to help direct the water flow to the center of the container. Tightly pack the ashes to within two to three inches of the top of the container, depending on the size of the container. This empty top space is necessary to receive and hold the hot rainwater when it is first poured into the top of the container.
Place the large container on top of concrete blocks, bricks, or any other type of support so a second smaller container (at least one-gallon or four-quarts) can be placed beneath the center of the upper pot to catch the brown lye water as it drips through the hole in the bottom of the upper pot.
Rainwater is the best water for making brown lye water because it is soft and it contains no minerals or chlorine. Several easy ways to collect large quantities of rainwater can be found on my web site at: How to Find Water and Make It Safe to Drink.
(Note: If you do not have access to rainwater, then you may use the steam distilled water sold at most grocery stores. Steam distilled water is chlorine and mineral free water. Instructions for making steam distilled water are also included in the above water article on my web site.)
Your objective is to make approximately one-gallon of brown lye water from one fresh batch of cold hardwood fire ashes. Heat about one-half gallon of rainwater to boiling and then slowly pour it over the ashes in the upper container. If the ashes were packed down firmly they should not be swimming or floating in water. While the rainwater gradually disappears into the ashes, heat another one-half gallon of rainwater and then slowly pour it over the ashes. Wait about one-hour and then heat another one-half gallon of rainwater and slowly pour it over the ashes. Wait about one-half hour. If your brown lye water container has about one-gallon of brown lye water then you may stop. If you do not yet have one-gallon of brown lye water, then heat another one-half gallon of rainwater and slowly pour it over the ashes. When you have finished you will have poured a total of approximately 1.5 to 2 gallons of hot rainwater into the pot of ashes. It may take a little while for the water to make its way through the ashes and out the hole in the bottom of the upper container. Be patient. The liquid that drips into the smaller container on the ground will be brown lye water. 1.5 to 2 gallons of hot rainwater will yield approximately one-gallon of brown lye water. (Note: The ashes will absorb and retain between one-half to one gallon of rainwater, depending on the size and shape of your container and how tightly you packed down the ashes in the container. Discard the used ashes after you have extracted one-gallon of brown lye water. If you need more brown lye water, then use a fresh batch of hardwood fire ashes to extract your next gallon of brown lye water.)
Wear rubber gloves and goggles when handling the brown lye water because it is caustic and it will burn your skin if it comes in contact with your skin. If you get some lye water on your skin, wash it off immediately with soap and water.
If necessary, the brown lye water can be stored in a safe container, such as a stainless steel pot with a lid, or a glass jar with a lid. However, the best procedure is to use the brown lye water immediately to make soap.
(Note: There are several different methods for testing the strength of the brown lye water but none of them are necessary. There is no reason to complicate the soap making process by attempting to get the brown lye water to a specific strength prior to using it to make soap. If your lye water is at the recommended average strength, then you will make a good all-purpose soap. However, if your lye water is a little stronger than average then you will produce a good laundry soap. If your lye water is a little weaker than average then you will produce a good bath soap. Therefore don’t be too concerned about the strength of your brown lye water. You will need both laundry soap and bath soap, and you will be making soap frequently if you are out of soap. Therefore you can tolerate a little variability in the strength of your brown lye water. Besides, you will be boiling off most of the brown water anyway before you use it to make your soap.)
(Note: Some recipes recommend that you pour the brown lye water through the same batch of ashes several times in order to increase the strength of the lye water. This procedure has marginal value. The first extraction of the lye from the ashes will remove most of the usable lye from the ashes. Trying to squeeze a little more lye out of ashes that have already been seriously depleted of their lye is just not practical. On the other hand, a single extraction of lye from each new set of ashes will yield brown lye water that is of approximately the same strength each time, and this will result in a more predictable soap making process that can be replicated over and over again. From a quality control perspective, this means the process will have less total variation and therefore it should yield a product that is more consistent from one batch to the next. When you have a consistent stable process, it is easier to fine tune the process and improve the quality of your finished product.)
There are three methods for making soap from the brown lye water as follows:
Method 1 – Brown Lye Water: Some soap making recipes recommend using the brown lye water in the same strength as it was originally created when the rainwater was poured through the ashes. This method requires a much larger soap making pot and it also adds several hours to the soap stirring process. This is the traditional method that was used in the 1800’s and it is the method that is still used today in many third-world countries. If you have a really, really old soap making recipe, then this is probably the method it describes. The major difficulty with this method is that it requires considerable skill and experience to consistently produce usable soap. Relatively minor mistakes or poor timing when using this method will result in a batch of nasty stuff that is neither soap nor anything else worth using. That is the reason this method was abandoned by our ancestors when commercial lye crystals became available at the local hardware and general store. Lye crystals significantly reduced the time required to make soap and they also yielded consistent batches of good usable soap.
Method 2 – Lye Crystals: Some modern soap making recipes recommend boiling down the brown lye water until nothing remains except lye crystals, and then saving the lye crystals in a safe container for future use. Later, when you want to make soap, you add the lye crystals to a little fresh rainwater and make fresh lye water. This method adds an unnecessary step to the soap making process and it does involve some danger when reconstituting the lye crystals into lye water. (Note: These homemade lye crystals are very similar to the lye crystals that were once widely available at most hardware and grocery stores. However, it is no longer possible to purchase lye crystals at the grocery store because they were withdrawn from the market because they were being used to make illegal drugs.)
Method 3 – Concentrated Brown Lye Water: This is the method I developed out of necessity, and it is much more practical than either of the above two methods. Boil one gallon of normal strength brown lye water down into 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water. If you boil the brown lye water down before you use it in a soap recipe, you can reduce the amount of time it takes to stir the soap mixture by several hours. This also simplifies the trial and error method of combining the lye water and the grease and it significantly reduces the possibility of making a failed batch of unusable soap. If you start with one-gallon (16 cups) of original strength brown lye water, then it usually takes between 3 to 4 hours to boil it down to 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water, depending on the amount of heat used. This means you will have reduced the subsequent old fashioned soap stirring procedure by at least 3 to 4 hours. As the water gradually boils away, the boiling process begins to proceed faster and faster because there is less water remaining in the pot. By the time the water is down to one-quart or less, it boils away very quickly so you will then need to watch it carefully to make sure you don’t boil off all your water. (Note: If you make a mistake and boil the one-gallon of brown lye water down into less than 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water, then wait until the concentrated brown lye water cools a little bit, and then add just enough rainwater to return the concentrated brown lye water to the 3/8 cup mark. Add the rainwater slowly and be careful because the mixture may sputter a little bit.)
(Final Note: The Grandpappy’s Homemade Soap Recipe that I developed through trial and error specifies the use of the concentrated brown lye water made by following Method 3 above. However, as mentioned previously, most really old soap making recipes recommend putting the brown lye water and grease into a big pot and cooking it over a big fire for several hours and stirring it while it cooked. The reason for the big fire was because they were using original strength brown lye water that contained too much water to make soap. Therefore they had to boil the water off and this frequently resulted in a failed batch of soap, or a batch of soap that was gritty, lye heavy, and of very poor quality. If you follow my Grandpappy’s Homemade Soap Recipe at the beginning of this article, you will notice that it is not necessary to cook the soap mixture. The reason is because the brown lye water has already been boiled down to the correct ratio of water to grease using Method 3 above. If a person does not know about Method 3 then he or she will probably invest a lot of time and energy in a multitude of unsuccessful attempts to make soap, and repeat the very same mistakes our ancestors did in the 1800’s before the invention and sale of commercial lye crystals.)
A brief summary of the most important critical information from “Grandpappy’s Homemade Soap Recipe” is as follows:
A. Boiled rainwater poured through ten cups of tightly packed ashes from a hardwood fire will yield one gallon of average strength brown lye water.
B. One gallon of average strength brown lye water should be boiled down to 3/8 cup of concentrated brown lye water.
C. 3/4 cup of concentrated brown lye water should be mixed with 2 cups of warm grease which was made from melting (rendering) almost any type of animal fat.
D. When stirred the lye and grease will combine together in a chemical reaction to make soap. This normally takes between 30 minutes to 3 hours. The soap mixture must be kept above the melting point of the type of animal fat you are using.
E. When the soap mixture traces, pour it into a mold and let it rest for one to seven days, depending on the type of animal fat or oil used. Then remove the soap from the soap mold.
F. Air dry the soap for another 2 to 6 weeks. The chemical reaction will then be 100% complete and all the lye and grease will be gone. The lye and grease will have been converted into homemade soap.
The major contributions this article adds to the body of knowledge about soap making are items A, B, and C above. Items D, E, and F can be found in any good soap making book and at a variety of Internet web sites, with both minor and major variations.
Knowing how to consistently and successfully make soap from rainwater, campfire ashes, and animal fat takes you one step closer to becoming an independent resourceful human being in God’s natural order of things.