By Patricia Cook – It’s a typical winter morning. The previous night’s rain has iced the snow-covered road. Heidi completes her morning rounds in the truck, safer than walking, going from backyard chickens to ponies and finally to the big barn for goats, pigs, and guinea hens. As soon as she appears along the fence, an unperceived signal silently passes from one goat to another that Heidi is here. Heidi Wright is the steward of this small goat herd and is both loved and respected as their caretaker and friend. Heidi is a 21st century woman who describes herself and others who make their living from the earth as: “hardworking, innovative, resourceful, possessing an appreciation for Mother Nature, and resilient.” To a cursory observer Heidi is a wife, mother, 4-H staffer, educator, and, oh, yes, farmer … not to mention an excellent resource on how to make goat milk soap.
She and her husband Will and their two teenage children, Bethany and Billy, live on the Hidden Meadows Farm in West Greeenwich, Rhode Island. This is the Wrights’ family farm, encompassing 163 acres of trees and meadows for grazing and growing hay. The primary agricultural product of the farm is hormone- and steroid-free cattle. In addition there is maple syrup, pork products, eggs, wood, and, especially unique is Hidden Meadows’ goat milk soap.
Heidi’s Nubian goat crossbreeds vary in color from brown to a mottled white, most with black fur accenting their individuality and beauty. Each has a name and a distinct personality. They are her source of milk for products such as cheese and soap after the kids are weaned.
How to Make Goat Milk Soap
During the quiet winter months, Heidi utilizes the longer blocks of “free” time for making goat’s milk soap using the cold process. “Create” is a more apt description of this endeavor from obtaining the milk, to processing the soap, deciding on the elements of color and scent, and naming.
In her well-kept open farmhouse kitchen Heidi preps the oils: vegetable shortening, palm oil, olive oil, canola, safflower, and coconut oil by weighing and warming until liquefied. The oils have different and varying effects upon the quality of the soap, such as sudsing, mildness, and hardness.
Instead of water, Heidi uses goat milk. She usually pasteurizes and freezes the milk in preparation for soap making. The milk’s cold, slushy temperature helps cool the next step.
From this point on the liquified oils will remain nearby until needed as the milk is carefully mixed with the sodium hydroxide, also referred to as lye. Lye is the primary chemical and somewhat hazardous to incorporate during the procedure. Rubber gloves and safety glasses are a good safety precaution during this stage and to the end.
While slowly adding the sodium hydroxide to the milk, the mixture must be kept at a certain temperature, not to exceed 160 degrees F. The lye causes a chain reaction of heat. Heidi continues the milk/lye mixing over a bowl of ice cubes and monitors the temperature.
After the sodium hydroxide is mixed into the milk, the results are gradually added to the oils while stirring. It’s important from this point on to continually stir this mixture while waiting for the blender and after.
This oil-milk-lye mixture will be blended in batches at least twice until it shows a thickening or trace. Fragrant oils are added in the last blender mix as well as any herbs, oatmeal or flowers for texture or color. This is the essence of soap making, the saponification of the oils into soap.
A wooden mold frame of four to five rectangles lined with parchment paper will hold the soap mixture until it hardens, 24 hours, and then can safely be cut into soap blocks. These blocks are stored in roomy plastic trays with a light covering of parchment allowing for air circulation and allowed to cure for at least six weeks. Heidi then packages and labels them with an especially endearing goat drawing created long ago by Heidi’s grandfather, Russell Burnham.
Heidi’s initiation into soap making was a pamphlet by Storey Publishing but it is her six or seven years of experience creating goat milk soap that makes the difference in quality. She grows many of the herbs such as peppermint, comfrey, and chamomile as well as some of the flowers like calendula, roses, and dried flower varieties. The flowers add color and texture to the soap, as do oatmeal and fine ground pumice (Hardworking Hand Scrub soap). She employs a variety of scents in fragrant/essential oil forms such as lavender, lily of the valley, lilac, lemon grass, and apricot. All together Heidi creates more than 13 goat milk soap varieties.
Goat milk is historically a sought after natural skin care product. It is easily absorbed into the skin as a “skin nourisher” and is used by many people with sensitive or damaged skin. Making soap at home allows one to create a gentler and milder soap. It is creamier and retains the natural glycerins that are lost in manufacturing.
With soaps named: Beach Rose, or Spicy Pear, Arcadia, or even New Mown Hay the user may wish they could do more than just bathe with it.
I hope this story about how to make goat milk soap inspires you to try soap making today.
Originally published in Countryside November / December 2009